Book Review of “Scotland” The Story of a Nation” by Magnus Magnusson

Each chapter in this somewhat quirky history is preceded by a summary of the events to be discussed as they were described by Walter Scott (1771- 1832) in Tales of a Grandfather. As explained by the Walter Scott Digital Archive of Edinburgh University Library:

While putting the finishing touches to his Life of Napoleon in May 1827, Scott had the idea of writing a History of Scotland addressed to his six-year-old grandchild . . . The project was partly inspired by the success of John Wilson Croker’s Stories Selected from the History as England (1822), but Scott felt that Croker underestimated the intelligence of his juvenile audience. Children, Scott believed, disliked books ‘written down’ to their level, preferring a challenge to their understanding and curiosity. He hoped to cater, moreover, for both a juvenile and a popular audience and thus to find a way ‘between what a child can comprehend and what shall not yet be absolutely uninteresting to the grown reader’ (Journal, July 8, 1827).”

It’s also a history that includes extensive detail only up until the Battle of Culloden. With the end of the Jacobite Movement, there is only one more chapter covering the period after 1746, which is mostly about the personal history of Sir Walter Scott. A short Epilogue takes us to the 1990s. But Magnusson seemed to be “finished” even before the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie; clearly the author lost heart for the story of Scotland with the Act of Union in 1707 and “the end of an auld sang.”

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Thus, most of the book is focused on warriors and royalty of old. Those looking for information on the cultural advances that followed Culloden and about the great Scottish Enlightenment should look elsewhere; there is practically nothing on it in this book. On the other hand, if you want to know how punitive the English were toward the Scots throughout the history of the two countries, this is a great place to begin. You also get a large dose of how rough the austere Protestant fundamentalists were on their own people in Scotland. In fact, this is not a book at all about religious toleration or Christian mercy; religious realism, one might say, is more like it.

The author served at one time as Chair of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, and so peppers his history with tidbits about where to find markers today commemorating some of the historical events he describes. Additionally, there is a chronology at the end of the book as well as a list of Kings and Queens of Scotland.

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Evaluation: This is an entertaining book, often reading more like a television history broadcast than a standard history, with elements of a travelogue. The addition of passages from Tales of a Grandfather is very illuminating. It is rather heavy on battles though, and I wish the author had added more information on what happened after Culloden. On the other hand, it already weighs in at 700 pages.

A number of maps and pictures are included.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by HarperCollins, 2000

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