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Response to Review no. 273

There has been a spectacular growth of interest in and writing about Scottish history during the last 15 years. Dozens (perhaps hundreds) of books and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of articles have appeared. They include and/or build on a handful of scholarly general volumes telling Scotland’s story. Some of these date from the 1960s or earlier, but more have appeared in the last decade or so. When we sat down to plan the project that resulted in The New Penguin History of Scotland, we had certain guiding principles. These came out of our reading of the generations of general works and our knowledge of the burgeoning specialist literature.

First, we wanted to prepare a history of all Scotland’s peopled past, which meant starting at the end of the last ice age. We decided that it was not possible properly to understand Scotland’s modern society without showing the many different strands that ravelled and unravelled over 8,000 years of history. For example, the polarised and militaristic society of the Dark Ages was only one of several outcomes suggested by the experiences of Scotland’s people in the previous millennia of human settlement. This was to be as comprehensive a history as possible.

To do this we decided to assemble a group of leading specialists in different time periods, not just at St Andrews University, but anywhere that Scottish history was researched and taught. The thinking here was that, however gifted, no one historian (or even a pair of historians) could really master the large and rapidly expanding body of academic writing on Scotland’s complex past. For Scottish history is truly ‘vital’: living, growing, and evolving. Thus a professional historian who specialises in perhaps 200 years cannot be expected to do justice to the remainder of Scotland’s peopled past.

We asked the chosen specialists to write an up-to-date and scholarly history of their assigned period, but one that was accessible and entertaining. We wanted this to be a universal history: a book for everyone interested in Scotland’s past. And we wanted the authors to deliver not simply a narrative of political, military and ecclesiastical events, but also to offer an analysis of how, over the millennia, men, women and children lived and died, worked and played, conflicted and co-operated.

For our part as editors, we wanted to write a substantial introduction that would set out the principal themes in the history of our nation, but we wanted it to be more than a simple summary of the chapters. We were determined to show that Scottish history does not have to be tartan history to make it interesting. We tried to avoid becoming slaves to some creaking debates and instead to explore the often fresh and fascinating analyses of social and cultural life, which have appeared in recent years. Thus we focused on issues such as people and environment, religious life, the politicisation of Scotland’s people, and local, regional and national identities. We tried to cut through the myths and clich├ęs that dominate some perceptions of Scotland’s past.

The result is meant to be a new kind of history, a challenging and sometimes uncomfortable one, but, like all new encounters, it is one which we hoped readers would find rewarding. Only they can judge if we have succeeded in the tasks that we set ourselves during the six years of work, which the other contributors and we put into it.

However, the book has already attracted some very favourable notices, which suggest that we got it more or less right. Jeremy Paxman – not an easy man to please – described it in the Sunday Times as ‘often sharp . and witty’, a book which will help the English better to ‘understand the neighbours’. He singled out the ‘masterly’ editorial introduction and thought the book worth reading for that alone. Any book that encourages English readers better to ‘understand the neighbours’ (in Paxman’s words) has to be good news!

Dr Richard Oram in the Scotsman praises it as ‘a stimulating, challenging and refreshingly radical departure’ in Scottish history. His opinion is summed up in the sentence: ‘This is very much a new history for a new Scotland.’

Professor Tom Devine, himself author of an excellent earlier Penguin history, confirmed in The Herald that we had successfully bridged the gap between academia and wider readers. ‘The book demonstrates that there need not be any conflict between accessibility and high professional standards.’ He concludes that ‘this collective project has the overall research and professional quality which deserves a wide audience’.

Reviewers have recognised the achievement of the 11 contributors in assimilating and presenting large bodies of scholarly literature. And they have acknowledged that the project was realised in an objective and inclusive way. As Brian Morton noted in The Higher, this is not a book with a political agenda. It illuminates the formation of national identity without being ‘nationalist’. Morton concluded his review by likening the New Penguin History of Scotland to the National Museum of Scotland. ‘Houston and Knox have created a similar edifice: in contact with an older historiography and answerable to it, but always looking forward. The tercentenary of the Act of Union falls in 2007 and demands a substantial rethink of the relationship between the northern and southern nations. This fine book offers the best foundation for that.’

These reviewers have recognised the huge task we set ourselves and the contribution the book has made not only to Scottish history, but also to that of the British Isles. Indeed, The New Penguin History of Scotland is aware of Scotland’s place in the wider world, dealing with (among other things) her experience of empire in the nineteenth century and, turning the tables, of being ‘globalised’ in the twentieth century. The book offers an overview and also an agenda for future research. There are some small things we might wish to change, but not many. Of course, historians are an individualistic bunch and we cannot please everyone. But if the book provokes debate that is a bonus we had not anticipated, for (in the words of the ‘Introduction’), ‘Healthy disagreements . [are] examples of the productive tensions which drive advances in historical understanding.’