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Best of Times, Worst of Times – Scottish Review of Books
by Brian Morton

Best of Times, Worst of Times

November 3, 2015 | by Brian Morton

HERE is our story, not as the proud unfolding of an inexorable national logic, nor in the Eeyorish tones of a people that ‘always’ manages to give away a dodgy penalty in the last minute, but far more interestingly as a ‘recurring sequence of uncertainties’. Alistair Moffat ends his tight, brisk account – just 500 pages for the long span from vulcanism and mad tectonic clashes to the referendum result – with the reminder that there was never anything inevitable about Scotland. We could just as easily have become Pictland, Alba, Norseland or Northern England. We may yet end up as part of a future Scandinavian Confederation, or if Putin has his way, as Russia’s Atlantic dockyard.

There is more than classical doubt and good methodology to Moffat’s insistence, though. We all know that history is written retrospectively, and if not always by the winners, then certainly always with the scores already known to us. Reading him at some speed, which is what both narrative and style invite, one becomes aware as never before just how partial, suspended, ambiguous and plain uncertain how much of our history was. There were periods of extraordinary stability, in regnal terms at least. William the Lion practised kingship for nearly half a century and between 1165 and 1286, the Scots only had three monarchs. And yet, one is always made aware how often leadership fell to beardless children and to regents, leading to long years of minority rule; in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was about 50/50.

There are plenty of good books on – or of – Scottish history. Jenny Wormald, Bruce Lenman, Tim Clarkson, Michael Fry, Trevor Royle, T. C. Smout, Tom Devine have all made signal contributions to both scholarship and cultural debate about national identity. For significant detail and sheer texture, there is nothing to match Rosemary Goring’s Scotland: The Autobiography, and she is generously acknowledged in Moffat’s bibliography. There is also a deep salaam to Michael Lynch’s 1991 ‘new history’ of Scotland, but it comes with the recognition that 1991 was nearly a quarter of a century ago, more than a generation by the usual sociological measure, and that the twenty-five intervening years have witnessed enormous change in Scottish life, politics and self-identity. So Moffat’s book, far from merely adding another couple of handsome inches to the stack already on the desk, could hardly seem timelier.

That would only be the case if it offered something original, and not just a complect of previous sources, carefully balanced between points of view: Whiggish, neo-Marxist, revival-of-narrative. There are actually three unique selling points. The first and perhaps most striking is Moffat’s interest in that Private Eye bogey, our national DNA. Except Moffat doesn’t use the term metaphorically or as shorthand for ‘how we are’. He also runs a testing company called BritainsDNA and is previously the author of a book called The Scots: A Genetic Journey. He can show, for instance, that Darnley was paranoid in believing that the future James VI and I was David Riccio’s child. It was his own part of an unbroken line from Sir John Stewart of Bonkyll who died at Falkirk in 1298 to the present Duke of Buccleuch.

Moffat’s other previous convictions give a useful guide to his highly individual perspective. There are books on the Highland Line, the Roman wall, on Tuscany (everyone needs a bit of sun and olive oil), and on the ‘sea kingdoms’. But one title stands out. Moffat writes as a borderer and not just with proprietary affection. He knows that how things fell out between the Solway and the mouth of the Tweed played a disproportionately large role, even if there are no cities there, in the determinations that led us to Scotland rather than Pictland, or Alba, or Norseland, or Northern England. And it was, by no means incidentally, in the border country that Scotland’s most detailed and complex – and still only awkwardly understood – modern myth was played out in the novels of Walter Scott.

Scott, with his astonishing cultural gravity, stands on this side of an event horizon that closes off a lot of national history to all but serious students. A straw poll in a Kintyre pub this week scored high for awareness, and some strong views, on Jacobitism, on Culloden, and on the Scottish contribution to imperial history, intellect and science, but only won spotty reaction to bullet-point dates and events – Bannockburn, Flodden, the Declaration of Arbroath, and Columba (who’s a brand name in old Dalriada) – and none at all to either William the Lion or Alexander III (‘he sounds Russian’) and none to Columba’s patsy Aedan mac Gabrain, the first anointed king of Scotland, who some claim is buried just beyond that pub car park. And nobody had heard of the 1461 Treaty of Westminster-Ardtornish, potentially a turning point in national life or potentially the moment when Southern Scotland became Northern England for ever. There isn’t even a signpost or a plaque at Ardtornish now, so the pub regulars aren’t alone in their ignorance.

The great thing about Moffat’s account is that, for all its emphasis on uncertainty, it rattles along with complete narrative certainty, to the extent that great events consistently take even a historically literate reader unawares. There’s no curtain-twitching or incidental music, just a plain explication of what happened as we understand it now and what the immediate consequences seem to have been.

The third unique selling point is that Moffat understands history to be a linguistic and literary phenomenon and not just a recitation of ‘facts’. Just as the geology is wildly eclectic, so too Scotland was and to some degree remains a linguistic patchwork. The ostensible politics of early kings and their proxies is often less important than, or may be determined by, their language loyalties. Some were clearly polyglot. The creation of universal literacy made Scotland unique in and beyond Europe for a couple of centuries. It also led to some astonishing intellectual achievements. The four-day creation by the Six Johns of the twenty-five chapters that make up the ‘Confession of Faith of the Kirk of Scotland’ is an achievement that almost rivals the King James Bible and remains, as Moffat says, ‘one of the most radical documents ever to be written in Scotland’.

It’s worth going back to Moffat’s introduction after the 500 pages have been breached and the referendum result – just the latest in that recurring sequence of uncertainties – is in, for it’s here that he makes explicit the quality that makes his book so compelling. ‘The history of Scotland should never be thought of as remote but rather a deeply personal matter, the only really worthwhile context against which we can see our short lives under these big skies.’ This is simple, but honest. In The Borders, Moffat made clear where his heart lay. Here again, he insists that Scotland’s default landscape isn’t Schiehallion or the Black Cuillin (I feel a strong personal pull to the modest summit of Cairnpapple Hill in West Lothian), nor any castle or cluster of clan stones on a bloody moor, but to the fields that tabulate the ‘memory of uncounted lives lived on the land, a patchwork of day-in, day-out labour somehow best seen in the evening, lit by a westering sun’. And yet there is no sense of the elegiac in Moffat’s Scotland. It is highly significant that there is no terminus ad quem in his sub-title, which might quite legitimately have gone ‘From Earliest Times to the Independence Referendum’. Just a page or so after suggesting that dimity and gloaming might be the best lights by which to view the country, he is talking about sunrise again, ending his book with characteristic openness with the thought that, ‘For Scotland now, it seems that several dawns are possible’. Never was a plural better deployed.

Scotland: A History From Earliest Times

Alistair Moffat

Birlinn, £25, ISBN: 978-1780272801, PP576

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