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Chat's with Frank R. Shaw FSA Scot
A Chat with Magnus Magnusson


Born in Iceland in 1929, Magnus Magnusson moved to Edinburgh with his parents at nine months of age. He is still an Icelandic national and carries an Icelandic passport. Mr. Magnusson has had a distinguished career in broadcasting, journalism, historical and archaeological research, Icelandic and Old Norse studies and environmental affairs. He retired in 1999 after a seven-year term as the founder Chairman of Scottish National Heritage, the Government’s environmental agency in Scotland. Magnus was educated in Edinburgh, Oxford, and Copenhagen. For 25 years he was host of BBC 1’s popular television quiz show, Mastermind. He also served as host on other popular television shows such as Tonight, Chronicle, Pebble Mill at One, BC: The Archaeology of the Bible Lands, Vikings! and Living Legends. He presented numerous radio programs including Landlord or Tenant? - A View of Irish History, Up the Fifties and, in 1998, Tales of a Grandfather, a series on new perceptions of Scottish history. He has published some thirty books and has won the Scottish Television Personality of the Year and the Iceland Media Awards.

Q: With so many authors having written books on the history of Scotland, what made/inspired you to jump in with both feet to do the same? How long did it take to research and write Scotland: The History of a Nation?

A: In the 1990s, with the prospect of devolution coming closer, people in Scotland were thinking more and more about their identity as a nation, and it seemed a good time to look at Scotland’s history from a layman’s point of view. The trigger to start serious work was when BBC Radio Scotland commissioned me to present a series on the way in which contemporary Scottish historians now viewed Scotland’s history. The fact that so much excellent historical research has been going on, and being published, was a tremendous bonus. The radio series served to give focus to my thinking. The series and the book took about two years of research and a year of writing.

Q: It was nice to see Sir Walter Scott get some modern day recognition in your book. The way you referenced other historians’ opinions to counter those of Mr. Scott was an interesting and refreshing concept. How did you come to quote Tales of a Grandfather as extensively as you did, even stating "Scotland, it has often been said, was invented by Walter Scott in his portrayal of its history"?

A: Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather had been boyhood reading for me, and I loved it! Indeed, it was the only Scottish history I read (we got none at my school). The structure I chose for the radio series and the book was to have a look at how historical perceptions had changed in Scotland in the 179 years since Scott wrote. Scott was the reference point. It was about historiography, as well as being a narrative account of how modern historians now perceive Scotland’s history.

Q: Scott is sometimes accused of giving Scotland her "tartan and shortbread" image that has come down to this day. Many people dislike that image of Scotland, but what image do you think Scotland would have today if he had not made such an imprint on the country so many of us love?

A: The ‘tartan and shortbread’ image was underway before Scott! For details, see ‘The Tartan craze on pp 653-4. Similarly, Scott was by no means the first to popularize tourism in Scotland – nor was he the last. The ‘picturesque sensibility’ age had begun late in the 18th century (think of Wordsworth and the Lakeland poets), and the Napoleonic Wars had closed Europe for the Grand Tour. But Scott’s early writings, particularly ‘The Lady of the Lake’ (1810), gave a tremendous boost to all this as far as Scotland was concerned. Without Walter Scott, others would doubtless have done the same – Queen Victoria building Balmoral Castle also did much to popularize the Highlands, and the coming of railways made them much more accessible.

Q: I noticed on the internet that Professor Ted Cowan, head of Scottish history at Glasgow University, took you to task for using Scott as you did in your book, but he went on to confess that he had not even read your book. Having not read your book, he was unaware that you quoted him and many others to counter Scott’s positions. This, in my opinion, left Professor Cowan with egg on his face. You evidently touched a "hot spot" of his. What gives? Did you two ever discuss the matter and come to an understanding?

A: Ted and I are the best of friends, and I have learned a tremendous amount from him. He is always willing to give of his time to help others, and he was one of the key interviewees on the radio series. When my book was about to come out, a journalist phoned him up and gave him a garbled version of what it was about; Ted made the mistake of speculating on this misinformation. It’s a warning to us all!

Q: You’ve been asked this before, but is it true that on your first day at The Scotsman as a young man you burst into the offices exclaiming, "Where are the girls? I’ll lay them like tables"?

A: No – alas! I wish I had!

Q: You have a very interesting family: Magnus (journalist, broadcaster, author), wife Mamie Baird (journalist), and children: Sally (broadcaster), Margaret (television producer), Anna (radio producer) and John (television and radio comedy producer). What influenced your children to follow in the paths of their parents?

A: Not I – or not directly, at least. They grew up in a house crammed with books, where everything revolved around journalism and television – communicating, in the broadest sense. They chose their own careers – despite the fact that having a well-known name did not make it any easier. Quite the contrary, in fact. They had to do much more to prove themselves in their own right.

Q: I have seen you described as Britain’s "brainiest man" and a sure bet to have won as a contestant on the show you hosted for 25 years, BBC’s "Mastermind".

A: I can categorically deny any claim to being Britain’s ‘brainiest man’! The real Masterminds were those who sat in the Black Chair – I had the questions and answers written down in front of me!

Q: How did you manage to capture such a beautiful picture of Scotland in your book while other authors have written about Scotland by volumes?

A: I was trying to tell the story of Scotland, the saga of Scotland – not to write a definitive history of Scotland (which cannot be done anyway, in however many volumes). I am not an academic historian – if anything, I am a ‘storian’, to coin a phrase.

Q: Of all the awards you have received, and you have received many, which one or two are your favorites, if any?

A: What stands out for me, I think, is the Medlicott Medal of the Historical Association in 1989, because it was presented by a society of professional historians to a layman. The double ‘knighthood’ stands out, too – Knight Commander of the Order of the Icelandic Falcon in 1986, and honorary Knight of the British Empire in 1989. It is extraordinarily gratifying to have been honored in this way by both my countries – Iceland and Scotland. Honorary doctorates from seven British universities have also been immensely flattering.

Q: An oft-asked question of mine to people of all walks of life in Scotland: If Scotland ever becomes totally independent, could she support herself in the custom she finds herself today, enjoying the same services then as she does today from the Crown?

A: Why not? Much smaller countries, like Iceland, have flourished mightily since they became independent. But more importantly, it allows us to make our own mistakes and have no one else to blame except ourselves!

Q: J. K. Rowling’s books about Harry Potter have taken America by storm. Now the movie is doing the same with Harry grossing nearly 200 million dollars here in the United States during the first two weeks of screening. What has been the reaction in Scotland to Harry Potter and Rowling? How do people view the second richest woman in Great Britain, the Queen naturally being the richest?

A: I don’t know how people view J K Rowling herself. But everyone (especially in Scotland) rejoices that she found in Edinburgh the opportunity and the sanctuary to give birth to her brilliant creation and start her rags to riches career as a writer. I know of no one who grudges her a penny of her staggering earnings from her own efforts.


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