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Scotland: The Story of a Nation Paperback – January 17, 2003
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The book, while well-written, appears to have been composed in rote fashion. Each chapter is headed by an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott's Tales of a Grandfather, and then a paragraph or two about the current geographical location of what is referenced in the Tales. Almost every chapter starts this way. And then the chapters go into great detail about the kings, queens and historic personages: the Romans, the Picts, Robert The Bruce, William Wallace, and then fifteen straight chapters about the individual royalty - over 350 pages.
Why only two stars? For over one hundred years (ca. 1750 - 1850), Scots were subject to the Highland Clearances, where tenant farmers were evicted from their land by the aristocratic owners, and the use of the land changed from farming to sheep herding. People starved, and this was the beginning of the Scottish emigration.
And let's put the Clearance into some perspective in this book. On one page of the book, the author quotes another authority who states that, "In the Highlands there was the break-up of the old clan land-systems and the development of individual crofting tenancies, and of course the beginning of the great Highland Clearances of land for sheep." And on another page, "...the irreversible decline of indigenous Highland culture, which was being subjected to the barbarous severities of the Highland Clearances (1750-1850), when thousands of impoverished clansmen were ejected from their homes to make way for large-scale sheep-farming."
That's it. The only mention of the Highland Clearances is part of a quote on one page, and part of a small paragraph on another page.
The book's text totals over 690 pages, and less than 100 words are spent on what was probably the major Scottish social upheaval. And this imbalance gets even worse. Sir Walter Scott, the major Scottish author, is afforded thirty full pages, and that is where, for all intents and purposes, the book ends - in 1832. An Epilogue follows, a full twenty-nine pages, which takes the story up to the year 2000.
To put it bluntly, this overly unbalanced history is just what the cover blurb says: "A well-told traditional history." I was looking for a bit more, in addition to the kings and queens, the palace intrigues, and the Act of Union which forever wed Scotland (and its loss of independence) to England, and resulted in Great Britain.
What the people were going through in their daily lives is absent from this history, and we're left with a sterile text book recitation of which king followed which, what the dynasties were, how long the kings lived, and how they died - all without any cognizance of what was going on outside the palace walls. Without a doubt, primary documentary evidence is probably scant related to the everyday life of a tenant farmer. However, there appears to have been little or no effort made to dig deeper than regency.
This is a very good, broad and comprehensive treatment of Scottish history and personages from the earliest time through the present. Much of what is written is seen through the prism of English history, as the two are necessarily intertwined. A few complaints, however.
The author routinely identifies places and monuments through reference to highway numbers. At times, the history reads like a travelogue. While this is undeniably helpful to Scottish readers who wish to visit those sites, the failure to include good maps leaves one wondering.
More disconcerting is the author's insistence on rehabilitating virtually every historical personage of Scottish importance. To believe the author, almost every Scottish leader was a swell guy who has been mistreated by history. The phrase, "Recent research has painted a far more (a)sympathetic, (b)complimentary, (c)positive portrait of xxxxxxxxx than previously thought" appears over and over again as Magnusson goes about his job of rehabilitating previously poorly thought of leaders and Kings. Seriously, some of those fellows were probably just bad Kings. Deal with it.
Having said that, I find Scottish genealogy far easier to follow than the rat's nest that was Medieval and Renaissance English royal politics. Trying to decipher the in-breeding and marriage alliances involved in the War of the Roses can cross your eyes, whereas James I begat James II, who begat James III, who begat James IV, who begat James V, who begat Mary (uh-oh). Of course, the near constant turmoil and political infighting only increased exponentially with the Reformation and introduction of religious strife to the region. To read the record, the 16th and 17th centuries were consumed with constant intrigue and rebellion, more often as not, focusing on the tug of war between royalty dominated Episcopalianism and church (and individual) led Presbyterianism (and forget about the poor stray Catholic that may be periodically drawn and quartered).
All in all, a very educational and time worthy effort for anyone curious about the development of Scotland as an independent nation and the historical personages that played a role in that process, both inside and outside the country.