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The Wars of Scotland: Scotland, 1214-1371 by…

The Wars of Scotland: Scotland, 1214-1371

by Michael Brown

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The Wars of Scotland is absolutely terrific historical analyais. Covering the period 1214-1371 in which Scotland battled successfully for its survival against England, the work is a fascinating peek into the events and the people who influenced them. Despite the title, the book is not really about wars. There is very little reproduction of battle and no real military analysis. Instead, Michael Brown has put together a brilliantly cogent analysis of the various factions competing for power both within and without Scotland in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Where Brown succeeds so expertly is in not reducing his analysis merely to the exploits of kings. It is all too easy to tell the story of a nation as if it was the story of the nation's leader. Brown delves into the aspirations and struggles of the class of people who strove for power. This is a story of Robert the Bruce but it is also the story of the Balliols, Stewarts, Gordons, MacDonalds and many many more from the north of Scotland, from Ireland, England, France, and Rome.

Wars of Scotland is the 4th book chronologically in the New Edinburgh History of Scotland series and it is inarguably one of the best. Brown's treatment of the material seems vigorously fair, the people he describes are multi-faceted. Robert the Bruce is not just a war leader, not just the man who murdered his rival, not just a leader who balanced factions against one another. The people described really emerge from the pages.

The work begins at the start of the reign of Alexander II. This period is also covered in the 3rd book of the series [[ASIN:0748614974 Domination and Lordship]]. Brown's coverage is better. Alexander's attempts to centralise authority are set in the context of continued rivalry with the MacWilliams and the divergent culture of the Gaelic west. Brown does not devote too much time to Norwegian interests, perhaps because those interests had so severely diminished by the end of the work's time period. Above all though is the continual tension with England and attempts by all of the Scottish kings to prevent English overlordship.

It is through the prism of the threat from England that this period is analysed. The factions within Scotland jockey for position against one another all the while knowing that support from England or antipathy towards it can tip the hand. The early wars in this period are described by Brown in quite an overarching and general manner. There is very limited detail on the actual wars themselves, more what these wars meant in the longer term. William Wallace and his campaign for instance are not detailed in terms of the relative military virtue but instead Wallace's place within the feudal oligarchy and the impact on later decision makers plays more strongly in Brown's analysis.

Still, this is a period of conflict and the outcomes of that conflict are manifold. Brown uses the case of Berwick to show the impact of war most clearly. From being Scotland's richest burgh, it becomes a meaningless English outpost. Brown's analysis makes this really quite a sad case. Berwick should now be one of the most significant places in Britain but it isn't and this period is why.

As well as the various mainstream factions within Scotland, Brown also cleverly devotes a separate section to the Isles. His analysis of the rise of the MacDonalds is remarkably clear. Such clarity is not always evident. Instead of delving into the details of MacDonalds being a critical component of the most famous Bruce victory, Brown analysis the rise in terms of power structures. It is the weakening of a rival that gives John of Islay the opportunity which he takes.

While the rise of the Stewarts is within the mainstream, Brown does not really devote quite so much time to explaining how they managed to be the ones to outlast the rest. The Stewarts just seem ever-present. As other houses fall, the Stewarts continue. Without devoting specific attention to the Stewarts, Brown gives an impression of their rise being inexorable.

Brown's narrative is fast-flowing and easy to consume. He is writing about an exciting time in Scottish history and he does so in a way that really makes it easy to engage. While this is not exactly popular history, it is very accessible and given it covers one of the crucial phases in the history of Scotland it should be read by a wide audience.

One aspect that isn't really fleshed out is detail on the lives of ordinary folk. There is not a huge amount about social conditions or the economic environment. The church gets a lot of detail because it is a power structure. The only real references to ordinary folk are the fates of the burghers of Berwick who are on the receiving end of some pretty nasty English brutality and a brief reference to the impact of the Black Death. Given that this form of plague happened only once and that it happened during the period in question, it is perhaps a bit of a surprise to see it play such a minor role in the narrative. Equally, there is not a huge amount about any technological development. The arrival of the English long bow for instance as a weapon of massive amounts of destruction seems an obvious starting point.

Minor quibbles aside, Wars of Scotland is really excellent. It is a well-written piece of historical analysis that covers a genuinely fascinating part of British history. Rather than going into the detail of various wars, this is the broad sweep of history, it is the outcomes and their impact that really matter. Where Brown succeeds above other historical analysts is that this is not the story of a King, it is the story of a complex web of power structures. It is the story of the Scottish State and in telling the story of that State, it is the story of the many factions and outsider competitors all striving against one another in shifting allegiances. Wars of Scotland is first rate, well worth reading. ( )
  Malarchy | Aug 25, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0748612386, Paperback)

The Wars of Scotland is the story of the pivotal period in Scottish history between 1214 and 1371. The century and a half between the death of King William the Lion and the accession of the Stewarts witnessed major changes in the internal character of the kingdom and its place in the wider European world. The opening decades of this era seemed to be dominated by the continued development of a defined Scottish realm but the crisis which engulfed the kings and their people meant that issues of war and allegiance would make fourteenth-century Scotland a very different place. This book is the first detailed discussion of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a single period of both developing and fragmenting political hierarchies and communities. The Wars of Scotland provides a political narrative which places events in their immediate context as well as highlighting special issues and groups in thematic chapters. It also introduces a new discussion of the stability and unity of Scotland as a realm and community and of the impact of war and dynastic crisis on a Medieval state.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:39 -0400)

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