Jock's Jocks: Voices of Scottish Soldiers from the First World War' by Jock Duncan (2019)
I have been engrossed in this book for some weeks, finding it fascinating from a historical perspective as well as profoundly moving. Jock Duncan, now in his 90s, is a traditional singer originally from Aberdeenshire who has lived for many years in Pitlochry. Over half a century Jock interviewed and recorded 59 men who had fought, in different Scottish regiments, during the first world war in various places, including the Western Front, Gallipoli, Italy and Mesopotamia. Those men are long dead, but thanks to Jock's life's work transcribing their words on an old typewriter over 2,000 Sunday mornings, their memories are preserved forever. Even better, their testimonies are given in the rich, articulate Scots most of them spoke, whether they were from Buchan, the Mearns, Angus, Perthshire or Fife. The effect is to hear these men's voices lifted off the page and speaking to us, across 100 years, from one of the most appalling events in modern history.
Eventually Jock Duncan handed over his archive to Gary West, professor of Scottish ethnology at Edinburgh University, who has edited it for publication. The chapters cover pre-war life in rural Scotland, military training, first experiences in the line, some of the major battles and campaigns, and various other matters including 'horses and mules', 'vermin', 'wounded and sick', 'entertainment', 'officers', 'prisoners' and 'laughs'. There are more of the latter than you might expect: humans have an astonishing capacity to use humour to get themselves through hard times, and in the hardest of times that is exactly what 'Jock's Jocks' did.
Because of what it records and how it represents it, I believe this book is of national importance.
'Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan' by Ursula Buchan (2019)
Despite popular misconceptions, John Buchan was none of the following: a snob and chaser after titles, an imperialist, anti-Semitic, or a closet gay. In fact, he preferred the company of 'ordinary' Scots people, supported Scottish devolution, was generous with his own time and resources, and was honoured as a friend of Israel. His history of the first world war was critically balanced and he was an enthusiastic supporter of women's suffrage. His marriage to Susan Grosvenor was supremely happy and he never benefitted financially from the connection.
All this was revealed in the biography by Janet Adam Smith, which has previously been the gold standard for Buchan fans. Now his granddaughter, Ursula, has written a new biography. I didn't think anyone could surpass Adam Smith's sensitive insights, and was concerned that the new offering might be negatively critical or hagiographic. In fact, although she never met her grandfather, Ursula Buchan has rich family evidence of what the man was like.
In her descriptions, we meet a man who was not only supremely talented, as writer, lawyer and politician, but human too – he liked jokes, he was pretty hopeless with money, and like many 'sons of the manse' was uncertain of where he fitted on the social scale, allowing himself to be patronised by his Oxford contemporaries. Ursula did know her grandmother, and Susan Buchan emerges as a fascinating character in her own right, who fought frequent periods of depression to support her husband throughout his career.
Despite its ponderous title – the allusion to Buchan's novel is hardly necessary – this is a book to be enjoyed not only by Buchan fans but those who think they know the man and don't.
'The Restless Wave' by Helen Bellany (2018)
The best book I have read in the past year or two is 'The Restless Wave' by Helen Bellany, recalling her life with the artist, John Bellany, to whom she was twice married. I have to declare a bias as I have known Helen and her family from a very early age and met John on some of his visits to the Highlands. In the book Helen describes with great clarity the highs and lows of her life with one of Scotland's most popular and successful artists.
'Daughters of the Winter Queen' by Nancy Goldstone (2018)
Mary Queen of Scots had a hard life: caught in Scottish power struggles and eventually executed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. But history takes strange turns, and it was Mary's descendants who would rule both countries. It was first her son, James VI and I; after him came civil war and revolution, and eventually succession through his daughter Elizabeth. She herself knew conflict, when her German husband unwisely accepted the crown of Bohemia, in revolt against Austrian imperial rule. Their short reign led to the sobriquet: 'Winter King and Queen'.
One son was the dashing Prince Rupert, first a cavalry officer, fighting to save his uncle, King Charles I, from parliamentarian forces; later the Hudson's Bay Company's first governor. And Elizabeth's four daughters have that same fire about them, so much so that Nancy Goldstone's 'Daughters of the Winter Queen' could be the script for a wonderful film.
You can read of the beautiful, laughing Louise Hollandine, waiting for the Marquis of Montrose to return from a tragic Scottish campaign, then taking her vows as a nun; but through it all continuing to paint. Her sister Henrietta Maria married a prince of Transylvania and, far from her family, died within months; followed by her husband, with a broken heart. The oldest daughter Elizabeth spent much time with the French philosopher Descartes; only she, he said, could really understand his work, spanning mathematics and philosophy. He died in a bitterly cold Swedish winter, commissioned to teach philosophy to Queen Christina; Princess Elizabeth ended her days in a German abbey.
And the youngest daughter, Sophia, married the ruler of Hanover where her secretary was the great German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz; she encouraged his work, he tutored her daughter. Her sparkling humour made her a survivor; she almost outlasted the much younger Queen Anne. Her son George went to London, heir to a daughter of the 'Winter Queen'.
'Wrath of God' by Edward Paice (2008)
'The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War' by Ben McIntyre (2018)
My main recommendation for holiday reading, if you are a social media devotee, is to deactivate your Twitter account for four weeks. Twitter is the online reading equivalent of a midge infestation.
