Top positive review
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A basic introduction...
on 14 September 2014
At the risk of sounding obnoxiously conceited, I'm going to start by saying this book isn't really aimed at me. I have a pretty good knowledge and understanding of Scotland's history in general and a reasonably in-depth amateur knowledge of some periods in particular. However I was intrigued to see how the '...for Dummies' series would present history, having only used them in the past for more technical subjects, and I always find it's good to start with a subject you know something about to get a feel for the quality and accuracy of the series.
This book covers the entire human history of Scotland from the Stone Age to the current day in just over 300 pages. It is therefore to be expected that it's going to be a fairly quick romp and indeed it is. In fact, the first several sections irritated me quite a lot by their superficiality - not just the Stone Age, etc., but also the Romans, the Vikings and right on past the Bruce and Wallace era. The section on the Kings of Scotland between Bruce and the Union was a sprint - admittedly they did have a tendency to die young, but some of them only got a couple of pages. It's not that these sections lacked facts; but they did lack much interpretation and I didn't feel they were put into the context of the wider world particularly well. In this early part of the book, the author has also included lots of little jokey asides, often schoolboy humour about sexual mores, and he is a huge enthusiast for the exclamation mark!!!! I think there may be more exclamation marks in this book than in the whole of world literature put together!!!!
However, once we get to what we would think of as modern history - the last 300 years or so, the book becomes more in-depth with more analysis and a greater feeling of context. The 'About the Author' section tells us that this is the period in which Knox has done most of his work and I think that shows. Even here, though, there are some issues where I wondered if a reader would be left floundering for lack of information. For instance, the fueing system of land rents rates one sentence. I felt it would actually have been clearer to omit reference to it entirely than to explain it so inadequately, and there were many other examples like this. In general, however, these later sections give a much fuller picture of Scottish society and how it changed in response to the rise and fall of Empire and beyond.
The book is very much in the style of the '...for Dummies' series, using icons and bullet-point lists to highlight information the author considers important for the reader to remember. This works reasonably well, though sometimes it felt a bit patronising. What worked less well were the grammatical errors and typos - they didn't by any means make the book unreadable but there were too many of them in what is after all a scholarly work. Sometimes the lack of grammatical clarity led to errors in fact - for instance, on page 14 the author says Scotland was uninhabitable between the second century AD and the 13th century - a surprise, I imagine, to the people who lived there. What he meant was that it was uninhabitable for thousands of years at a much earlier period due to the Ice Age. The error is caused by a lack of clarity in the writing style, and again there are other examples of this. As so often, I found myself wondering if the editor had read the book.
I don't want to be too harsh on the book because it does provide a basic introduction to Scottish history and that's what it sets out to do. And certainly for modern history I felt it gave a good overview. But I felt the earlier sections were too superficial even as an introduction, there were too many areas that lacked clarity and as a result were confusing, and personally I disliked the author's jokey style. I was also disappointed to see that there's no bibliography included, so anyone wishing to read further is given no guidance on where to look next. So in conclusion I fear I can only give a lukewarm recommendation to this one overall, though I'd recommend it more strongly to someone who was primarily interested in the sections on modern history. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.