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Chat's and Book Reviews by Frank R. Shaw FSA Scot
Scotland: A story of a Nation


I probably have over two dozen books in my library on the history of Scotland. Included in that number are several histories ranging from two to eight volumes. Some are as modern as Ross, MacLean and Tranter. Others are as ancient as Browne, Taylor, Beattie and Tytler. Some date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Pardon me, but I sure do not want to leave out Sir Walter Scottís Tales of a Grandfather, which played a very significant part in Magnus Magnussonís history of Scotland. (We will revisit this work of Scottís later in the review.)

The theme of most of the writers today is "concise" whereas the men of yesteryear, well, they wrote and wrote and wrote volume after volume and would probably still be writing today if they were alive! Yet, both groups have a common denominator - they tell the wonderful story of a brave, struggling nation, always outnumbered, mostly undermanned, and more likely than not, under prepared. These brave ancestors of ours fought and died for their independence and for that precious word those of us on this side of the pond know about firsthand - freedom. They fought time and time again. Yes, we have another history about Scotland. For some reason it always amazes me when I see another new volume on the bookshelves of the book peddlers, and I usually avoid them. Another book on Scotland, I ask? Hey, whatís left to write? How many ways can that auld story be told? 

We are fortunate, and now I am glad, that one more author decided to write about our Motherland one more time. I am even happier that I did not let my misguided feelings about another book on Scotlandís history stop me from making this purchase. Magnus Magnusson, what a great name, he of television fame and the author of over thirty books, will warm your hearts as the old stories are told with his insight and explanations. Magnus has done all of us a big favor by writing Scotland: The Story of A Nation. When I picked up the book at Barnes & Noble to look through it, I almost dropped it because it was so heavy. Upon further examination, I found out why - the publishers used a top-grade paper to cram 774 pages into a book only about two inches thick.

An interesting touch of the author, who lives north of Glasgow, is what he calls "people history", the legends or traditions that have developed over the centuries about the giants of Scotlandís past and how they are viewed today. Mr. Magnusson does not hesitate to tell you if he thinks a story, like Bruce and the spider, is fact or fiction. Youíll have to read it yourself to find out if it is myth or fact!

Magnus served as chairman of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, and he shares with us his experiences of visiting these monuments during his chairmanship in the 1980s. He drops little directions to these historical landmarks that so many of us will never get to see, which some of us have driven right by in ignorant bliss as we were held spellbound by the countryside. He has a way of making you feel you are there with him. You mark a section in the book for your next trip so you will not drive by a landmark again. Or you feel he is telling only you something by acknowledging that "not a lot of people know that it is there, or how to find it when they do know" or "just outside the town of Angus, by the A90 trunk road from Dundee to Aberdeen", or "it stands back from the A816 from Lochgilphead to Oban, fifth-four metres high", or "at the side of the A167 between Northhallerton and Darlington, or "on the seaward side of the busy A921 coastal road between...". His book is filled with these wonderful tidbits of information for the uninformed tourist who can make his or her trip more meaningful than just taking in the mountains covered in heather. He gently reminds us there is much more to Scotland!

What I love about the book is that it is so well written you can read it by subject or by the lives of the giants who shaped Scotland from its beginning to where it is today. For those of you who have read the Bible through, you know what I am talking about. Thatís right, you do not have to start with Genesis and end with the book of Revelations.

Another subject of interest is Appendix A, entitled simply Chronology, where every date important to Scotland can be found for ready reference beginning in 10,000 BC, continuing for seven pages, and ending in 1999 where in May of that year parliamentary elections were held, and on July 1st a Scottish Parliament opened its doors for the first time in Scotland since 1707. Canít get much better than that! Turn the page and you will find a listing of every King and Queen of Scotland. Beginning with Kenneth I in 840 and ending with James VI , the king with two numbers, "VI and I", lest the English be forced to recognize there were five before he became Scotlandís sixth, and he was sixth before he became their first. Ah, the English! Go figure!

Back to Sir Walter Scottís Tales of a Grandfather. Some have criticized Mr. Magnusson for using Sir Walter Scott so extensively in his book, but not me. I have in my library over one hundred books by or about Scott. Like all of us, Scott was a product of his time. Thus, the good and the bad that comes through in his writings. At times he was flat out wrong, but he had a grasp of the old Highland and Jacobean ways that made his writings so popular that he became the best selling author the world had ever know at that time. Move over John Grisham! Scott became the Father of the Historical Novel as we know it today, and only Nigel Tranter came close to him in book sales and in popularity with the people of Scotland. There is probably only one other man who impacted their country as much as Scott, and some will argue more - Robert Burns.

What the critics fail to realize or accept is that Scott was writing Tales of a Grandfather for little Johnnie Lockhart, his grandson. In The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, you will find these words: "A good thought came into my head: to write stories for little Johnnie Lockhart from the History of Scotland". Little Johnnie was Scottís daughter Sophiaís surviving child, John Hugh, so dearly loved by his Grandfather and he became the Hugh Little John in Tales of a Grandfather. Wee Johnnie was, regretfully, destined to die just a few years later in 1831. What the guys at the universities canít understand is that Scott was writing these stories for his grandson even if he did have his eye on the publicís pocketbook. They became best sellers.

Sure, Sir Walter purposefully overlooked some items of history. At times Scott played loose with the facts and embellished them here and there, but I do not recall reading anywhere that he claimed to be a historian in the true sense of the word. We all tell our tales and add a small twist or leave out one to make our stories come out the way we want them to. Even governments hedge their bets when it comes to history. I recall in the late 1960s on my first trip through "Checkpoint Charlie" into communist East Berlin that our guide revealed that the life of Hitler was not being currently taught in the schools.

In conclusion, if I were told that I could keep only one book on the history of Scotland from those currently in my library, which one would it be? I am glad I do not have to make that choice, but if I did, and knowing how I feel about Scottish history, I would more than likely chose the book written by the man who lives north of Glasgow! The other history books I mentioned to you are scattered throughout my library, but this one will always have a prominent place within easy reach. I recommend that you keep it close at hand for ready reference - on your desk, by your favorite chair, or on the shelf with your Scots Dictionary and your favorite books on or about Scotland. Scotland: The Story of a Nation is the book for you. It may never reach the lofty position of #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, but it is #1 at my house. A word to the wise should be sufficient!

This First American Edition of Scotland: The Story of a Nation, ISBN 0-87113-798-4, can be found at Ward Weems and Sons who advertises in The Family Tree. We support those who support us! This writer buys his own books to review for all of the obvious reasons. However, I encourage authors to send copies of their new books directly to The Family Tree, c/o Beth Gay, (address on page 2). Your book will be placed in The Odom Genealogical Library for immediate use. Thousands visit us annually. What an inexpensive donation for the amount of publicity you receive! In addition, your book could very well be chosen for review for the 60,000 subscribers to our paper.


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