Gordon Menzies, ed., In Search of Scotland (Roberts Rinehart, 2001)
I have had occasion recently to confront the phenomenon of "translations" between different media and to find new aspects of the inherent difficulties in such while reading In Search of Scotland, the print version of a television documentary aired originally in Britain.
The book covers the prehistory and history of the lands we now know as Scotland in a series of essays by several specialist authors. Ian Armit, in "Mysterious ancestors," the initial entry, goes a long way toward demystifying the early stages of human activity north of the Humber in the later Stone Age and the Bronze Age. Alex Woolf offers a lucid if summary account of the early kingdoms of the region, which included not only those of the native Picts but also the invading Gaels of Dal Riada, a kingdom that incorporated coastal regions of both Britain and Ireland, and the Angles of Bernicia, which straddled the modern border to the southeast.
It was with Woolf's essay that I began to encounter difficulties. The entries in a book of this sort are necessarily limited in scope and depth: any one of the chapters could have provided the basis for a book, and, indeed, often have. In this particular collection, as an American reader with some (although by no means profound) knowledge of the history of the region encountering a publication based on a program meant for a "local" audience, I often found myself groping for context, particularly in the earlier chapters where my past readings have often been superseded by more recent scholarship. (Sorry, but one man simply cannot keep up to date with everything that's interesting.) This was particularly frustrating in Fiona Watson's "The wars of independence" and Edward J. Cowan's "The making of union." There is a tendency to drop names of players and, if I may say so, playing fields, with machine-gun rapidity, but unless one already has a firm grasp of the period (in which case, why bother with another general survey?), one can easily become lost.
Geography is another point of frustration. It's all very well to know that the early development of Scotland was centered in the spheres of influence bounded by the Humber and the Forth, but if one doesn't recall exactly which of those (unlabeled) serpentine meanders on the map was which river, history might as well be fantasy (and, in fact, maps in fantasy novels are generally much more informative). There are several detail maps included, which could have been immensely illuminating, save that there is nothing that gives a simple overall view of the physical and political environment (with, for example, such things as the names of rivers or of various counties) to provide a solid context for the detail maps.
Once past the middle section, which treats the impact of the Church as a civilizing influence, the wars of independence against England, and the rise of the Stewarts (which Americans, at least, generally encounter as "Stuart"), the later essays on 19th century industrialization and the political and social movements of the 20th century are not so dependent on the specifics of geography and personality for understanding.
I can't fault the authors in this: they have all made commendable contributions to this volume, and indeed, such chapters as Watson's, which does an admirable job of clarifying readers' understanding of kingship and statehood in early medieval Scotland, often provide new insights. Rather, I think that the difficulties lie in the translation from television, a visual, "real time" format, into text. In any production for a visual medium, there will be a wealth of information that cannot be included in a book with any degree of coherency -- one picture can take many more than a thousand words to describe -- and so one must be very careful to include the right information when making the transition. (And please note that most of the illustrations included are superb, although lacking detail in the captions -- I was really waiting for the voice-over to give more information.) Failing that, one must build context by other means, particularly when a TV documentary, for example, may have been planned for a particular and perhaps limited audience and the corresponding book will be international in distribution. We are not yet a true global village.
On the whole, In Search of Scotland is best characterized by the phrase "tantalizing glimpses." It is necessarily broad, and the authors have done an admirable job of piquing interest, to the extent that the book might serve as a good introduction for further study. Each chapter does include a list of further readings, which the reader is well advised to pursue.
[Robert M. Tilendis]