on 10 November 2009
I understand that there is some disagreement in academic circles about the quality of the BBC series with which this book is associated. I don't wish to comment on that, but I would like to say that there are some people who are in the top rank of those who have a gift for producing extremely readable writing - and Neil Oliver is one of them. I only bought his book a couple of days ago, and am already almost half-way through what is virtually un-put-downable. He has a gift for clarity, for just enough detail which is invariably fascinating, for presenting the essence of what one needs to know, and for making clear how all the material as it is introduced hangs together with what has already been, and what is yet to be. His account is well-balanced, so that there are no shining heroes or black villains, but flesh and blood people engaged in a common struggle for prestige and power, as well as for peace and freedom. He is clearly in love with, and in command of, his subject, and communicates this to his readers on every page. I don't know if his history is one hundred per cent accurate - and what history ever is? - but I do take the view that his book is 'a cracker'. Buy one for Christmas, and you'll discover that it's not just for Christmas, but for reading and re-reading throughout many a year to come. My thanks to Neil Oliver for one of my best 'reads' of 2009.
on 17 February 2012
This is as good a book as almost any, I'd say, to start with if you want a good, solid overview of the story of Scotland.
I would like, though, to start with a negative point, and get it out of the way first. Before you're even into the book proper, author Neil Oliver makes a rather bold - and in my view, plain wrong - statement. "Scotland's history has been badly served over the years," it says on the inside jacket cover. To me this is a rather sweeping assessment (although he doesn't mention names) and by it he dismisses the many excellent works over the decades from the likes of Magnus Magnusson, John Prebble and countless others. It is a rather typical attitude from an author of a "new" history. It's almost as though he's saying that what you're about to read surpasses anything you may have read before. That's certainly the impression I got, anyway.
That said, my overall impression of the book as a whole once I'd worked my way though it was excellent. He begins with a tough chapter, going right back to square one, with the formation of the planet itself. For me this was perhaps a little too early a starting point, but then again Oliver isn't just a historian but also a geologist, so perhaps his desire to include this subject was understandable.
One of the things Oliver wanted to put right, he said, was the overall impression of "poor" Scotland, how it has been the victim of misfortune over the centuries, with too many lost battles and too many thwarted ambitions. Yet throughout the book, that to me is the dominant impression he gives: that Scotland HAS been unfortunate over the centuries, with tragic figures such as Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie forever in the history books for all the wrong reasons.
The well documented events such as Bannockburn, the Jacobite Rebellions and the Reformation are well covered, as you'd expect, with plenty of background to put them all in context.
Around the middle of the book, roughly covering the period 1400 up to the union in 1707, I felt the author lost his way a bit, his writing becoming a bit jumbled and incoherent. But then I realised that parts of Scotland's history are a bit like that, messy and patchy. Stick with it, and the rest of the book is excellent.
This book has certainly given me the appetite to study further. Patchy at times or not, Scotland's history has been fascinating, and I look forward to concentrating on specific periods, having had this initial overview.
on 18 June 2011
I wish I was reading history books like these when I was at school - I may have paid more attention. I suspect though that the graphic detail of the fierce battles described in this book may have been heavily edited before any young eyes could read it.
Neil Oliver breathes life into these historical characters and gives his slant on what he believes was the mindset of those powerful individuals who shaped Scotland. The barbaric, brutal way the Scottish people were dealt with, not only by English kings, but by Scottish kings too, is described meticulously.
I daresay some historians will challenge Neil Oliver's take on Scottish history, but I for one was enthralled by his storytelling and to me he made the story of Scotland more vibrant. He does not paint a glorious colourful picture of Scotland. He tells a no-holds-barred story of a country damaged by countless raids, greedy landowners and traitorous lairds.
on 21 February 2010
I can't recommend this book enough. This book both enjoys the romance of Scotland's greatest characters but still exams them and their actions as people and not as icons. Also this book does not shy away from some of unsavoury aspects of Scotland's history.
