Monday, November 30, 2015

A review of Neil Oliver's “A History of Scotland”




For my overseas readers, I should preface this review by saying that I am an American, but one who has ancestors in both Scotland and England - meaning that in the many conflicts between Scotland and England, I have ancestors from both sides of these conflicts; which is actually not uncommon in America. My mother's maiden name is McGregor (a clearly Scottish name), and my father's last name is Sparks (a more English name). Thus, I might have a kind of objectivity about the struggles covered in this series - an objectivity which, perhaps, might possibly be somewhat harder for those whose ancestors are all on one side, or all on the other. I have great pride in both of these cultures, I should add - and in the significant portion of my ancestors who came to America from the various parts of the British Isles. Thus, I had reason to be interested in this series.




I first stumbled across it, in fact, after having watched Simon Schama's "A History of Britain," which is a similar series about the British Isles as a whole - England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland; to name some of the most prominent portions. It was a fine series, and I describe it in some detail in one of my other posts; so suffice it to say here that it ignited my interest in the mother countries of my family - or at least, in those of my mother countries whose histories have been dramatized for television. It made me think that this might be useful for researching my family history, which is actually quite important in the culture of my church. I happened to be reading reviews of the History of Britain series on Amazon.com, and took a look at its section called "If you liked this, you might also like ... " (or "Customers who bought this also bought ..." - I can't remember which) - and noticed that there was a series about the history of Scotland as well. I opened the link to find out more about it; and discovered from the reviews - and the 10-hour length - that it was definitely something that interested me. ("The rest is history," as they say - pun unintended.)


"A History of Scotland' is not as long as "A History of Britain" - the television history of Britain is 15 hours long, whereas the specific history of Scotland is only 10 hours long - but the Scotland series is more focused than the Britain series: The Britain series has to cover the entire British Isles in its 15 hours, whereas the Scotland series can focus its 10 hours on just one portion of it. (It's quite a portion, I must admit; but it's spared from having to talk about other portions as well; giving it a focus not seen in the Simon Schama series.) Neil Oliver is also a considerable presenter, and his enthusiasm for the topic is contagious; as he tells the stories with a dramatic flair, and brings them to life with his descriptions. His re-enactments are somewhat sparser, though, than those of Simon Schama; and don't quite match them in their quality; although I imagine that's probably a consequence of the low budget that Mr. Oliver had to work with - Simon Schama had access to some American money from the History Channel, which gave him a larger budget to work with than that probably available to Neil Oliver; so I'll cut Mr. Oliver some slack in this regard. ("A History of Scotland" also may not be quite as highbrow as the Simon Schama series, but its storytelling is so good that this isn't much of a problem; and my complaints in this regard are fairly minor ones.)


William Wallace, who was portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie "Braveheart"

One thing these two miniseries share is their extensive focus on kings and battles - the traditional "politics and the military" area of history. Many have pointed out of late that a focus on "politics and the military" leaves out many things of equal importance, and there is truth in these claims. Nonetheless, I have a great appreciation for the traditional area of "politics and the military," and I don't mind the focus on kings and battles in this series. (But that's a subject for another post.) Among the subjects covered in this way are the dawn of the Scottish kingdom, the saga of William Wallace (who was portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie "Braveheart" - a movie I have not seen), and the equally interesting story of Robert the Bruce, who is a complicated figure in Scottish history. They also cover the origins of the "Highland/Lowland" divide (which played an important role in Scottish history), and the conflicts in the British Isles (and elsewhere) over religion - with the eventual formation of two great Protestant religions in Britain; which are the Anglican Church of England, and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland - an outgrowth of the Calvinism that began in France. These two great religions mistrusted each other almost as much as they mistrusted Catholics; and more than one conflict was fought over religion - and specifically, over which one would have control of the royal throne. (Not a small thing in the days before separation of church and state, when the king's religion could - and did - have important political consequences.)


