The First 100 Pages – Magnus Magnusson’s: Scotland The Story of a Nation

Reading about Scottish History

Reading about History


Reading this book is part of a historical reading path I’ve been following since my interest in history was sparked by researching my family tree, and owning a property in the Old Town of Edinburgh.

I won the competition to read this book along with Scotland for the Senses, a fellow tweeter and enthusiast for Scottish experiences, whereas I’ve tended to concentrate my reading for the moment on Edinburgh where my home and business are based.

To put the reading of this book in context, I’d just finished reading Patricia Dennison’s Holyrood and Canongate a Thousand Years of  History and had picked up another couple of historical books in the Audio Books section of my local library – Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, and Phillippa Gregory’s A Constant Princess.  One of my reading groups has also embarked on reading Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, so I’ve got that ‘on the go’ at the moment too.

I thought that reading a history of Scotland would help put a timeline around my reading, providing context for dipping in and out of different periods of history.  But I’m learning a lot about different subjects as I read, and yesterday as I took some time out from reading to be mindful of another task in hand (or rather on foot!) at the moment, I had a revelation about why the first 100 pages of this book have taken so long to read.

I was slogging my way around the base of Arthur’s Seat, with my headphones playing the MP3 version of the aforementioned Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England when I realised what I wasn’t enjoying about Magnusson’s book.  In the introduction to the Time Traveller’s Guide, Ian Mortimer explains why he’s decided to write about history by taking you on a journey through time.   He points out that “understanding the past is a matter of experience as well as knowledge”.  Further that “seeing events as happening is crucial to a proper understanding of the past”.  And I was stopped in my tracks by his point that: “Most of all it needs to be said that the very best evidence for what it was like to be alive in the 14th century is an awareness of what it is like to be alive in any age, and that includes today. Our sole context for understanding all the historical data we might ever gather is our own life experience.”

The culmination of his introduction to the Time Traveller’s Guide is that “the key to learning something about the past might be a ruin or an archive, but the means by whereby we may understand it is and always will be, ourselves.”  Thank you so much, Mr Mortimer, for providing me with that flash of insight.

Mortimer says: “As soon as you start to think of the past happening as opposed to ‘it having happened’, a new way of conceiving history becomes possible.”  He talks of an investigation into the sensations of being alive in a different time.  And while Magnusson’s book has conveyed to me a great sense of place with references to places in Scotland which you can visit today and what they’re like now, I’m struggling with how it feels to have lived in any of these past times.  And that’s what any recounting of a historical nature must have for me, a sense of what it was like to actually have lived in those times.

So, the reading of “Scotland The Story of a Nation” will be more of a journey than I thought, and take me in different directions and to different places.  All of which is a good thing, but won’t make for a speedy finish.