My holiday reading is all things Portuguese for research purposes, which will probably not appeal to you. But there is one book I'd recommend: 'Wrath of God' by Edward Paice, about the catastrophic earthquake in Lisbon in November 1755: a historical disaster often called one of the birthdays of the modern age. Its tremors, both physically and intellectually, were felt across Europe. Goethe described its impact on European thought as important to that of the French Revolution. Yet little is known about this massive European disaster, and its occurrence is seldom included in the history of European thought. Paice's book is a detailed history and a riveting, terrifying account of a seismic event which literally shook Europe.
The other book I'd recommend is Ben McIntyre's 'The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War'. This is an astonishing account of the Russian senior KGB man who spied for MI6, who apparently changed the course of the Cold War. It is a fine book, a history lesson, and an un-put-downable story of betrayal, deceit, duplicity, courage and Cold War madness. You won't regret downloading it to your Kindle.
'The Hidden Ways' by Alistair Moffat (2017)
As the blurb says, '... Alistair Moffat traverses the lost paths of Scotland – its Roman Roads tramped by armies, its byways and pilgrim routes, drove roads and railways, turnpikes and sea roads – in a bid to understand how our history has left its mark upon our landscape'.
'The Hidden Ways' is eclectic, invariably interesting, often fascinating, and hugely evocative of time, space and place. A mixture of history, anecdote, folklore and travel, as well as perceptive commentary, it's the kind of book I would try to write myself, except that Alistair Moffat does it brilliantly. It's not the sort of book you can read in one go, each chapter of it needs to be savoured. I dipped in and out of it over several weeks and was richly rewarded for it. From the Great North Road to the beautiful old railbed from Ballachulish to Connel, and from the Herring Road to Edinburgh's High Street, you'll find out things you never knew about places you thought you knew well up and down this magical country. The gift of the book lies in Alistair Moffat's ability to bring the past into the present, in familiar landscapes.
'Thomas Telford: Man of Iron' by Julian Glover (2017)
Thomas Telford left school 250 years ago at the age of 12. He was born at Westerkirk in rural Eskdale in the Scottish Borders, and brought up by his widowed mother from infancy following the early death of his poor shepherd father. When Telford died in 1834, he was given a hero's grave and interred in Westminster Abbey. 'Man of Iron', the recent biography by Julian Glover, maps out Telford's life sensitively and diligently, but doesn't attempt to identify what drove this civil engineering colossus who never ceased to work and travel. He was also a poet and corresponded with his exact contemporary, Robert Burns.
Telford's immense catalogue of public works is spread throughout the UK and Ireland, and he also acted as a consultant for extensive canal works in Sweden, but his greatest impact was on Scotland. Here, he almost singlehandedly planned, then created along with his trusted professional and political associates, our modern roads network, not to mention numerous large bridges, harbours, rural churches and even towns. His crowning glory in Scotland has to be the magnificent Caledonian Canal (he also rebuilt the Crinan Canal). Anyone impressed by that should visit his amazing Menai Bridge over to Anglesey.
How did the only son of a poor single-parent family, with very little formal education, manage to achieve such great prominence in a technically challenging field, with huge resources entrusted to him? In Georgian England, there is only one answer: patronage. His closeness as a lad to the Eskdale gentry, and an extremely fortunate turn of events for one of them, making Sir William Pulteney one of the richest men in England, gave Telford the opportunity to exploit his genius. The government of the new United Kingdom funded massive infrastructure development throughout Scotland and Wales to cement that union, and Telford delivered much of it.
The only other individual who may have had such a wide-scale influence on the Scottish landscape is Alex Salmond, with his determination as first minister to make Scotland a world leader in harvesting renewable energy. Which begs the question, would a visionary like Telford have to be a professional politician in today's Britain to have a similar impact? There is still plenty of patronage to be had in that employment at Westminster, although little apparent capacity for creative thought.
'Knowing the Score: My Family and Our Tennis Story' by Judy Murray (2017)
Throughout my life I have been a voracious reader of biographies and autobiographies, particularly of sporting personalities. Seldom have I been as impressed as I was two years ago when my daughter's initiative presented me with a birthday present par excellence. The inscription on the inside first page said: 'To Craig/ From one former national coach to another/ Judy Murray'. I was then the proud and grateful recipient of Judy's 2017 Sunday Times Best Seller, 'Knowing the Score: My Family and Our Tennis Story', arguably the best book of its kind I've been privileged to read.
Like many of the legendary footballers and coaches with whom I was fortunate to associate, Judy comes across in her book as a most grounded individual in spite of having no fewer than 64 national titles to her name. She recounts the challenges she has faced from financial hardship to entrenched sexism. Poignant reference is given to her visit to a McDonald's drive-thru to satisfy son Andy's hunger on the way to the Guildhall celebration following his second Wimbledon win, and to her unforgettable experience on 'Strictly Come Dancing'.
Irrespective of the fact that she has two world-famous sporting sons, Judy herself has been a revelation and inspiration not only to British tennis but to all parents of youngsters with sporting aspirations. Passion, honesty and modesty pervade the text which I'd strongly recommend as an essential summer read.
for Part 2 of essential reads
for Part 3 of essential reads
for Part 4 of essential reads