You probably have never met Duncan
Macphail. Yet, he has done you a favor by compiling and writing
the descriptions to over 900 subjects in his book, The
Historical Handbook to Scotland. Put this book by your favorite
chair, and when you are through reading the paper each evening,
turn to this source for a good read. You can pick it up and read
as much or as little as you choose without wondering where you
left off or where to begin again. Nine hundred topics will do
that for you. Naturally, I turned to those topics that my own
kith and kin were associated with years ago. You’ll do the same,
Duncan Macphail has lived in
Scotland all his life. Edinburgh is his home, and his love for
“Auld Reekie” and his “Auld Country” is very evident in the
answers to my questions. If you don’t have the book, get one.
You will find it a ready reference for daily enlightenment about
Scotland. In the meantime, enjoy the “chat” article by a man who
knows his city and country very well.
Q: With over 900 subjects in
your book, it must have taken quite a long time to put all of
the information together. Would you explain the process and
length of time it took you to write the book? A: At the National Library, I identified three 19th
century sources and two 20th-century sources,
recommended by an authority on the subject, then after walking
there and back I would research between Monday - Friday 9am-5pm
over seven years. You can see how it was more horsepower than
brainpower. I often had lunch in the local Greyfriars Kirkyard,
which was interesting because often the characters I was
researching in the morning, were the residents in the burial
ground I was having lunch nearby in the afternoon. On Saturdays
I would refine the information compiled and when possible would
visit the sites around Scotland.
Q: I was pleasantly surprised
to see that you had included two subjects that are favorites of
mine - distilleries and churches. What prompted you to include
these two subjects? A: When I first developed the sections for the Handbook’s
content, I tried to develop triplet groups. Cathedrals, Abbeys &
Churches provided the ecclesiastical history, while
Distilleries, Golf Clubs were supposed to be included with
Woollen Mills. These are all parts of living history, but
ironically the Woollen Mills went into decline during this
Q: Regarding scotch whisky, when was it introduced into
Scotland? A: Although there is some speculation about whisky being
brought to Scotland by missionary monks, and perhaps the formula
came from the East originally, the first solid record of whisky
production in Scotland is in The Scottish Exchequer Rolls of
1494 when it was recorded by Friar John Corr. Ireland also has a
history of whisky production, the first licence being granted
for production at Bushmill Distillery, 1608 in Northern Ireland.
However, Scotch was being exported to Ireland in 1590.
Q: What distillery is
credited with being the first to make scotch in Scotland? A: A law was passed in 1823 legalising whisky production
under licence, which led to Glenlivit Distillery in Scotland
being the first legal whisky producer in 1824.
Q: The people of Scotland were known as the "Scotch" way
before they became known as "Scots". When and why did this
transformation take place and what part did scotch whisky play
in this change? A: I am not an authority on this, but having said that
even they are restricted by the destruction wrought by the chaos
of the period they seek to understand. a: The Scots were
a race of people from Ireland, who settled in SW Scotland in the
5th century, later uniting with the Picts to form the
Kingdom of Alba. King Kenneth Macalpine 843-858 was the son of
the King of Scots, and it was during the formers reign that the
unification took place. b: The transformation of Scotland
from a mosaic of tribal territories to something closer to a
nation would have no doubt been a fusion born out of
conquest/insecurity. c: In times passed "Scotch" was a
varient of Scots or Scottish, (things Scottish) but latterly its
use has been regarded as old fashioned. It would appear Scotch
Whisky came after the formation of the nation, so Scotch became
synonymous with whisky, perhaps to distinguish it from Irish or
Q: Other than space, is there
any reason you chose not to write about the many beautiful
islands off Scotland's coast? A: Although I have not included a group for islands, I
hope they are represented to some degree by the places sites and
events that cover the land.
Q: Are you working on another
book at this time or have plan to do so in the near future? If
permissible, please let our readers have a general idea of the
subject and when to expect it. A: I am working on Volume 2, but my main objective is to
get this one established first. My research and discipline has
made me a bit of a structuralist.
Q: Do you mind telling us how it is to live in Edinburgh?
