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Scotland: A History from Earliest Times by Alistair Moffat

This rather large book which covers Scottish history from the moment it was formed from fire and ice (like a leaf from George R. R. Martin’s epic), to the last referendum for Scottish independence, is poetic, inspiring, shocking, bloody, depressing, humorous and heart-achingly magnificent – often, all at once. Alistair Moffatt has recorded Scottish history from the point of view of the people – not only the lairds and royalty and figures familiar to so many such as Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, and even James VI and I, but also those who first trod its green lands, rocky outcrops and bubbling braes – the Vikings, explorers, soldiers, warriors, crofters, musicians, poets, bards, artists, and so many more. Acknowledging that mostly men populate this history, Moffat is at pains to insert womenfolk into his narrative, such as Sophia Jex-Blake – the first woman to matriculate from Edinburgh School of Medicine and who overcame great obstacles to do so – and that’s refreshing.

Infusing his history with richness and depth and ensuring that myth and facts both collide and yet are treated distinctly as well, Scotland and its myriad faces and peoples are brought to life. Front and centre is the complex and angst-ridden relationship with England. There are gruesome battles, efforts to wipe-out and control vast swathes of territory and clans, as well as the effective attempted genocide of certain Highland clans. Moffat unpacks the thorny politics and questionable negotiations that occur between the English and Scottish – some with self-interest at their heart, others with their country – either way, it’s all here in these remarkable pages. The divisions within Scotland – between north and south, east and west – are also clearly drawn, and often make those that divide England from its northern sister pale by comparison. As Moffat states at one point in the book, the Scots were crueller to each other than the English ever were to them.

It was only in the last couple of centuries, since the reign of the Hanovers started and Queen Victoria purchased Balmoral, that Scotland was embraced – not as it was – but as a reconstructed romantic, mystical land where bagpipes, kilts and dirks and the people that wore and wielded them dwelled. Starting with Sir Walter Scott and his literary efforts, it was continued down through the centuries coming to define and reduce what is Scotland and Scottish. Moffat doesn’t steer away from calling this out, nor acknowledging the contribution such tacky merchandising has made to giving Scotland a unified commercial and sometimes useful (if only to outsiders) identity.

The efforts made by Scottish and English politicians to both erode and grow Scotland’s attempts at independence – even within the Union – is fully explored, from its origins centuries earlier to the last few years. The last chapter particularly, which follows Scottish progress and political machinations from the end of World War II – the sufferings of the people, the decline and growth of particular industries, the raw, blistering fights for power and control, unions, strikes, Thatcherism, etc. are all present and accounted for. So are the many tragedies that afflicted the people over this time – from the catastrophe of the sinking of the Iolaire, to Lockerbie, Dunblane and others, but also the triumphs of sportsmen and women, and the proud disbanding of the Cameronians after 300 years of service.

What I also loved about this book, apart from the ease and joy of being led through such tumultuous history by an erudite guide, was the focus on politics – whether it was the machinations of various kings and queens to wrest control of Scotland to local lads and lasses rising to become MPs and the country’s leaders, but also popular culture. Whether it was the poetry of Robbie Burns – the “heaven-taught ploughman”, or a self-educated collier or crofter, or the first on-stage appearance of Billy Connolly, the contribution actor, Deborah Kerr made to one particular industry, the socio-political impact of the film Trainspotting, or all quirky the side-notes about religious figures, inventors (and Scotland produced some of the greatest, especially during the period now known as the Scottish Enlightenment – something which blossomed as a direct consequence of universal education), artists, the Stone of Destiny, but also the pride Moffat clearly feels (and which imbues the entire book), in being able to say over and over: this was Scotland’s contribution to, not just the UK, but the world. It’s a mighty one indeed, just as this book is a fabulous addition to Scottish history which will be loved by history buffs, Scotophiles (I confess to being one), or someone who just enjoys a great non-fiction book that reads like a wonderful work of fiction – in other words, not dry, but capable of firing the imagination and passion.

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