Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

A Chat with Duncan MacPhail

Author of

Interviewed by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA, Email:

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, I bet!

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 period.

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 Bourban.

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 before one.

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 GlencoeCulloden, 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.

Duncan Macphail
Edinburgh, 2006

(FRS: 3-15-06)

Return to April/May 2006 Index page  |  Return to Frank Shaw's Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus