Near Stirling, Scotland, stands a memorial to the warrior William Wallace, put to death at the orders of the English king Edward I in 1305. Within that memorial stands a glass case, and inside of it stands a broadsword 1.7 meters long. Legend has it that the hero himself wielded the weapon, and so "Wallace's Sword" it is.
Magnus Magnusson, a native of Iceland who has long lived in and written about Scotland, may spoil it for some readers when he writes that Wallace's Sword probably wasn't Wallace's. To use it, Wallace would have had to have stood at least 6-foot-6 in height and to have lived two centuries later. The business of the sword is just one of the "cherished conceptions" about Scottish history that Magnusson picks apart and then, corrected and improved, restores. At other turns he considers the true identity of the legendary king Macbeth (and entertains some surprising but plausible theories about the king's alter ego); reconstructs decisive battles such as Otterburn, Flodden, and Glencoe; and looks closely at the complicated negotiations (and, many would say, treacheries) that led to the union with England of 1707. Magnusson closes with an account of modern independence movements and the recent return of some measure of national autonomy, opening a "new chapter in a nation's story, which the people of Scotland are now beginning to write."
Lucid, witty, and unafraid of controversy, Magnusson's book does a fine job of condensing a complex history, stretching out for 10 millennia, into a single volume. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
This overly heroic history of Scotland focuses almost exclusively on royalty and warfare. Loosely patterned after Sir Walter Scott's Tales of a Grandfather (1827-1829), Magnusson's (The Vikings) narrative purports to describe Scotland from the Stone Age to the present. Yet his omissions are breathtaking. What of Scotland's amazing (for its size) achievements during the European Enlightenment? Adam Smith is mentioned once, the seminal philosopher David Hume twice in passing. We're treated to a dozen pages about the Battle of Falkirk (wherein England's implacable King Edward I defeated William Wallace in 1298) and its aftermath. But Magnusson never mentions Scotland's central role in the Industrial Revolution, when Glasgow emerged as a global industrial center ("industry" isn't even listed in the index). Magnusson's narrative reads like a medieval saga, filled with swashbuckling tales of kings and battlefield heroics, leaving the reader to wonder how the average person lived. That said, he does emphasize some crucial themes in Scottish history: its constant struggle with hegemonic England, the problems of royal succession and how they led to national instability, and the bloody conflict between Church and State, especially during the reign of the Stuarts. Former chairman of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, Magnusson deftly describes Scotland's geopolitical heritage. He also works hard to dispel some myths, taking particular aim at the film Braveheart and Shakespeare's Macbeth. Magnusson's critical problem, however, is that once he runs out of Scottish kings (circa 1745), he runs out of steam. Still, while hardly definitive, this is worthwhile for those with an interest in early Scottish history. Color & b&w illus. not seen by PW.
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