Marhofn 294.17 - May 2015

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On the borderline

Martin Richardson

What if Scotland had voted yes in 2014?

One of the things about hills and mountains is that, like major rivers, lakes and coasts, they form a natural border. I assume that initially the border would have been rather vague and consisted of the whole range. You did not travel over the top to the other side except to trade, plunder or avoid homozygosity (inbreeding). Any strangers coming down the hill would be regarded with suspicion and fear. Get off my land or I will kill you. (I know that paradoxically there is a lot of evidence to show that in the past humans occupied and travelled on higher ground before the valleys were deforested, the bogs were drained and rivers managed).

As time has gone by the border lines have become increasingly precise, to the extent that, for our hill-bagging community, whether, say, the summit of Black Hill is in Wales or England depends on where the line is drawn.

Since I retired I have spent much of the summers wandering around Europe bagging various mountains and hills. And, of course, many of these have been summits literally on the present or former borders of counties, provinces, regions or countries. The fact that they are borders added to the interest and fascination - particularly disputed borders that figured in 20th century wars and as part of the so-called Iron Curtain.

So, if Scotland had voted yes, would the border hills take on some of the characteristics that I have found? Here are a few examples.

Snežka is the highest point in the Czech Republic - however, the summit is shared with Poland. I went up there from the Czech side and just as I was reaching the summit it started to rain heavily. I dived into the cafe on the summit and ordered a hot drink - it was only when it came to paying that I realised the prices were in zlotys and, other than me, everyone in there was Polish. The Czechs were in the post-office (I kid you not) 40 metres away.

In the Tatra mountains, on the Polish and Slovakian border, is the popular Polish highest point, Rysy. The easier and shorter route is from the Slovakian side and, on the day I went up, most of the other people ascending were Polish. Rysy has two summits, one on each side of the border. The northerly and lower summit in Poland was so crowded that there was a queue to touch the top. The higher top in Slovakia, about 150 metres away, I virtually had to myself.

On the Greek/Bulgarian border

On the Greek/Bulgarian border

During 2014 much was made of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. As usual, the emphasis was on the battles in Flanders and northern France. Little mention was made about the White war between the Italians and Austrians. One obvious legacy of the war is the number of via ferrata routes established by the Italians in the Dolomites and the Julian alps. However, also quite clear to be seen on the ground are the trenches, bunkers, barbed wire, cannons and mausoleums.

Evidence of more recent wars can be found on the borders between the states that were formerly part of Yugoslavia. There are still warnings given about minefields on the hills between Croatia and Bosnia. You do not wander far away from the marked trails in those situations.

For much of the late 20th century, Greece was isolated from the rest of western Europe because it was surrounded by countries in the communist bloc. I have been to mountain tops on Greek borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria. To assist with patrolling these borders there are well-made unpaved roads running close to the summit ridges. Despite the end of the cold war, the Schengen agreement and membership of the EU on both borders, I was approached by Greek border guards and asked what I was doing there. Meanwhile the shepherds follow their flocks seeking the best grazing and seemingly not caring which side of the border they are on - their main interest in me being did I have any chocolate?

I cannot imagine being asked on The Schil if I have any Irn Bru.

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