At the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, Dr David Starkey, the television historian and iconoclast, pronounced that history was elitist – it was about kings and queens and power-brokers rather than the marginal or the dispossessed. He liked big and important subjects. He was uninterested in peasants. Neal Ascherson, by contrast, is deeply interested in peasants. Indeed, he believes that it is only by studying the character of the peasant class, those who are conditioned by the land on which they live and work, that we can reach an understanding of the character of a nation – in this case, Scotland.
And so he begins what he calls his biography of Scotland, which turns out, in fact, to be more of a personal odyssey, with the ancient stones of his native Argyllshire and the stories they reveal about the past. He stands on the Hill of Dunadd, where the kingdom of Scotland began, and debates the origins of the Scottish people; he listens to archaeologists discussing the case for and against the Irish colonisation of south-west Scotland; he celebrates what he calls the greatest newspaper scoop of the 19th century when the editor of the Scotsman, Charles Maclaren, revealed the existence of the Ice Age and rewrote geological history 19 years before The Origin of Species; he follows the Stone of Destiny on its journey from Westminster to a somewhat bemused Scotland in 1996.
Weaving effortlessly from the sixth century to the 21st and back again, he reads the runes – sometimes literally in the case of Viking settlements – in the contours of the land. ‘This has been a hard country to live in, as in many ways it still is,’ he writes at one point. ‘Scottish earth is in most places … a skin over bone, and like any taut face it never loses a line once acquired.’