I have read both Michael Lynch & Tom Devine's books on the history of Scotland but neither managed to capture the excitement that runs throughout Neil Oliver's book. If you read only one book on Scottish history this is the book to read.
This is a review of the original hardback edition. I read Neil Oliver's book after watching his inspirational TV series, when an upcoming first visit to Scotland motivated me to find out more of the nation's history. (I was ashamed to admit I knew more about the history of, say France than Scotland.) But, having watched the TV series, I was dimly aware of gaps which I hoped the book would fill.
My experience has always been that books based on TV histories always tell more than the screentime can contain, and this is no different here. For starters there is an added initial chapter in which Oliver revisits his `History of Ancient Britain' in a Scottish context, covering prehistoric Scotland as far back as four billions years ago. But the chapters are overlong; they should take at most an hour to read, not two hours at best, which was my experience here. But parts are so well-written, and Oliver is so good a storyteller, that a sense of time was often lost to this reader.
For Oliver's book is not a dry academic text: it is avowedly and stridently written for the general reader. This is the second book by Oliver that I have read and, as with the first, he has a conjuror's way with words, leaving magical images in the mind on almost every page. His metaphorical skill is even there in the book's introduction where he likens the four elements of the United Kingdom (what, no Cornish?) to tenants of a shared house.
Or take this memorable description about the effects of the Ice Age in northern Europe, where some lands "would be many hundreds of meters lower than they are today, depressed like one end of a couch beneath a fat lady's bottom." (There is a hint of unfortunate misogyny here that appears later, such as when Oliver never assumes that the string of stags' teeth in the grave of a Danish woman might have come from animals she herself brought down.)
Of the River Forth at the foot of Stirling Castle, Oliver writes how it winds absent-mindedly, "as though having forgotten where it is supposed to be going." Humour and irony also play their part in his narrative: try this - "With the stone [of Scone] beneath him and Edward [of England] above as overlord, Balliol was literally between a rock and a hard place." Oliver's writing style thus makes reading his words a joy. One could argue this is as much a work of literature as of history, though here and there the metaphors can be banal and clichéd and the adjectives awkward (such as, "pinnacle of the ziggurat").
But, apart from style, what of the book's contents? Oliver lists up to ten other histories of Scotland in his `general' section of his suggestions for further reading. I have no idea (yet) how his work compares with theirs, but I was shocked at the number of obvious errors in Oliver's text. Here are some examples and you will notice a common thread: 1. Hastings is in Sussex, not Kent; 2. Ethelred II was king of England in 1016, not Edward the Confessor; 3. Prince Louis was defeated on land at Lincoln, not London; 4. Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham, not Northampton; and 5. Derby is not within a hundred miles of London. It is English history that is clearly not Oliver's strong point.
But even after the Union there are errors: Edward VII was not on the throne when the First World War broke out and the labour landslide election took place in 1945, not 1946. Casting the net wider, on the European level, Oliver mistakes Frederick II of Prussia as an emperor (he was a king), and Napoleon was not ruler of France in 1798. Not knowing much about Scottish history (hence my reading this book), I cannot comment on the veracity of his facts about Scotland, but even he gets it wrong when he locates Lochleven Castle in Perthshire: it is in Kinross. So, one has to ask whether his hold on Scottish history is strong.
I mentioned earlier that some gaps in the TV series are filled in the book, yet there are still odd lacunae. Like the series, the book concentrates on particular aspects rather than being a comprehensive history. There are epilogues at the ends of each chapter, but a paragraph or two on, for example, the Black Death and the resultant economic gains of the peasantry is not enough.
Other instances of missing links include how the Britons of Strathclyde were incorporated into the nation. (It seems even Oliver is exasperated about this period when he exclaims, "One king's name after another: an endless procession that blurs before the eyes.") And prior to the Reformation there is very little about the religious lives of the people. No mention is made of the establishment under David I of bishoprics in line with the church of Rome; St Ninian and Whithorn are not mentioned until Robert the Bruce; and it is never clarified why Ordnance Survey maps of England and Wales show parish boundaries, but those of Scotland do not.
