Almost as weighty as the Stone of Destiny, this vast, superb history relates Scotland's past over a dozen millennia.
Devotees of BBC America and the History Channel may know Magnusson, familiar on UK airwaves as a historian of the British Isles. The Icelandic transplant, an archaeologist and prolific author (The Vikings, 2001, etc.) and translator (The Fish Can Sing, 2001, etc.), has a greater sense of Scottish history than do most natives. He is thus admirably suited to the difficult task of condensing Scotland's history—made dauntingly complicated by family rivalries, contending clans, and ceaseless tensions with sometime-conqueror, England—into a coherent narrative. Magnusson begins by promising to undo a few “cherished conceptions” about Scottish history, while advancing a few of his own. Along the way he considers such oddities as whether the tartan is a comparatively modern invention and whether Macbeth and Thorfinn the Mighty, the Norse earl of Orkney, might not have been one and the same. More seriously, he closely examines the effects of the 18th-century union with England and the cost and benefits to both countries, and the apparent inability of Scots throughout history to unite without betraying one another. Magnusson takes care to set events on the ground, giving driving directions to the remotest places, so that readers can see battlegrounds and ruins for themselves, and he lingers over curious artifacts (for instance, a box made of the wood from a great tree called Wallace's Oak and given to George Washington, “the Wallace of America”). His narrative ends in 1999, when a Scottish parliament convened for the first time in almost 300 years, and the legend-shrouded Stone of Destiny was returned to Edinburgh from Westminster Abbey—whereupon, Magnusson wryly remarks, this talisman of Scottish nationhood “lost all its potency as a symbol and became just another ordinary and undistinguished chunk of rock.”
Lively, opinionated, and dense with detail, Magnusson's tome belongs on the shelves of anyone interested in matters Scottish.