Each of these ten episodes is one hour long and so you are treated to a crash course in Scottish history in just 600 minutes. It is bloody, turbulent and filled with pathos and Neil Oliver is engaging and delightfully Scottish just as Simon Schama in "A History of Britain" is particularly English, and both are very fine story tellers and historians - at least at the popular level. I enjoyed every minute of this series and was sorry it was over.
The first episode alone, "The Last of the Free," might be worth the price of this DVD. The viewer is treated to breathtaking vistas of Scotland with all its lochs, mountains, castles and fastnesses as Neil Oliver recounts the murky history of Scotland as it first emerges from the pages of history via Tacitus and his account of the Roman general Agricola's foray into Caledonia in 88 AD. Not much else is known of the northern barbarians for centuries, but they reemerge as the Picts as the Romans leave Britain for good. As Angles and Saxons replace Romans in the south we see Picts in the northeast of Scotland, Gaels in the west, and Britons in the south around the year 500 AD. Despite the Viking invasions of the British isles Kenneth MacAlpin arises as king of the Picts, but it is his grandson, Constantine II, who becomes the first king of Scotland. During his 43 year reign Constantine introduces Gaelic ways to the Picts and Scotland is now known as Alba in Gaelic and Scotland in English even though the isle of Britain would remain an island of separate kingdoms and divided nations under no single monarch for centuries to come.
Episode II "Hammers of the Scots" fast forwards almost three hundred years to the brutal Alexander II who crushes all opposition and succeeds in uniting all of Scotland. His son, Alexander III, the last of the Canmores, ushers in a golden age where Norman culture in southern Scotland with its cathedrals and abbeys and Gaelic culture to the north thrive side by side. The unexpected death of Alexander in 1286 leaves Scotland without an heir making Scotland vulnerable to invasion and civil war. Within ten years time Scotland is broken and dominated by Edward I of England, but his draconian methods enable William Wallace to capture the popular imagination and cause a peasant uprising and win a stunning victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297. Wallace's gains are short lived, but his heroism along with Edward I's cruelty created something earlier kings of Scotland never could: a Scottish identity.
Episode III "Bishop makes King" details the long and gory rise of Robert the Bruce. Oliver emphasizes the role of the Scottish bishops in shaping the national destiny of Scotland as they appealed directly to the pope for the legitimacy of a Scottish king independent of England. After Bannockburn the Bruce became legend and along with the bishops brought about a revolution in Scottish identity by ensuring that Scotland remain its own sovereign nation.
Episode IV "Language is Power" depicts the struggle between the Stuarts and the MacDonalds. By the early 1400s Scots was spoken in the Lowlands while Gaelic was spoken in the Highlands and the isles. As the two families vied for power it was the Gaelic language and culture that was hit the hardest. The triumph of the House of Stewart ensured that Scots would become the preferred language of the court and Lowland culture. The Gaelic tongue became synonymous with treacherous and backwards Highlanders.
Episode V "Project Britain" begins with Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, trapped on an island in the middle of a loch under pressure by Scots noblemen to relinquish the crown. Scotland had already undergone the Protestant Reformation and Mary's blunderings ensured her soom, yet Mary produced one thing the Tudors had not - an heir to the throne and so Mary's son, James VI of Scotland eventually became James I of England. Fortunes were reversed as a king of Scotland now sat on the English throne, but James's dreams of a united kingdom, a Great Britain, would not be brought about by a mere act of Parliament.
Episode VI "God's Chosen People" portrays the Scottish Covenanters and their famous contract with God
as national hysteria. The Presbyterianism of the Scots would not tolerate the imposition of a "popish" prayer book and so Charles Stuart and his English archbishop sparked the Bishops War and then Scotland was dragged into the English Civil wars as well. The beheading of Charles I in 1649 shocked most Scots and left the famous Covenanters without a king. It was not until the Restoration that the national hysteria of the Covenanters began to subside. Most Scots and the now more moderate Kirk seemed happy to have a Stuart back on the throne. James II's unabashed Catholicism ensured his downfall in 1688, but while many were relieved in Scotland to have a Protestant king once more others pined for their beloved Scottish Stuart kings and so the Jacobites were born promising further misery for Scotland.
Episode VII "Let's Pretend" takes us to the court of Louis XIV where James II was given a luxurious mansion from which he could still pretend he was king of Scotland. Meanwhile Scotland bankrupts itself via the Darien misadventure in Panama making union with England an economic necessity. The Jacobite uprising of 1715 is a disaster and the second uprising of 1745 ends tragically at Culloden. Every nook and cranny of the Highlands are now mapped by the victor of Culloden, the duke of Cumberland, and Fort George is built in the Highlands to pacify the unruly Highlanders once and for all.
Episode VIII "The Price of Progress" takes us to Jamaica where exiled Jacobites make a fortune off of the backs of slaves while Scotland exports new ideas to America. Scotland is now a mercantile nation, but where the wealth of the few is not shared evenly. The war of independence in the American colonies was supported by Presbyterian ministers and Scottish Enlightenment ideas that justified the American revolution. It seems that America, not Scotland, was the beneficiary of the Scottish Enlightenmet; as if America, and not Scotland, were the promised land. Scotland remains held back.
Episode IX "This Land is our Land" begins with Scotland's most painful memory: the Highland clearances that began in 1792. The Highlands are emptied of their people and replaced with sheep by Scottish lords who now live in London. In the early part of the 1800s Sir Walter Scott reshaped Scotland forever by romanticizing the Highlands in his novels. Scott even managed to make his mythical Scotland a reality as George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822. When the potatoe famine of Ireland reached the shores of Scotland in 1846 the people of Scotland rose up to rescue the noble Highlanders they had read so much about in Scott's novels, but in Ireland a million starved. The clearances continued and evictions forced Scots to emigrate to Canada and Australia. Not until 1886 did the clearances end for good.
Episode X "Project Scotland" shows Scotland rupturing in the 1920s as tens of thousands emigrate to the new world. At the beginning of the 20th century Scotland had had one of the most powerful economies thanks to steel, but by the 1931 over 400,000 Scots had left their homeland in the 20th century alone. There was talk again of Home Rule and gifted poets, both nationalist and socialist, ushered in a Scottish Renaissance. The war interrupted the future and by the 1950s socialism was the order of the day, but by the 1960s unemployment remained a perennial problem. Devolution, a form of home rule, was discussed in earnest after the discovery of oil in the 1970s, but it was not until 1999 that the Scots finally established their own parliament. The early 21st century has not been so bleak economically for Scotland's five million inhabitants, but the question of how much more self determination is in store for the Scots has yet to be seen. ...