Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Scotland: The Story of a Nation

To the rest of the world, the United Kingdom is just that.  We tend to lump everything from that "sceptered isle" as being "British" and forget that a fully united Britain has only existed for 300 years.  Before that, Scotland was its own separate nation with its own culture, its own traditions, and its own turbulent history.  In his work published in 2000, Scotland: The Story of a Nation, historian Magnus Magnusson seeks to relate the story of how this rugged corner of Britain struggled to unite warring tribes and become a nation that would radically change the historical course of its southern neighbor and in many ways the world.

This was a great read and a wonderful glimpse into Scottish history.  In this particular work, Magnusson is focuses not on the particulars of Scottish life (like everyday living, fashion, basic economy, etc.) but rather on its transformation as a nation and its role on the world stage.  Thus, we spend our time focused mainly on the upper classes and the ruling factions.  Almost every chapter is devoted to the reign of  a specific Scottish monarch and we see how their rule helped move the Scottish nation forward (or backwards as the case may be).  We see how the relationships with the ruling barons and the Kirk often determined the success of their reign.  And we saw as time and again the question of unification with England divided the Scottish people.

But while Magnusson is most definitely pro-Scotland, he doesn't allow his personal feelings to blind him to Scotland's failings.  He sweeps away many of the romantic myths that permeate its history and brings legends like Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, and Bonnie Prince Charlie into the harsher light of truth.  He gives credit where credit is due, and reveals that many of the "villains" of Scottish history were often not really bad people, just unpopular and unlucky ones.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on the ancient Scottish peoples and learned so many interesting things.  Like how the people we now think of as "Scottish" actually come over from Ireland.  How the northern Shetland islands were ruled by Norway for hundreds of years.  How Columba brought Christianity first to the tiny island of Iona and then to the rest of the Pictish peoples. And how the Lord of the Isles held almost independent power from the king up through the 15th century.

This is a terrific read for anyone interested in Scottish history.  There is a lot of information in here so it is not really for casual reading.  And it helps to have a map of Scotland handy as Magnusson throws around place names quite a bit and knowing whether a place is in the Highlands or the Lowlands will make quite a difference in your understanding of a particular situation.  But his writing is very readable and it was so wonderful to gain a fuller understanding of a part of history that has captivated me for many years.  A good companion to this book is the BBC History of Scotland series hosted by Niell Oliver.   


Hannah said...

Magnus Magnussen... what an awesome name!

This book sounds really, really good. I keep meaning to read more history books so I'll definitely have to read it at some point :)

Oh and one more thing: when you get to Scotland have some haggis. It's actually really nice! Oh dear you might be a vegetarian in which case no, don't eat haggis!

bookwormans said...

No worries! I'm not a vegetarian! I do plan on at least trying haggis, though I can't say that I have very high hopes for it. We shall see!