Book reviews: Travels in Scotland, 1788–1881 | The Soul of Scotland | Britain

Michael Kerrigan reviews the latest releases.

Travels in Scotland, 1788–1881 edited by Alastair J Durie

(Scottish History Society, £25) * * * *

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“Here we are in the heart of the Highlands. I am quite in love with them & never shall like to live near London … any more.” Writing in 1788, Elizabeth Diggle was a pioneer on what was to become an established tourist trail: this book documents the emergence of a new sensibility. That took time, though: the visitors whose journals and letters are presented here learned to see the rugged “wastes” of an earlier generation as something romantic and “sublime”, but could also appreciate a “neat” little town and a busy farm or factory. Recent writers have pointed up that we celebrate the silent spaciousness of a landscape which had been cruelly cleared of its inhabitants: it’s nice, then, to find an appreciative perspective on the country which can accommodate its people too.

The Soul of Scotland by Max Milligan

(Quadrille, £40) * * * * *

You wouldn’t want to run down the set-piece scenic photos here because they’re quite simply breathtaking. But big, panoramic photo-canvases, empty of everything but nature at its wildest, were never going to be enough for a photographer in search of Scotland’s “soul”. Here we have Scots for all seasons; old and young; engaging and unprepossessing; working, relaxing, at home, in the cities, in the countryside. The obvious isn’t neglected – there are kilts and curling, ceilidhs and cottage kitchens; but also a traffic cone and a low-flying Hercules.

Britain by Martin Pugh

(Bright Pen, £11.99) * * * *

This book begins by begging its own question, its first sentence attributing to Cecil Rhodes the suggestion that “to have been born British was to have won first prize in the lottery of life”. It was of course the “Englishman” who was so favoured. Pugh’s equal-opportunities recasting of the quotation sidesteps the possibility that the anxieties he’s about to find in modern Britain were already present in Victoria’s imperial heyday. That aside, this is a masterly survey of a century in which Empire, Church and Monarchy have shrunk beyond recognition. Sport, says Pugh, is the one thing that can still inspire a truly British patriotism. Maybe – but what’s arguably a fairly superficial, fair-weather fandom is testimony too to our traditions of opportunism and muddling through.