Review – Scotland: The Story of a Nation—Magnus Magnusson

Article Readability Stats: 736 words; Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level = 11

This post first appeared on my book blog, Cherry Tree Reads. View it here.

Magnus Magnusson’s Scotland: The Story of a Nation is a detailed history of the land known as Scotland today. Beginning with the first known village on Scottish soil, Skara Brae in 3100 BC, Magnusson takes us on a journey through time to the Mid-1800’s. While omitting modern Scottish history in this book, he includes an epilogue that summarizes the past 150 years.

Even with this omission, Magnusson’s book is a must-have for any history buff or person interested in Scotland–or even anthropology, geography, or travel. The level of detail Magnusson reaches for some decades or centuries is astonishing. Instead of concentrating on what happened, Magnusson delves into the how’s and why’s. How did this ruler come to the conclusion to go to war? Why was the sentiment in Scotland the way it was at the time?

To keep the reading fresh, Magnusson includes detailed descriptions of historic locations–churches, castles, battlefields, etc.–in modern Scotland and England. One of my favorite aspects of the book is how the locations look and feel today. Take, for example, this passage from the chapter on David I, introducing the Battle of the Standard:

At the side of the A167 between Northallerton and Darlington, in North Yorkshire, stands a plain stone obelisk, its plinth marked with the simple legend: ‘Battle of the Standard: AD 1138’… The monument marks the site of the most spectacular military event in David’s long reign—the crushing defeat of a marauding Scottish army on a stretch of rolling moorland some three miles north of Northallerton on 22 August 1138. (pg. 74)

For fun, I pulled up Google Maps to find this monument. Sure enough, if you follow Magnusson’s directions, you come across the monument.

At the side of the A167 between Northallerton and Darlington, in North Yorkshire, stands a plain stone obelisk, its plinth marked with the simple legend: ‘Battle of the Standard: AD 1138’

This holds true for every monument or location in the book. You can sense that Magnusson travelled through Scotland visiting sites to understand their atmosphere–both past and present. His descriptions of locations are a skilled touch of a former history-program-presenter that invite the reader to imagine themselves standing on a battlefield, in an abbey, or on a bridge (I recommend reading his depiction of the Battle of Sterling Bridge, pages 135-41).

There are many of these passages throughout the book. So many, in fact, that a history- and map-nerd like myself spent more time on Google Maps in some chapters than reading. Sections of the book often begin with a paragraph or two describing how the focal location looks today and how you could travel there to explore it yourself.

The only shortfall of Scotland is that the pacing can be slow. While Magnusson spends equal time on most eras of Scottish history, some sections seem fluffed up with tangents. These tangents, while interesting and informative, may put the reader off that era of history. Sometimes there is too much detail on a minor event or an aspect of a ruler, and not enough time spent on transitioning from one chapter to the next. Magnusson overall does a superb job at weaving the pieces of history together, but it is all too noticeable when he cannot work them together properly.

Scotland: The Story of a Nation is by far one of the best history books I have read. Part travel guide, part drama, and part anthology, this book explains Scotland and all her peoples in great detail that will–mostly–keep your attention. Many histories are too far on the extremes: from dry, verbose academic writing to teasing the boundary of fiction. However, Magnusson’s book is the perfect read for anyone looking to gain in depth knowledge of Scottish history–not an information dump or a dramatization of events with fiction to fill the gaps.

Those who enjoy this book may wish to pick up a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather. Magnusson draws on the seminal work that has been popular since its release in the late 1820s. However, instead of blindly following Scott, Magnusson critiques sections he believes Scott skimmed–or even fictionalized. That’s even more reason Scotland is genuine history: he seeks to write the truth, rather than the best story.

Scotland: The Story of a Nation, by Magnus Magnusson (734 pages)
Tales of a Grandfather, by Sir Walter Scott (in 4 parts)
(Disclaimer, I will receive a small percentage of any books you buy through my storefront. However, any profits made on the sale are distributed to a pool of independent bookshops.)

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