For those of us who enjoy visiting the city, please share with
us your favorite pubs, theatres, and restaurants. What are your
favorite memorials, statues, etc.? Where can you find the best
take-away fish and chips? A: Living in Edinburgh is fine. The scale of it is
halfway between a sprawling city and a town. It is a good city
to get around on foot, with the various parks/green patches in
the centre of the city, like the Queens Park, the Meadows and
Princess Street Gardens offering more of a visual and fresh air,
away from the traffic.
One of my favourite pubs
is the Sheep's Heid Inn in Duddingston Village. It has been
there in some form or other from the 14th century.
The atmosphere is ok, but the main reason it works for me is
because it is at the edge of the Queens Park, so it is a good
destination after meeting friends and going over things as we
walk and talk.
The Kings Theatre was built in 1906, and is a fine
setting for a play. It still has the original richly embellished
Edwardian interior, while the Queens Hall, an old Church Hall,
is good for music.
For eating out, Prestonfield House, built by Sir
William Bruce, 1687, with Arthur Seat (Queens Park) as a
backdrop, is an interesting building with good food. A
two-course lunch costs £17, but make sure you get the right
menu, perhaps phone first.
The best fish and chip shop I know is The Montgomery
(the owner is the brother of the one at Aberlady that has won
awards) at the top of Montgomery Street, at the bottom of Elm
Row, which is a block down from the Playhouse cinema. The test
seems to be the batter/oil the fish or chips are cooked in. If
the fish is still intact after briefly holding it upright, it is
fine. Avoid carrying it in a plastic bag, as condensation makes
it soggy, and buying one before 6pm, if the shop has opened at
4pm like many do, or you may get the fish from the night before.
My favourite spots are the seats below the Scott
Monument, the Piazza in Princess Street Gardens, St Anthony's
Chapel (ruin) in the Queens Park, the Botanical Gardens, the
cafe under the National Gallery on Princess Street, and my
favourite statue is the one of a Highland soldier, from the
Black Watch Regiment, at the Mound. This has a lot to do with
the position on one of my favourite routes to the centre of
town, through the Meadows, along George IV Bridge and to the
Mound where the panoramic view of the City centre opens up
Q: What six things would you recommend for the first time
visitor to your beloved Edinburgh? A: Edinburgh Castle; Princess Street Gardens; Holyrood
Palace; Arthurs Seat (Queens Park); The National Portrait
Gallery; and Cafe Royal, Register Street.
Q: We all have our favorite writers and poets. Who are
some of the earlier writers and poets you enjoy reading and why?
Same for modern day writers and poets. A: John Barbour 1320-95 who wrote Bruce or 'Brus', which
provided a fairly factual account of the time. Sir Walter Scott
1771-1832 whose novels I find rich with detail that reminds one
of a time when the pace of life compensated for the comparative
shortness of the average lifespan. His poetry is something I can
relate to, his passion for Scottish history being all too
apparent. I would recommend The Heart of Midlothian for
someone about to visit Edinburgh. John Prebble wrote a trilogy
of books Glencoe, Culloden, and The Highland
Clearances, and was one of the first contemporary Scottish
writers I read.
Q: As you have traveled Scotland extensively meeting
people and putting material together for your book, among poets,
how is Hugh Macdiarmid accepted today, say, in comparison to
Robert Burns or Sir Walter Scott? A: The impression I got about Hugh Macdiarmid was that he
is highly regarded and is one of Scotland's greatest 20th
century poets. However, because my intention was to read
something for relaxation, I did find the Scots Language in his
books a little difficult. The lack of application (or the
prioritization of time) is a factor; this may be the legacy of
the preservation of Anglo Saxon laws and customs in Southern
Scotland following the battle of Carham in 1018. Hugh Macdiarmid
has not had the same time for recognition, but I do believe he
will take his place along with his eminent predecessors.
Q: It has been a pleasure reading your book, and I highly
recommend it in the accompanying Book Review. Thanks for the
courtesies extended to me during this "Chat" article. Is there
anything you would like to say to our readers? A: It has been a privilege taking part in this review. I
hope this will have given anyone who may have read this a
picture of the background to this book, which is designed to
provide a window on Scottish history, and inspire the reader to
explore further within or outwith the Handbook.
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