Book review: Scotland: A History from Earliest Times

As a Borderer, Moffat ensures that the region isn't relegated to a footnote in his study of Scottish religion and the Clearances. Picture: Contributed
As a Borderer, Moffat ensures that the region isn't relegated to a footnote in his study of Scottish religion and the Clearances. Picture: Contributed
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THE latest retelling of our nation’s story can look forward to a distinguished history of its own, writes Stuart Kelly

Scotland: A History From Earliest Times

Alistair Moffat

Birlinn, £25

Scotland, as Alistair Moffat observes towards the end of this commendable one-volume history, was not inevitable. There is certainly a “for want of a nail” school of historiography that rightly sees a whole plethora of accidents, ironies and contingencies which, had things turned out marginally differently, would lead to very different results.

We are sceptical of grand narratives, whether they are Marxist teleology, Hegelian advances of the spirit or liberal-democratic progress. Within this, however, Moffat does pay due attention to the global effects which mean that certain conditions could not have been otherwise: the so-called “Little Ice Age” hobbled Scotland’s economy at a crucial point.

Moffat’s narrative follows a broadly familiar pattern. We move from Neolithic Scotland, through to Calgacus and the Romans, the arrival of Christianity, the coalescing of “Scotland” out of loose associated kingdoms such as Dalriada, Strathclyde and Pictland, the Wars of Independence, the melancholy Stewarts (murdered, blown up, murdered, killed in battle, died of grief, beheaded, became King of England, beheaded, without legitimate heir, deposed), the Reformation and Union of the Parliaments, the Enlightenment and the Jacobites, the Empire, the Present. What does this present over and above a kind of prose version of the Great Tapestry of Scotland?

Well, Moffat is very good at the essentially agricultural nature of much of Scotland’s history. Subtract the aristocracy and the lives of most Scots for most of its history were intimately connected to the land itself. This has a corollary in terms of the use of toponymy, the study of place names. It is through place names that waves of Welsh, Saxon, Norman, Scandinavian and even Pictish influence leave their traces. Geography is as important as recorded history.

Moffat is on sure ground writing about the earliest Scotlands, and makes good use of the medieval records and diplomatic envois from outwith Scotland. Various myths are carefully mentioned if cautiously despatched – it is unlikely Robert the Bruce had leprosy, given how lepers were treated in the period – and there are some nicely phrased oddities, such as the first Normans being invited to Scotland by the much maligned Macbeth.

The text is broken up by boxes giving mini-essays on things of interest difficult to integrate into the narrative. Some of these might have been bolder. It is regrettable not to have Thomas Aikenhead, the last person executed for blasphemy; or Peden the Prophet; or the rambunctious Sir Thomas Urquhart; or Lady Grange. Some famous sayings are absent – “the wark gangs merrily alang”, as the Covenanter said at the killing fields of Philiphaugh; or “you may kiss his arse but I hae skelped it” as Buchanan said to James VI’s English sycophants.

As well as a concentration on the agricultural, Moffat – himself a Borderer – is at pains to include the Borders, so often relegated to footnotes. A Borders perspective does alter how one reads the history of Scottish religion or the nature of the Clearances (a greater percentage was depopulated than in the more notorious Highland Clearances). On the whole, Moffat negotiates the topic of the Scottish church well. This is a peculiarly thorny issue given the number of schisms and fissures. One aspect is beautifully shown by the rolls of ministers in Border kirks. Often – in Morebattle, for example – the list of ministers will include one who “came out” in 1662 then “returned” in 1688, as Charles II attempted to impose Episcopalianism on the Scottish church.

On the whole Moffat prefers the remarkable statistic to the telling anecdote. There is something that niggles away at you when you learn that 50% of Dundee men were found to be unfit for service during recruitment for the Great War, or that 288 women were registered as brewers in Edinburgh in 1500, or that at one point Glasgow had 114 cinemas.

The 19th and 20th centuries prove a dilemma for any historian of Scotland, especially the extent to which a Scottish history is also necessarily a British history. In the 19th century, I was slightly surprised so little was devoted to Scottish science, in the era of James Hutton (so major an influence on Darwin), James Young Simpson’s pioneering work on anaesthesia, David Brewster’s work on optics and James Clerk Maxwell’s unification of electrical and magnetic forces. It can seem as if there is an abeyance in Scottish culture between Scott and Stevenson, but only if one neglects the towering figure of Thomas Carlyle, whom George Eliot said had influenced every mind of her generation. But Carlyle made the mistake of changing from the Sage of Ecclefechan to the Sage of Chelsea, and, as with other Scots who made a success in London – JM Barrie, John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle, Andrew Lang – they become strangely absent.

Of course, we end with the referendum. Moffat shows restraint here, given he was a vocal and public supporter of the Better Together campaign. His thesis – that the Union is imperilled by English nationalism, and Cameron’s Evel statement in the hours after the result was not a slip of the tongue but a cynical manoeuvre – is akin to Gordon Brown’s recent statements.

On the whole, this is a very readable, well-researched and fluent account. It is also, one suspects, a book which will go through future revisions and editions.