There are plenty of impressionistic travelogue-style books about Scotland. Most are rheumy-eyed romps through the milestones of Scottish history: the Wars of Independence and the Union, the Enlightenment and the Highland Clearances, through to the intermittent struggle for Home Rule in the last decades of the 20th century. Long on breathy prose, they tend to be curiously quiet on the reality of life in modern Scotland, and fall back on easy dualities when considering Scotland's role, past and present, in the British state.
A number of things set Neil Ascherson's book apart from this sub-genre. First, there is the sheer quality of his writing. Take for example his analysis of 'the English grammar of power' in John Major's 1996 announcement to Parliament that the Stone of Destiny (the coronation stone of Scotland's kings, seized by King Edward in the 13th century) was to be returned to Scotland. Major's statement was 'reeking of royal absolutism, constitutional fairy tale and transformative magic (by the use of a tutelary fetish inserted under royal buttocks)'. Tom Nairn is the only other writer I can think of who can be as elegantly scathing of the Ruritanian nonsense which underpins the British constitution.
Secondly, there is the breadth of journalistic experience Ascherson brings to his subject, and the authority with which he can contrast Scottish history, politics, language or archaeology with examples from Europe (particularly Eastern Europe). This has the welcome effect of guiding the reader through aspects of Scotland and Scotland's past using a refreshingly different set of reference points.
Finally, like his earlier study of the Black Sea, it is the ease with which the book explores disparate subjects and themes that makes it so compelling. Ascherson can move effortlessly from dark age settlements in mid Argyll to 19th century geology or from 17th century Scottish settlement in Poland to 20th century Labour politics. A less talented writer would struggle to control the breadth of reference here, but Ascherson, like Claudio Magris, has the knack of taking the unusual example and making illuminate rather than obscure his point. A book, by one of Britain's finest journalists, for anyone who wants to understand Scotland.