Magazine article The Spectator

Putting the Story Back in History

Magazine article The Spectator

Putting the Story Back in History

Article excerpt

As a boy in Edinburgh Magnus Magnusson learned his Scottish history from Walter Scott's Tales of a Grandfather, itself originally written for Sir Walter's grandson, little Johnnie Lockhart. This was history as story, and is deeply unfashionable. Schoolchildren don't get narrative history now; instead they are expected to empathise with mediaeval peasants or clansmen being driven from their homes in the Clearances.

Then, in 1998, Magnusson made a series of radio programmes based on the Tales of a Grandfather in which he questioned many of the now numerous academic historians who, in the last 30 years, have revitalised the study of Scottish history, and frequently its interpretation. He incorporates many of their judgments in his own narrative. His model remains Scott, and, like Scott, he tells his story with vigour and, lucidity; but the conclusions are often very different.

He brings to his story also the fruits of his experience as a populariser of archaeology and as chairman of the Ancient Monuments Board of Scotland and of Scottish Natural Heritage. Remarking that Scott had 'a wonderful feel for the natural landscape, for the scenes where history happened', he reveals the same talent himself. He is excellent on the sense of place in history, and any visitor to Scotland would benefit from taking this book as a companion. Since it is monumentally heavy, the visitor should travel by car. As for Scots, this is an ideal book to give an intelligent teenager for Christmas; it will agreeably teach what schools too often neglect.

Magnusson is very good indeed on the early part, the Dark Ages (which he would rather call `early mediaeval') when the kingdom was formed, though he accepts too easily the notion that `the Picts were Celts'; it is possible that a Celtic aristocracy ruled over an older indigenous people whose language was not even IndoEuropean.

Magnusson sets himself to put the romance back into history, and succeeds splendidly. His account, for instance, of the wars of independence is admirably gripping. He is even fair to Edward I and to those Scottish barons who supported him or did allegiance to him. He understands that while nationalism - inasmuch as the word has any meaning when we are talking about the Middle Ages - may have been the result of these wars, it scarcely existed before them. Barons either side of the Border had more in common with each other than with the common folk. He pays full due to Wallace as folk-hero, while not concealing that the heroic legend first appears a century and a half after his death - but was based on stories that were by then 'traditional'. …

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