The New Penguin History of Scotland:
From the Earliest Times to the Present Day

R.A. Houston + W.W.J. Knox (editors)

Penguin 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
The editors' introduction to The New Penguin History looks at themes that run through Scotland's history — identities, religion, education, political participation, the state — and at the sources available and the traditions of Scottish history writing. The eight chapters are chronologically ordered, covering prehistory, the formation of the Scottish kingdom, and periods divided by 1100, the Reformation, the 1707 Union, the 1832 Franchise Reform, the outbreak of the First World War, and 1979.

The chapters are structured more thematically than narratively. There's solid coverage of political events, but these share centre stage with social and economic history — the twenty four pages of colour photographs, for example, focus on artifacts from everyday life. There are no diagrams, graphs, maps, or tables to break up the text, but division of chapters into sections and subsections prevents monotony.

The chapter divisions sometimes break logical connections — the discussion of religion in the 1707 to 1832 chapter is awkwardly separated from the account of the 1843 Disruption of the church, for example, and the discussion of the 1707 Union is split between two chapters. The long chapters have their advantages, however, allowing the authors to articulate sustained arguments and to interpret and not just describe events.

The introduction lapses a few times into talking about "us" and in places the New Penguin History seems to be aimed at Scots, or at least Britons, rather than outsiders. There's not a single map, for example, and familiarity is assumed both with modern Scottish/British culture and recent political events such as Devolution. The volume is most definitely serious history, however, not a populist or nationalist celebration of national myths.

I read it as preparation for a visit to Scotland, but the New Penguin History offers far more than background for appreciating standing circles, castles, clans, and cathedrals. It offers a synthetic understanding of Scottish history and identity, in their broader contexts. It's also a great resource for those who want to learn more, with a substantial bibliographical essay at the end of each chapter.

August 2004

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%T The New Penguin History of Scotland
%S From the Earliest Times to the Present Day
%E Houston, R.A.
%E Knox, W.W.J.
%I Penguin
%D 2001
%O paperback, bibliographies, index
%G ISBN 0140263675
%P lviii,573pp