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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The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

10350487The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths is the first book in a crimes series that features a female archaeologist named Dr Ruth Galloway. Living on her own with two cats on the windswept coast of Norfolk, bordering the marshlands, is just how no-nonsense pragmatic Dr Ruth likes it. But when a child’s bones are discovered on a nearby beach and the gruff DCI Harry Nelson asks Dr Ruth’s assistance in determining the age of the bones, she finds herself drawn into not only the distant past, but the case of a child who went missing over a decade ago, a case that continues to haunt DCI Nelson to this day.

Far from being able to enjoy her solitude and work, when another child goes missing, Dr Ruth is flung into the present and the urgency that accompanies such a case. Assisting DCI Nelson also means being forced to deal with people she wouldn’t normally – grieving families, angry suspects, and the enigmatic “wizard”, Cathbad. It also requires her to forensically examine a series of letters the DCI has been sent over the years since the first child went missing, letters filled with archaic knowledge, literary smart, experience in archaeology and which taunt and torment Nelson. But when her former tutor, the charismatic and clever, Erik, returns to Norfolk for a sabbatical, Dr Ruth finds the past and present start to collide in ways that are not only sinister, but deadly…

Well-paced and written, this is a book you can lose yourself in as the landscape of Norfolk and its rich and fascinating past come to life. The characters are beautifully drawn and Dr Ruth and Harry in particular are wonderful in their foibles and eccentricities. The plot is good, if a little meandering in parts, but the conclusion was convincing and I enjoyed Dr Ruth’s and Harry’s world so much I reached for the next book upon finishing. A terrific, pleasurable read.

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The Quarry by Johan Theorin

11479983The third book in The Oland Quartet, The Quarry by Johan Theorin, follows the same sort of pattern established in the first two. While we have some of the same characters reappearing (the Davidsson family, in particular, Gertlof is the anchor or common thread that loosely links these marvellous tales), each novel centres on newcomers or new characters to the island and a mystery and/or tragedy surrounding them.

In this book, the newcomers are the Morner family: Pers and his two children. Pers inherited a cottage by the quarry from a character who played a minor role in the first book and briefly appeared in the second, Ernst, who made unusual and sought-after sculptures from the rock hewn from the quarry, and was a good friend of elderly resident, Gertlof.

Arriving to celebrate Easter, divorced Pers is looking forward to some time with his children, teenage twins, only his daughter is sick with an undiagnosed but debilitating illness and is placed suddenly in hospital, while his son seems more interested in his Gameboy than spending time with either his father or ailing sister. When an urgent call comes through from Pers’ estranged father, Jerry, who recently had a stroke and finds it difficult to communicate, Pers is forced to leave the island and go to his aid. When he arrives to pick him up in his office in the woods, what he finds is destruction and death.

Returning to Oland, Pers begins to realise that whoever is targeting his father is after anyone associated with his infamous parent’s former business and that he must look to the past to discover who it is that’s out for revenge before it’s too late…

In the meantime, his daughter’s disease and prognosis worsens, he meets the other residents old and new who also have houses around the quarry and their own secrets and histories – some of whom will impact upon him and his family as well.

Segueing again between past and present in order to create a slow reveal of the truth, Theorin masterfully controls the narrative. I love the way he blends local myth into the story and the childhood need and desire to believe in the fantastical – and for a whole variety of reasons. I also enjoy how he spares us that sometimes painful adult awakening to reality – well, he doesn’t spare us so much as gently let his characters and thus, the reader, down.

Beautifully written, the island and its distinct seasons, the characters that populate it, and the history that’s leeched into its alvar, sands and now quarry, come alive in this spell-binding book.

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