Scottish history seems to have a preference for episodic accounts over narrative story-telling.
A large part of this is due to Sir Walter Scott, who might well be called the chief architect behind the romanticisation of Scottish history into a series of vignettes. His historical novels, from Waverley to Ivanhoe, guaranteed him a place as the singular giant of Scottish writing, precisely because they appealed to the most romantic aspects of the national character such as the Jacobite uprising of 1745 and the idea of honourable defeats. Even his non-fiction writing, particularly the history book series The Tales of the Grandfather, were written with a penchant for distilling the facts into period episodes.
Murdo Fraser’s new book, The Rivals: Montrose and Argyll and the Struggle for Scotland, is nothing less than an iconoclastic effort to embrace the best of this tradition all while turning publishing and cultural attention to the Scottish Civil War of 1644–45. As Fraser so ably demonstrates, the war was not some blank sheet of facts, but rather a conflict more easily personified as the deeply human, and deeply Scottish, contest between James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose and Archibald Campbell, 8th Marquis of Argyll.
For too long the war has been considered a side note in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (of which the English Civil War is the most remembered). The battle lines were drawn between the Scottish Royalists – supporters of Charles I under Montrose – and the Covenanters, lead by Argyll, who were the de facto rulers of Scotland since 1639 and allied with the English Parliament.
From the outset, Fraser is owed a debt for authoring the only popular account of a long neglected period of Scottish history. His style effectively extends a welcome to any neophytes to the 17th century without ever becoming patronising. He is not an academic historian, but his deft handling of the subject matter take him into the realm of pioneering a resurgence in the study of this period.
Fraser’s examination of these two remarkable men is kindred to The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs Disraeli by Richard Aldous. Fraser, like Aldous, encapsulates the debates and issues of the time as a personified rivalry between two men, but never at the expense of satisfactory detail about the context. As sure as you cannot tell the story of British politics without discussing the enmity between Gladstone and Disraeli, Thatcher and Heath or Brown and Blair, Fraser successfully dispenses anecdotal myth and weaves this rivalry into the narrative history of Scotland.
Like all adversaries, both Montrose and Argyll were strikingly similar. Both came from ancient and powerful Scottish families with only five years age difference between them; had both attended St Andrews University and both thought themselves loyal subjects of Charles I, followed by Charles II, even though they had sided initially with the Covenanters against the former.
Montrose as a distinguished tactician has survived longer as a more recognisable figure in Scottish history. Argyll, by contrast, has suffered from being a weaker historical figure with the less glamorous claim to having effectively governed Scotland during this time.
Where Fraser’s book is at its strongest is where he (consciously or subconsciously) leaves breadcrumbs for the reader to make their own parallels to Scotland today. Recent historical developments can often prejudice a book such as this in favour of a more simple reading of history that indulges the author’s own viewpoint on Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. Fraser, as a Conservative MSP, should be praised for his reluctance to shy away from tackling the myriad of conflicting loyalties and ties across the Scottish-English border. It is to the book’s credit that he refuses at all turns to simplify the story, one way or the other, for convenience’s sake.
Like 21st century Scotland, the 17th century debate of the day was a question as to how much Scotland should be administered and influenced by southern England. Both Argyll and Montrose considered themselves patriots to a grander vision of the British Isles which placed Scotland at its heart, if not at its political or religious centre. Ultimately, both men shared the unfortunate fate of being executed in Edinburgh for their respective loyalties. Montrose, executed first, had his head displayed publicly in Edinburgh’s Tolbooth, only to be replaced 11 years later by Argyll’s. Today, both men have memorials in St Giles Cathedral at the heart of the city.
The joy of this crisply written book is how Fraser synthesises personality, ideas and the themes of the time to create something which is entirely recognisable as not only human, but Scottish. He takes us through the glass darkly and presents a recognisable Great Britain with the same issues and casual betrayals in politics as there are today.
It is a remarkable thing that, much like the disproportionate engagement of Scotsmen in the British Empire, the story of the Covenanters, the ‘first’ Scottish Parliament, Charles I and Oliver Cromwell all fall by the wayside of popular history. The Wars of Independence, Robert the Bruce, William Wallace and Mary Queen of Scots are important, but they are by no means as exclusively defining to Scots history as their popularity might suggest.
The great success of this book is to serve up a welcome reprieve from the tired obsession of medieval woe. It embraces the facts of political chicanery, malice and all to play-for-stakes which make rivalries and politics great and makes it as relevant to the reader as if one was watching the news.
The result then by Fraser is a brilliant encapsulation of a lesser known, but disturbingly recognisable period of Scotland’s history.