Neil Oliver, the presenter of this series

And the biggest theme running through the history of Scotland - and more specifically, through Neil Oliver's depiction of it here - is the complicated relationship between Scotland and England; which would have tremendous importance for the British Isles - and by extension, its overseas colonies - for years to come. It ran through the conflicts over religion (in which the Scots allied themselves with France more than once), it ran through the disputes between the respective royal families (which are not small things for "regular people"), and it ran through conflicts like the English Civil War (which involved the Scottish people more than many Americans know). Eventually, of course, it ran through the union between them in 1707, where England and Scotland formed the Kingdom of "Great Britain"; which is a broader term whose precise meaning escapes many fellow Americans. Many of them use it almost interchangeably with the names of its component parts (like England and Scotland) - a geographical error that would annoy many a Brit, who would be very familiar with the distinctions between these terms; and would roll their eyes at hearing them conflated by the "unsophisticated colonials" (or whatever playfully derisive term they use for Americans these days - perhaps I should just stick with "Yanks" instead).


The "Union Jack" flag, the potent symbol of the union between Scotland and England (hence the name)

The history of the union between the two is a complicated one, and the Scottish have long been divided over whether it was beneficial to them. In previous centuries, they had reason to hate it - something Neil Oliver covers in some depth when talking about these times - but in later centuries, the free trade it involved became much more beneficial to Scotland, and it began to enjoy great advantages from its union with England. This is a statement that would affront a few Scots today, who recently had a vote about whether or not to become independent from Great Britain. Nonetheless, it is true; and a majority of Scots showed they agreed, when they voted in 2014 to stay part of Great Britain. (Not by a huge margin, it must be noted; but 55% to 44% is still significant; suggesting that Scottish aversion to the Union today may be somewhat overplayed, and there are more Scots who like the Union than some news coverage today would indicate.) Among those Scots favoring the Union is Neil Oliver himself, who was criticized by some Scottish nationalists for speaking out in favor of it; but whose views are more in agreement with the ordinary Scotsmen than the visceral reaction some of them had to his comments would indicate. He believes it was harmful to Scotland in centuries past (which is clear in his series' coverage of those times), but it is an unqualified blessing today - which is something he hints at, in the closing to this series.


Adam Smith

The biggest weakness of the series has nothing to do with the Union or Scottish nationalism (as its coverage of these is actually quite good), but its coverage of Scotland's greatest philosopher - namely, the eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith. As is common among liberals today, Mr. Oliver is unsympathetic with the free-market views of Adam Smith; and his aversion to these views - and the capitalist system they helped create - is revealed in the flagrant bias with which he covers Adam Smith. In fairness, his bias isn't that much worse than that of Simon Schama (the creator of the History of Britain series); but the enormous depth in which he is forced to cover the contributions of Adam Smith - which just can't be omitted in a series about the history of Scotland - brings out these opinions and makes them more prominent; making these problems more glaring in Neil Oliver's coverage, than in the comparatively short coverage of Simon Schama (which isn't all that great itself). This mars the later episodes, and makes them inferior to the earlier ones - though in fairness to Neil Oliver, this is actually a common problem in epic histories; which often see their quality drop as they cover modern issues, which are always somewhat harder to remain objective about than the distant past. Thus, Neil Oliver isn't doing anything worse than what some others have done; and his series is not the only one to start with a bang, and end with a whimper. Nonetheless, the closing episodes are pretty bad; and I'm not going to give Neil Oliver a pass on them. (I'm not necessarily recommending you don't watch these later episodes - they're always valuable for opposition study, if for nothing else - but don't go into them with very high expectations. The earlier episodes are simply wonderful, and give a lot of insight into Scottish history; but the later episodes - specifically, the last three - are distinctively bad; and I'm not going to mince words about them.)


Adam Smith

Nonetheless, the first seven episodes are a real tour de force, and I cannot say enough good about them. They may not be as good as Simon Schama, but they're awfully close; and the series is worth watching just for these seven episodes.

DVD on Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Why Adam Smith is still relevant today (my defense of him)

Simon Schama's "A History of Britain" (BBC miniseries)

Andrew Marr's "Modern Britain" (BBC miniseries)

Michael Wood's "The Story of England" (BBC miniseries)

Fergal Keane's "The Story of Ireland" (BBC Northern Ireland)

History of the English language (British miniseries)


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