The fare city of Dunoon

Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland
May 5, 1995

The cover illustration of this book is a painting by David Octavius Hill, showing a view of Edinburgh from the castle. The foreground is packed with soldiers and citizens, the background is the vista of the old town stretching to Arthur's Seat, with a small section of the New Town creeping into the frame.

Hill was indeed an established artist, a founder of the Scottish Academy, but he is remembered principally as a photographer. His painting is a particularly appropriate illustration for this reference book: expert, presenting the familiar, but often in an unexpected way, and emphasising the old rather than the new.

Editors John Keay and Julia Keay have vetoed biographies of the living on the grounds that celebrity may be transitory, but there is a generally cautious approach to the recent past. They say they have been obliged to devise their own criteria for this first comprehensive Scottish encyclopaedia, and that "encyclopaedic'' simply means that "it embraces the widest possible range of subjects, not that it treats all or any of them exhaustively''.

The range is indisputably wide, from Barr's Irn-Bru and damselflies to the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board and Unitarianism. And while this is a welcome, valuable and fascinating book, it could at times have benefited from tougher editing.

The first entry, for Aaron Scotus, an 11th-century music theorist, reads: "Aaron was a Scottish Benedictine who became abbot of St Martin's, Cologne, as well as abbot of St Pantaleon. Three treatises ascribed to him were known to 17th and 18th-century bibliographers - De Utilitate Cantus Vocalis, De Modo Cantandi et Psallendi, and De Regulis Tonorum et Symphoniarum. All are lost. He is said to have introduced a new office of St Gregory the Great." This raises more questions than it answers, and we need to know either a lot more or a lot less.

Dorothy and William Wordsworth are given their own entry on the strength of having holidayed in Scotland ("At Lasswade en route for home they called for breakfast - unintroduced - on Sir Walter Scott"), as is Dr Johnson, the man who said the high road to England was "the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees". Since his entry stresses that he would not be remembered without Boswell, why not subsume him in the entry for his Scots biographer?

There is a horribly twee entry on mermaids: "Scotland was once much favoured by merfolk . . . sadly, conservation had yet to become fashionable'', although the entry on haggis thankfully spares us the details of its third short leg that enables it to run round hills.

Different entries fail to agree whether dashing Esme Stewart was James VI's lover or whether Robert the Bruce's heart was buried in Melrose. The names "Robert the Bruce'', "Mary Queen of Scots'' and "Bonnie Prince Charlie" are disdained as "popularised, very often anglicised, sobriquets", but Scotland's motto, Nemo me impune lacessit, is translated into the very English "No one attacks me and gets away with it'' rather than the more usual "Wha daur meddle wi' me?". And the heroine, generally known as Kate Barlass, who supposedly used her arm as a doorbolt in a bid to protect James I, is listed only as Katherine Douglas.

There are many good biographies of women, including one on poet Violet Jacob that should boost her deserved revival significantly. But there are unfortunate lapses: there is no entry for artist Margaret MacDonald, mentioned briefly in the entry for her husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, or even a passing reference to novelists O. Henry and Catherine Carswell.

Sexist infelicities include financier John Law having "eloped with someone's wife'', while the office of moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland can be held by a "woman minister".

But, overall, the encyclopaedia is informative and entertaining. There are resolutely unsentimental accounts of Scottish history. The section on the Killing Time, the persecution of Presbyterians in the 1680s, concludes bluntly: "The Cameronians could be just as brutal to their enemies as the Royalists. They declared themselves in rebellion against the state and cannot have been surprised to be treated accordingly."

The book questions the popular view of James III and James IV as a Bad King and a Good King respectively, speculating that many achievements ascribed to the son would have been credited to the father, had full records existed earlier.

While the entry on Byron virtually ignores his poetry, dwelling instead on his unwholesome boyhood relationship with his nurse, there are excellent entries on Scott and Burns that merge biography with their literary achievement.

There is a comprehensive account of the Scots language, correcting "the fallacious notion'' that Scots is a debased form of English. It draws an interesting parallel with Scandinavia, arguing that while Danish, Norwegian and Swedish might linguistically be seen as Scandinavian dialects, politically they are national languages, supporting the adage that "a language is a dialect with an army and navy".

There are elegantly erudite articles on Scotland's unique systems of religion, law and education. The latter ends with a somewhat unfair slant, presumably because of deadlines, complaining about the recent Anglocentric "assault on the Scottish educational tradition" without stressing the successful devolution of higher education.

The book provides a superb testimonial to the impact of Scots at home and in the wider world, from philosophers and philanthropists such as Hume, Carnegie and Wolfson, to politicians and painters such as Keir Hardie and Raeburn. It destroys myths (James Watt did not discover the power of steam while watching a kettle boiling), replacing them with equally fascinating facts (the idea of building an engine with a separate condenser came to him during a Sunday stroll, Sabbatarianism forcing him to wait until Monday to put his calculations on paper).

And if Trivial Pursuit wants to expand further, the questions and answers for its Scottish edition are all here. Which town claims more taxis per head of population than anywhere else in Europe? Dunoon. How many breeds of dog does the Kennel Club recognise as Scottish? Twelve. Which dance-band drummer took over from Walt Disney as the voice of Mickey Mouse? Dundonian James MacDonald.

Olga Wojtas is Scottish editor of The THES.

Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland

Editor - John Keay and Julia Keay
ISBN - 0 00 255082 2
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £30.00
Pages - 1,046pp

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments