The Scottish Review of Books Review: Impaled Upon a Thistle
Presentism is in all things and in every way a curse on the historian of contemporary Scotland. The headlines of what is left of our national press; the policy priorities of our governments; the stylistic motifs of our literary makars and the fashions of our current celebrities all appear to dictate which themes from the past win the contest of longevity. It is tempting to think we know how the story ends, how it resolves itself in ‘now’. A simple approach would be to let these current obsessions establish our historical priorities, hallmark what is relevant, and offer us obvious endings. But it’s a trap, and one that this history successfully avoids … just.
With memory as our guide in life, it’s all too easy to rely upon it when it comes to history, and to read the story of the twentieth century backwards. Unlike historians of other periods of our nation’s past, it is a challenge for the contemporary historian to be open to multiple endings, to claim the wonder of what comes next. In a media blighted age, we are apt to think that we know it all.
To achieve distance and detachment, a number of approaches can be adopted, although none are fool-proof. Yet the choices a contemporary historian makes in seeking to historicise a timeperiod claimed by memory as much as chronicle, are telling.
Dr Ewen Cameron has adopted a chronological approach to these temporal dilemmas in his book, Impaled Upon A Thistle – Scotland Since 1880. Having divided the period into two parts lying either side of 1945, individual chapters address shorter time-periods, making periodisation more manageable. In doing so he sketches in exacting detail an unfolding story of national development, and leads us through watersheds, continuities and turning points. He is a marvellous and masterly guide. This book is one of the most factually rich accounts of Scotland’s most recent history one could hope for, and is a valuable addition to existing work in this area.
Impaled Upon A Thistle is the final volume in the New Edinburgh History of Scotland series, the explicit purpose of which can be gleaned in the General Editor’s Preface: “Chronology is fundamental to understanding change over time and Scotland’s political development will provide the backbone of the narrative and the focus on analysis and explanation”. Cameron’s work is very much in keeping with the sense and spirit of the series. Therein lies its strength and also my slight reservations.
Politics take up roughly two hundred pages out of 372, and within the political chapters (encompassing seven out of fourteen) other themes – religion, health-care, and housing, for example – are at times addressed only insofar as they relate to the political priorities of particular periods rather than as themes of import in their own right. This priority given to political machinations in a nation which until recently did not boast a legislature is frustrating, particularly since some of the most compelling historical accounts of twentieth-century Scotland have eschewed elite narratives and traditional approaches. Over the years poor turn-outs at elections, and low political party memberships have also conspired to offer scant reassurance that politics – even in its widest sense – necessarily mirrors the will of the nation, or at least the bulk of its citizens.
Particularly in the twentieth century Scotland was an entity contested, imagined and real; its people singularly and collectively sang in various accents and were seldom in tune, and the land itself changed over time, and was understood in so many different ways that to privilege one voice in the search of a storyline risks being the chronicler’s accessory, conspiring in the myth that all that was known can be narrativised in the very singular expressions of a political elite or in the heightened moments of electoral battles.
Yet, we must accept that Dr Cameron was working within the confines of an editorial ‘brief’ that was perhaps more in keeping with the evidential base and approaches of earlier historical periods and address the book on these terms. When we do, it is clear that this book effectively distils the insights of generations of scholars from a vast range of disciplines, and integrates them sensitively with gleanings from an impressive array of archival collections. Dr Cameron’s mastery of the literature is impressive and the book’s bibliography is itself a most useful source for scholars of this period.
Dr Cameron appears most comfortable in the first half of the century, in particular the inter-war years. In these early chapters the pace of the book is engaging, the range of archival references most enlightening, and the blending of sources is at its most accomplished. This being the case, it is disappointing that so much space is devoted to the politics of the last forty years (three chapters), where the merits of this historical treatment – as opposed to a political science critique – are less convincing. One especially fears that the use of the present tense in the last chapter may make aspects of this work a hostage to the fortunes of the future. Having carefully sidestepped the deepest pit-falls of presentism to this point, it is here that Impaled Upon A Thistle comes dangerously close to foreclosing on the multiple outcomes of the past.
The rich factual content of this work will, however, ensure its longevity on our bookshelves. Good scholarship never goes out of fashion. Should Dr Cameron be given an opportunity to revise this text for a future edition, however, I would encourage him to allow his prose more space to breathe, to write a final concluding chapter reflecting on the big questions that shaped what is a lengthy time period, and to foreground his analysis of key themes. (At present, analysis is at times somewhat overwhelmed by the strong evidence base.) By then, perhaps, the ending might also look a bit different.
- Add to BasketImpaled Upon A Thistle: Scotland Since 1880
- Paperback - Edinburgh University Press
Underlying the history, and sometimes impelling its ambitions, are the evolution and growth of national self-confidence and identity which fundamentally affected Scotland's destiny in the last century. Dr Cameron ends by considering how such forces may transform it in this one.