Book Review: And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson

Since moving to Scotland I haven’t done quite as much reading (we’ve had a busy first ten months here).  However, I was recommended “And the Land Lay Still” by James Robertson, a Scottish author, in order to better understand Scottish culture, the Scottish psyche, and the context surrounding Scotland’s current drive for independance in 2014.

For the Americans (non-UKers) reading this, Scotland is currently debating seccession from the United Kingdom.  It’s a complicated issue spurred along by the Scottish National Party (SNP), a once-fringe political party that started in the thirties.   Having succeeded in winning control of Scottish paliament, their attention has now turned to scheduling a referendum in 2014.  This will be the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, one of the greatest victories in the First War of Scottish Independence.  You’ll remember this battle as the last scene in Braveheart where Robert the Bruce rallies the troops in William Wallace’s memory and charges down the hill.

Braveheart has been labeled one of the most innacurate movies of all time, but this battle was truly epic.  The English had assembled a “grand feudal army, one of the last of its kind of leave England in the Middle Ages,” which consisted of 2-3,000 horse, and 16,000 foot soldiers.  The Scots had two to three times fewer men.  During the battle, “one of the most memorable episodes in Scottish history” occured when a fully armored English knight astride a great war horse saw Robert the Bruce in the field and charged him.  The Scottish king was on a small palfrey, unarmored, and had only a battle axe, but he stood his ground against the charge, and hit the knight so hard with his battle axe that he “split his helmet and head in two”.  This battlefield event ignited the watching Scot army and spurred them to victory.  While the King was rebuked by his commanders for riding out in the thick of battle in such a dangerous fashion, he claimed that his only regret was that he had broken his axe due to the force of the blow.  Today the Scottish national anthem “Flower of Scotland” refers to this victory.

Even against this incredible backdrop, and despite current prevailing Scottish attitudes towards the English, were the vote to be held today, a majority would vote for remaining within the United Kingdom.  The almost continuous history of conflict between the two nations notwithstanding, there is a deep aversion to independance that prevails, and the SNP now finds itself as the majority party trying to navigate between its demands for a referendum and the realities of current polling data.

Back to the book.

This is a beautifully written book, and it’s no surprise given the author’s background as a poet who studied the literature of Sir Walter Scot at the University of Edinburgh.  He paints a surreal cast of characters that are situated against a tapestry of modern Scottish history spanning from the nineteen fifties to present day.  His descriptions and prose are well suited to the heavyweight themes that he deals with, and I found myself intrigued that an author of this quality could be a virtual unknown in the States.

This is a difficult book to read, with many difficult characters, plot points, and no real resolution.  You’re taken on a trip of exploration through the psyche of a nation that’s been torn by war for thousands of years, (not fully) reconciled for hundreds, and now finds that reconciliation starting to fray around the edges.  And yet, if you were to pick this book up with the expectation of it taking you step by step through the arguments, and the background, and the history, you’d be misled – this book is about Scotland and its independence but you have to look through the lens of the characters and the last fifty years, and many questions are left unanswered.

The book takes you from character to character along the last sixty years of Scotland’s history, touching on many different political events and trends that were foreign to me, and I found myself quite often researching the instances.  The coal miner’s strike.  Closing of the shipyards in Glasgow.  The poll tax.  The questionable death of an SNP party member.  The theft of the Stone of Destiny (Stone of Scone).  Council houses.  The problem of drugs.  Immigration of foreigners. Scottish attitudes towards homsexuality.

This was an extremely moving book for someone with (however remote) Scottish heritage.  There was something about the underlying sorrow that runs through the stories, history, and characters that tugged at me while reading, and I finished the book in roughly a week, despite its length.

This is not a book I’d recommend unless you’re ready for a tough time, introspection, uncomfortable topics, dark characters, and a less than clear conclusion.

Ultimately, I feel like this is an important book for those wanting to learn more about what makes up this ancient country and what still influences it today.  It hints at what conspires within its people to produce so many great things yet be so self critical and pessimistic.  Don’t expect an easy ride – but it will be beautiful, sorrowful, touching, and memorable, if not a little wistful.

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