Bonny Scotland

I’ve got a very soft spot for Scotland, and it’s not just that I like the people, the whisky and Rebus. It’s also got nothing to do with Maisie’s impeccable highland credentials. She hails from Moray, not far from John O’Groats and believe it or not she is actually descended from Jan de Groot, the Dutch ferry-master (he ferried passengers between mainland Scotland and the Orkney Islands) who daily risked his life traversing the Pentland Firth – one of the roughest stretches of water anywhere in the world. Jan established a hotel (perhaps lodgings would be a better description) for his passengers, and hence the name of the little settlement that grew up around it. Anyhow, an archivist at the nearby Castle of Mey (the late Queen Mother’s private residence) unearthed this fact. When she phoned Maisie with the news, she began the conversation with:

‘And would you care for the good or the bad news first, Mrs. Pryor?’

Impeccably polite the Scots.

‘The bad…’

‘I’m afraid I have to tell you your grand-father was illegitimate.’

Maisie already knew this – and anyhow wasn’t worried.

‘And the good news?’

‘There’s not a drop of Campbell blood in your veins.’

Which meant of course that her ancestors hadn’t taken part in the bloody massacre of Glencoe , when members of the Campbell clan were invited into the Macdonald stronghold and were treated to Highland Hospitality (no guesses as to what that entailed).  The two clans were traditional rivals, but by tradition too, hostilities were always suspended during such gatherings. While the party was in full swing, some Campbell soldiers drew their swords and massacred about 40 of their hosts, driving the rest out onto the freezing hillsides. It was February 7th 1692 and it had to have been pre-meditated. And the perpetrators are still reviled. To this day people called Campbell can sometimes find rural highland hotels inexplicably fully booked up – even in the depths of winter. Old memories die hard.

But there was even better news to follow, because it turns out that one of Maisie’s ancestors was Donald Macdonald who survived the massacre.  So I’m planning yet another trip to the highlands where I don’t expect to pay for anything… And that’s another myth about the Scots, which I detest: in my experience they’re generosity itself. And while I’m having a bit of a rant, why O why do some of my English friends get so upset about Scottish independence? Surely it’s entirely up to the Scots? If they want to break free of the United Kingdom, then that’s their decision. And the best of luck to them. One of my acquaintances even went so far as to suggest that the British taxpayer shouldn’t have bailed out the Royal Bank of Scotland, after (the ex – hooray!!) Sir Fred Goodwin’s excesses. Really? Surely it was the culture of the post ‘Big Bang’, free-for-all City of London, that was the real miscreant here. The culture of greed simply doesn’t accord with Scotland’s traditional Calvinistic principles. And besides, as a nation, they’re too canny for such stupidity, or indeed cupidity.

But, again, I digress: this post was meant to be about the fact that my book The Birth of Modern Britain is being put forward as the Current Archaeology Book of the Year. I was amazed, because for some reason my books never do well in such contests. Maybe it’s because I don’t write for archaeologists, or for students. I aim my books at an interested lay public whose next book is likely to be a thriller, or about gardening, dress-making or cookery. Even this time, all the other books up for the award are far more specialised; I suppose in some people’s eyes specialisation equals erudition, and hence quality. I wish life were that simple. In my experience, it takes three or four times as long to write a popular book as a heavy-duty academic monograph. For a start, if you’re doing something academic or specialized, you can use the jargon; and you never have to think about the general implications of what you’re saying. To give an example, The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape, which English Heritage published in 2001 took me about two years to write and edit, whereas the very much smaller (a mere 250,000 words) The Making of the British Landscape took a generous five years. And I know, too, of which I’m most proud. It’s also interesting that the landscape book had very few reviews in the archaeological press and one or two of them were nasty-verging-on-libellous, written by prehistorians who thought I had deserted The True Faith. In the outside world, however, it was very favourably received, and by people of real stature: the likes of A.N. Wilson, Adam Nicolson, Clive Aslet, Paul Johnson and Margaret Drabble and in journals ranging from The Times and Guardian to the TLS and Country Life. So why is the little world of archaeology so often out-of-step with the outside world?

I wish I knew the answer to that question, but I suspect it’s got something to do with the subject’s appeal to some people, as a flight from reality: a snug, secluded world where the issues that concern its adherents aren’t things like global warming, the Arab Spring or world recession, but controversies over pottery styles, putative Iron Age invasions and the price of eggs in a Jacobean grocery. I think the trick to change all this will somehow inject more relevance into the topic. Although, God knows how it’ll be done: maybe a nuclear-powered enema? But why, despite the petty nonentities that still clutter its literature, does archaeology stubbornly remain relevant? I think it’s because it continues to tell us important things about ourselves and our times. In the words of the slogan at the masthead of the excellent magazine History Today: History Matters. Despite what some erstwhile colleagues might say, I’ll go on writing books that I hope one day might penetrate archaeology’s resilient armour of smugness. So if you believe in what I’m trying to achieve:


Click on the button at the top right hand corner of this blog. And think subversive thoughts, as you press on your mouse. Many thanks. Digression over.

So let’s end with something Scottish. For me Robert Adam’s classical designs have a restrained charm all of their own and one of my favourites is the bridge he designed across the River Tay, at Aberfeldy (Perth and Kinross), in 1733. It’s featured in the Birth of Modern Britain as a colour plate. And I love it. After I’d taken the photo, we sat down on a bench in the park nearby and  Maisie produced a home-made packed lunch and a bottle of Speyside malt whisky. Then she drove us back to our lodgings. Bliss! To be ferried home by a direct descendant of John O’Groats himself…

Wade's Bridge, by Robert Adam, Aberfeldy, Perthshire

General Wade’s bridge at Aberfeldy, Perth and Kinross, built in 1733, as part of his scheme to improve the Highland road network. It was designed by Robert Adam. This is a more distant view than the one in The Birth of Modern Britain and shows the general layout of the bridge better.

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