Interview with Alan McCombes, co-author Restless Land
Alan, tell us what Restless Land is about…
In essence, it is an epic story spanning a millenium and a half of drama, conflict, tragedy and heroism, written from a radical perspective. We begin roughly around 500AD, when the land now called Scotland was inhabited by a loose confederation of tribes which the Romans later called the Pictii, or ‘Painted People’. We then meander through the centuries, describing all the main historical milestones, right up until 1914.
It is colourful and gripping story and we have tried to bring it to life through the personalities, the dramas, the sensational twists and turns of what is a truly epic saga. We’ve also tried to delve more deeply into the story by telling the stories of those at foothills of society, from the clansmen and women of the Highlands to the mill workers and colliers of the Lowlands.
But history is more than just narrative. It is about interpreting events, criticising decisions, engaging in a debate over the past. As the book’s subtitle states, our standpoint is radical, which means that our sympathies are with the underdog, the victims and those resisting oppression.
Why did you choose to write it now?
We’re living right now in the midst of one of the most momentous periods in Scotland’s history, a potential turning point as dramatic as 1314 or 1707, yet there has been a strange dearth of discussion over the past. That is understandable. The Yes side, which we support, rightly wants this debate to focus on the future. No one should base their vote on September on what happened at Bannockburn or Culloden.
Yet history does matter, enormously. All of us, individually, are products of all the accumulated experiences and influences we have been exposed to from the day of our birth onwards. Societies and nations are also shaped by the years, decades and centuries that have come before.
How could anyone make sense of the brutal and tragic conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli state today, without knowing something of the complex history of the people in that region? And if we lazily accept the claim by some politicians and newspapers that the United Kingdom has meant 300 years of shared prosperity and blissful harmony, how can we explain the fact that Scotland may be about to break away now from that relationship?
Although most people now are focused on the referendum and its aftermath, I suspect that whatever the outcome, there will be a resurgence of interest in Scotland’s history over the next few years.
There are a lot of history books about Scotland – what makes this one different?
First, because, without compromising on rigorous research, it’s written in what is generally called a popular style. Both Roz and I are journalists rather than academic researchers, so our main aim was not to bury readers under an avalanche of superfluous and tedious detail, but to write a book that people might actually enjoy reading.
A few years ago, the Richard J Evans, the Professor Regius of Cambridge University said that most history books are hopelessly unreadable because few historians write competently. Whatever other criticism anyone might level at Restless Land, we would like to think that at least it’s well-written. This book is not written to impress academic experts; its aim is to engage people who probably would not normally read a history book. We want to take them with us on that radical journey.
It’s also different because it offers a contrary, alternative interpretation of how Scotland has evolved. We put under the magnifying glass assumptions that are pretty much taken for granted within academia and even within orthodox left wing political circles. Without being cavalier or slipshod, we’ve gone where the history departments fear to tread.
What kind of research did you do?
Notwithstanding some of my misgivings about academic history, this book could have not have been written without the massive volume of research that has been carried out over the generations within universities.
Both Roz and I have to work for a living and we have family commitments, so we don’t have access to the kind of archives or other facilities that are available to professional historians. As a result we relied heavily on secondary sources, particularly when writing the earlier chapters, for which information can be sparse and difficult to locate.
We also have logistical problems – when he first discussed writing this book, both of us lived in Glasgow, but then for work and family reasons, both of us had to move north of the Central Belt.
For later chapters, we did have access to newspaper archives, court transcripts and official documents. There is a growing volume of material that’s accessible through online databases, which does make things easier when you live in rural villages.
How did you find the writing process?
We faced some major practical obstacles to writing a joint work: for example, Roz and I live over 100 miles apart, so we had had very limited face-to-face time to talk things through. Instead we had to communicate mainly by phone and email, with the occasional exchange of audio files.
The actual process of getting words down on paper is always difficult – especially after a long day earning a crust in front of another computer!
Both of us have worked on newspapers, so we’re used to churning out words fast, but with history the process of writing is much more tortuous. Sometimes it can take hours to produce a couple of paragraphs: you read maybe three, four, five, six, accounts of a single incident before you’re absolutely clear of the facts and able to get the sequence of events straight. Then you have to translate that complex tangle of information into clear language that everyone else can understand. I’ve written other books, but this has consumed more of my time than anything else I’ve had published.
What surprises did you find along the way?
As someone who grew up a Celtic-supporting Catholic in a Glasgow housing scheme, I acquired a greater respect than I might have anticipated for some aspects of the Presbyterian tradition. The second wave of Covenanters around the 1680s, despite the tinge of religious fanaticism, was saturted a spirit of egalitarian radicalism that I found fascinating. Nor was I aware of the extent of the strength connections between Scottish Presbyterianism and the Irish Rebellion of 1798. At least 19 Protestant ministers arrested for their part in the rebellion had actually studied divinity at Glasgow University.
I was also intrigued by the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Like many people of a left wing persuasion, I used to see only the reactionary side of the movement: Bonnie Prince Charlie, divine right of kings, feudalism. The reality was much more complex. This was a resistance movement, not just of Highland clansmen, but of workers from the north-east Lowlands: labourers, weavers, ferrymen, stonemasons, fishermen, carpenters, bricklayers, who were fighting for Scottish independence, religious freedom and economic reforms. An entire Jacobite regiment was raised from the slums of Edinburgh. And a significant number of women were involved in the movement – much more than there were on the other side.
Some might also be surprised, given the position of Scottish Labour today, to discover just how vigorously the early labour movement fought for national autonomy. Not just devolution either, but an advanced form of federalism, far beyond any further powers the Labour Party is prepared to contemplate today And they were denounced ferociously by the Tories in much the same way that the Daily Mail today attacks the Yes campaign. Randolph Churchill, for example, the father of Winston, said that Home Rule for Scotland “in its magnitude would amount to a revolution”, and that those advocating it were “wantonly reckless and utterly irresponsible.” That language has a familiar ring right now.
What do you hope people will think when they read the book?
I’ve been encouraged by people who’ve said to us that this book has, for the first time, helped them to make some sense of parts of Scotland’s history that they’ve never before really understood. We want people to feel that history belongs as much to people who work in shops, or call centres or building sites as it does to lecturers and professors.
My own family were coal and ironstone miners on my mother’s side, and labourers and iron-moulders on my father’s side. And we’d like people who’ve come from the lower classes to be proud of that fact, because it was the working classes and the peasantry who fought longest and strongest and hardest over the centuries for democratic rights and social reform.
As we say in the book, these were not handed out like birthday presents by the British ruling elite. They were conceded, morsel by grudging morsel, because there were enough people from the depths of society prepared to face jail, transportation, and hanging from the gallows, in order to push society forward towards democracy and social justice.
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