The book has forty-eight colour plates, mostly of places and documents mentioned in the text, although the choice of Edward I is a strangely Victorian romantic conception. There is only one map and even that is very poor. Nor are there any genealogical tables of the royal lines. Maps and family trees would have been most useful, to put it mildly. Other gripes are the occasional use of imperial measurements. Even the index is problematical with many gaps and in places it is not even in alphabetical order!
In conclusion, then, Oliver is a brilliant storyteller, but there are doubts about the truth of the stories he tells. All the same, it's a fantastic and vivid journey through Scotland's history.
on 23 November 2009
This is an absolutely fantastic read, well written and well balanced and encapsulating the beauty and history of Scotland. I met Neil recently and got my copy signed and he is one of the nicest authors I've met in a long time and passionate about his subject. He just makes history so interesting. Thanks Neil one of the best reads of 2009.
on 15 November 2009
This is a beautifully written and well balanced narrative history which complements the excellent recent television series (and soon to be released DVD) perfectly.
on 3 January 2010
Neil Oliver shares with his readers his passionate view of Scotland's history from the formation of the rocks to the present SNP government of Scotland. Linking together in a compact volume a trail of discovery from start to finish, this is an ideal companion to the TV series of the same name. This volume fills in many gaps in the TV series necessarily created by the nature of the media yet manages to maintain an energetic pace throughout. Neil Oliver is unafraid to court controversy yet manages to do so in a style that will delight many readers. This is a volume that deserves a place on any bookshelf for its ability to clearly lay out the path of history of a proud nation whose history has often been clouded in myth and reinvention even by some of our greatest writers including William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott.A History Of Scotland
on 29 October 2014
Have ready many of Neil Oliver's books and this was a very good read. He takes us from the beginning with Scotland as a rock on a planet and how the place developed into what it is today. A very interesting read. It was very in depth and explained how the various Kings of Scotland would eventually merge into its union with England. It also enabled the user to see the various splits between the Highland and Lowlands and the interesting involvement in how the Scottish rich got richer through the slave trades, tobacco / sugar transportation...and how the Scottish Ship Building process commenced during the USA Independence of the 1770s.
It has lodged well with my interest in history and other books...
Worth the read...
on 28 February 2015
I thought this was a decent overview of Scottish history. I learned a lot, and it was interesting to see Scotland and Britain from a Scottish perspective. The information about religious infighting, the tobacco trade, labour unrest, and class exploitation were particularly appealing, and there are lots of sources in the back for further reading. It must have taken the writer years to research and write the book, and knowing what that’s like, I’m reluctant to criticize. However, I feel I must, because in many places the book is badly written, so badly that it became a distraction. Mr. Oliver and his editor should acquaint themselves with at least one decent style guide. They should know that generally it’s useful to omit needless words and to place important words at a sentence’s end. There are so many sentences that end with “as well” as to defy imagination. There are also clichés (e.g. the something-or-other from hell) and other examples of pub speak. And there are long, comma filled constructions begging to be simplified and recast.
Besides issues with writing, there’s scant little in the way of positionality. Besides being a proud, curious, and educated Scot, what perspective is the writer coming from? Is he a historian? An archeologist? What? Is he going to be relaying a dynastic history, a people’s history, or both, and why? The reader assumes the writer focuses on kings, queens, wars, and other conflicts, because that’s the history that’s best been recorded, but the writer never explains. I also thought the later references to geography were unnecessary. Sure, geography may shape and influence history (e.g. the highlands vs. the lowlands), but it’s what people believe and how they act that’s key.
These complaints must make it sound like I didn’t like the book, but I did. I just think it could have been better. If you’re not fussy about clear and dynamic language and just want the information and maybe to gain some perspective on how Scots view themselves and the wider world, this book is certainly a good introduction.