One thing which I love to do on holiday is to read literature about where we are visiting. Not guidebooks, but fictional literature set in a particular city or county. Think EM Forster’s “Room with a View” when visiting Florence, or Patrick Gale’s “Notes from an Exhibition” when in Cornwall, and you’ll understand what I mean. Read more
I am a keen reader. Have been since I learned to read. In recent years, I’ve been a member of two book groups as well, so not only do I read, I also meet with others to chat about what we’ve read together.
Increasingly I find myself drawn to read blogs and on-line content too, and have connected with a couple in particular over the past year or so. Scotland for the Senses is one of them. A place where you can read about a personal journey experiencing all manner of things Scottish. Back in April 2010, there was a competition on this blog to win a copy of Magnus Magnusson’s ‘Scotland, The Story of a Nation’. The trap was, you had to read it along with the giver to encourage her to keep going, and email back and forth to share comments on what was being read.
To win, you had to submit details of your favourite Scottish character, as well as agreeing to the conditions. ‘Ha, I never win anything’ I thought to myself, but I know who my favourite Scottish character has been for a while. At least, she’s the Scottish character I’d like to understand more about. This is where it gets personal.
For the Scottish character I speak of is my great-grandmother, one Roseann/Roseanna/Annie McGowan, born in around 1870 and mother of 12 children. At one time in her life she lived very close to Craigwell Cottage, in a tenement flat at South Back of Canongate, Edinburgh. A road which is now Holyrood Road, and a place where the Scottish Parliament now stands.
Before the birth of my first child, I devoted a couple of weeks to researching my family history in the Scottish Records Office at New Register House, and the one person I kept coming back to and wanting to know more about was my great-grandmother Annie. I shall write more of her in future posts, but it was finding out more about her life that sparked that fire within me to start reading more about the past rather than the diet of novels upon which I’d mainly existed until now. And somewhere in my personal journey there’s a connection to place which made the ownership of Craigwell Cottage more than a simple business decision.
So, tempted by the prospect of adding to my scant knowledge of Scottish History, I posted a quick comment and moved on, only to find out just a few days later that I’d won! So now, not only was I struggling to finish books for my two ‘real’ book groups, but there I was committed to contributing in a public place too. A scary prospect indeed.
When the brown paper parcel arrived I noticed from the sender’s address that she lived very close to me in Edinburgh, so it seemed sensible to invite her to meet up and discuss the practical arrangements. A bit of baking and I was ready for the meet, thinking that if nothing came of it at least we’d both have had cake!
A lovely meeting and the outline of a plan resulted in the decision to post comments on Scotland for the Senses’ Facebook Discussion Board. In the few short weeks since then, I’ve come to realise that this will be no easy task. For we agreed to a target of around 60 – 70 pages a week, which by my reckoning means that we should be about half way through by now and I’m only on page 123. This is truly becoming a struggle.
But like any activity on which you embark, there is learning to be had from it, but maybe not what I expected. The next steps on the journey are the subject of the post The First 100 Pages.
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.