For the last few months now I’ve been reading Neil Oliver’s ‘A History of Scotland’. I’m not ashamed to say that I still haven’t finished it, because how can you possibly absorb the whole history of Scotland in a matter of months? This also raises the question of how on earth the author accomplished such a monumental task, while managing to keep it engaging and un-stuffy at the same time.
The book is a thick hardback, its chapters reflecting the progression of time and human occupation on the face of Scotland’s landscape. There are 389 pages and three sections of colour photographs. I have to admit that, while working my way through other history books, I have often found myself perusing the pictures by way of light relief from text that is about as juicy as a stale Ryvita. But not this time.
Neil Oliver’s storytelling talent is what brings this book to life, whether he’s dealing with the first Neolithic settlers, the growth of the Gaelic and Pictish kingdoms, the expulsion of the Romans from Caledonia, or the rise of the first Kings of Scotland. An archaeologist first and foremost, he’s passionate about all periods of history – and it shows.
The author speaks from a viewpoint of unquestionable knowledge, with a sense of humanity that is coloured but not blinded by his deep love for his homeland. He has an awe-inspiring grasp of Scottish and English history, and a depth of insight that draws you into the mindset of warlords, monarchs, bishops and clan chiefs, in the darkness of palace rooms and the carnage of battlefields. Through his eyes, we can see characters and motives behind dry, ancient facts; the strands of a very long and complicated story are woven masterfully together.
Take, for example, the medieval period. A fistful of strong and colourful characters – Alexander II, Robert I, John Comyn, William Wallace – figure largely in the narrative, their ambitions for power burning with raw intensity even after 800 years. And Oliver doesn’t gloss over the brutal truth. He makes it plain from the beginning that contenders for the Scottish throne trampled on countless innocent lives in their greed for glory:
“Duplicity – double-dealing, along with cunning and cruelty – these more than honesty, courage and honour, it seems, are the defining characteristics of kings and princes… and of men who would be kings.”
I was intrigued in particular to read Oliver’s account of the way in which history has immortalised Robert the Bruce. Having seized power in 1306, Robert still had to subdue powerful Scottish noblemen in Perthshire and Fife, who were backed by English forces. He suffered a swift defeat and abandoned his family to a cruel fate, saving his own skin and hiding in exile, only to return six months later with fresh hopes and loyal supporters. His triumph over the English at Bannockburn is still cherished deep in the hearts of Scotsmen the world over; and for this reason, despite his many ruthless, selfish acts, acknowledged and regretted by himself only on his deathbed, King Robert I has been “turned to stone” as an icon of enduring Scottish glory, “a fairy-tale curse for a king made myth.”
Sometimes the finer details remind us that monarchs were real people, placed by birth into a position of immense power, yet still human and frighteningly vulnerable. Around 1550, a tiny spy-hole was carved in the masonry of the battlements around Stirling Castle so that the infant Mary, Queen of Scots could watch the tournaments taking place on Haining Field without being seen by her great-uncle, Henry VIII, who coveted her as a bride for his baby son. Suddenly, Scotland’s child queen, described by Oliver as ‘dynastic dynamite’, appeals to our hearts as if she lived today.
I have long been an admirer of Neil Oliver as a presenter, and he writes with the same vigour and directness that he brings to his programmes. So many history writers feel obliged to produce lifeless offerings to academia, almost as if it’s fashionable to be bored with their subject. But this is such a refreshing change. ‘A History of Scotland’ is probably the most engaging and enjoyable history book I have ever read. What an ambitious undertaking… and a testament to what can be achieved by a combining a staggering degree of historical expertise and a fresh, enthusiastic approach.
‘A History of Scotland’ by Neil Oliver is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN 978 0 297 85663 4
Please note that the images are not reproduced from the book; they are all copyright © Colin Woolf