May old divisions be forgot

The New Penguin History of Scotland
December 7, 2001

Rarely can a national history have been published at so propitious and so ironic a moment. The Scottish Parliament has just elected its third first minister within a year, and done so virtually unopposed. A newspaper poll suggests that only a minority of Scots know when St Andrews Day falls or why Andrew - rather than Ninian or Columba - is the national saint. An experienced politician, encountering the name of the ancient kingdom of Dal Riata in a briefing document, wondered (without apparent irony) if this was a lentil or yoghurt dish one might encounter in an Indian restaurant.

This might sound like an unnecessary refinement of Robin Cook's infamous chicken tikka masala speech, but it uncovers a significant malaise. The majority of serving Scottish politicians were educated when Scottish history and literature were still not securely part of the curriculum. In a version of Santayana's fatalistic dictum, those who were not made aware of history are condemned to become mythic nationalists or obdurate unionists. Few national narratives have been so unquestioningly mythologised as Scotland's, and never has that been more obvious. The most corrosive aspect of the national myth is Scotland's subjugation to "the south". At the moment, the most interventionist representative of "the south" is chancellor Gordon Brown, who imagines himself the satrap of a client state; this, also at a time when the leaders of the three main non-nationalist parties are also Scots (Plaid Cymru perversely continue to elect Welshmen). That old consensus is the implicit target of The New Penguin History .

To restore Scotland to a wider European and Atlantic theatre, Houston and Knox and their contributors carefully depoliticise the story. There are few nationalist agenda, camouflaged in these eight brilliant essays that create an overlapping chronological narrative from pre-history (and 80 per cent of the human timespan in Scotland is prehistoric) to the creation of the parliament. The emphasis falls less on abstract power than on the slower and less dramatic mediations of economics, technology and culture.

Though multi-authored, the volume has an impressive consistency of theme and tone, and when contemporary parallels are drawn - medievalists David Ditchburn and Alastair J. MacDonald liken the wool boom of the 12th and 13th centuries to the oil boom of the 1970s - they are relevant and germane to an overall attempt to embed Scotland internationally and not just vis-a-vis England.

Taking their cue from the editors' open-ended construction of Scottish identity and its "others", and from archaeologist Ian Armit's patient and sceptical reconstruction of early history, The New Penguin History redraws the historical geography of Scotland and its paradigmatic oppositions. The opposition of Roman (centralising, invasive, confident) with Celt (libertarian, regressive) does not work and the relatively slight impact of the Roman occupation underlines this; it is a myth erected on the mysterious disappearance and cultural eclipse of the Picts. Armit shows that this is not the only viable model, and that it depends on a retrospective and anachronistic model of Scottish nationhood. Equally, the early history of that nation requires a re-orientation of the compass - reversing north and south to reflect the economic and cultural dynamism of Orkney and Shetland.

Drawing on social sciences, archaeology, religion, science and technology and literature, the book portrays an economically active nation whose religious and artistic expressions are deeply grounded in the widest European environment. Those politicians who wrap themselves in the flag and quote the Declaration of Arbroath tend to forget that this stirring document was drafted by clerics and addressed to Pope John XXII. Its wider context makes it a more rather than a less significantly Scottish document.

By the same token, Christopher Harvie, who discusses the situation since 1978, 20 years after his No Gods and Precious Few Heroes concluded an earlier multi-volume history, begins with an account of the new parliament. It contrasts with John Foster's account of how profoundly British national politics were driven by the economic and military contribution of Scottish industrialists. The change of tone from Harvie's previous book is telling. He has moved further in the direction of mediated history, a notion not so much driven by politics, fuelled by economics and streamlined by cultural ideas, as expressing these dimensions simultaneously.

The other chapters function similarly, offering insight into the means by which Scottish history has been encoded in the past, how recent scientific and archaeological finding have reshaped the picture and what can be gleaned beyond the still-resistant iconographies of how ordinary Scots lived. Thomas Owen Clancy and Barbara E. Crawford describe the formation of the Scottish kingdom; Keith Brown deals with the Reformation, a major cusp, never more sensitively and even-handedly discussed; the veteran Bruce Lenman discusses the Act of Union and the complex passage to the Reform Act of 1832; while Graeme Morton and R. J. Norris, and then John Foster cover the 19th and 20th centuries and the steady emergence of a new nationalism to provide a superstructure to the civil society established after 1707.

The book is handsomely illustrated with photographs from the new National Museum of Scotland, which, unlike the late Enric Miralles's parliament design, is complete and functioning and enjoys an organic and natural connection to the "old" Royal Museum next door. Houston and Knox have created a similar edifice: in contact with an older historiography and answerable to it, but always looking forward. The tercentenary of the Act of Union falls in 2007 and demands a substantial rethink of the relationship between the northern and southern nations. This fine book offers the best foundation for that.

Brian Morton has taught Scottish history and literature in Britain and Norway. He presents a daily arts and culture programme for BBC Scotland.

The New Penguin History of Scotland: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day

Editor - R. A. Houston and W. W. J. Knox
ISBN - 0 7139 9187 9
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 573

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