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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

The Blue Mile by Kim Kelly

The Blue Mile is quite simply an extraordinary book. I absolutely loved it and, once I’d grown accustomed to its very original style, the quirkiness and authenticity of the language, as well as the way the tale is told, found it impossible to put down.

The Blue MileSet in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Depression-era Sydney, the book is narrated from two points of view: that of Eoghan O’Keenan, an Irish-Australian man eking out an existence in the slums of Chippendale, Sydney, and Olivia Greene, a lovely young designer who dreams of opening a couture’s salon in Paris. The Blue Mile is at once a simply beautiful love story, a homage to a largely forgotten time in Sydney, a story about the way politics impacts upon real lives, and a treatise on class and religious differences.

Seguing from Eoghan (Yo-Yo’s) voice and Olivia’s, we see the close of the 1920s through their very different eyes. Yo-Yo offers a masculine voice of desperation, ideals and firm work and religious ethics all of which have him fleeing the house in which he grew up, a house which offers him nothing but a bleak and violent future. A man of high principles and gallantry despite (or perhaps because of) his working class origins and abusive upbringing, Yo-Yo takes his seven year old sister, the adorable, Agnes (Aggie) with him, determined to give her what he never had: love, stability and a future.

Running counter to Eoghan’s dark tale is Olivia’s feminine and whimsical dreams, ones fostered by her hard-working mother who instills in Olivia an unusual spirit of independence and a belief in the power of dreams if only you work towards them. Olivia is the child of a dissolute British aristocrat who, after divorce, ships his ex-wife and daughter off to the antipodes without another thought. Only mildly bitter, Ollie is a kind and talented soul who though she longs for change, also fears its consequences. Determined to achieve her dreams and on her own, she eschews her mother’s offers of help and, later of relocation, and forges ahead, earning a reputation some covet and others envy.


But it’s when fate brings Eoghan and Ollie together and steers them onto a rocky and unpredictable path that both of them have to make difficult choices, choices that run counter to what their upbringings, dreams, class, parents and God have taught them to expect. Their stories intertwine and collide with heart-breaking, uplifting and calamitous consequences – for Ollie, Eoghan, Aggie and those who love and care about them.

I don’t want to say too much more lest I spoil this unforgettable tale except that the way the era is evoked is utterly magical. The phatic language, the everyday patois of the working, middle and upper classes gives the novel such authenticity and veracity as does the sense of time and place. The way Kelly understands and uses history, not in a boring didactic way but to make the story sing is marvellous. She makes the shape of a hat, a brooch, or the collar of a shirt signify an era and those who not only lived but worked through it in ways that are at once clever and lyrical. As the characters walk the streets of Sydney, so too the city comes alive for the reader in all its ugly glory and promise. The Harbour Bridge which, as the book opens, is incomplete is as much a character as the city, but it’s also a metaphor for the events in the book: for the span of time, for hopes, imaginings, and livelihoods built, shattered and salvaged. It’s a sign of union and unions, of a city on the cusp of transformation, of a new era about to be ushered in. It’s also signifies the journey the two central characters make – from opposite sides in every way to some kind of possible or impossible meeting.

This juncture, like that of the bridge, is not without battles – emotional, financial, religious and other. And it’s through these that the heart of the book (and the folk that live in its pages) come alive and beats at a frantic pace making it impossible to put down lest you miss one single moment.

A gem of a book that will captivate lovers of history, romance, politics and so many others things besides. It surprised me in the most wonderful of ways – it literally took my breath away and I cannot wait to read more of Kelly’s work. Cannot recommend this novel highly enough. It is stunning.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments