“The Times Great Scottish Lives” by Magnus Linklater

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Thanks to Times Books and Netgalley for the advance reading copy.

I myself am Scottish so I thought it likely that I would find this collection of obituaries from The Times fascinating and the book largely lived up to my expectations. It was amusing to see the witty language used in some of the obituaries and also reading between the lines to see the thinly veiled denigrating commentary on some of the deceased (is this Victorian shade?). There is an eclectic group of people included, some very well known, others not so much. I was able to learn some interesting and illuminating facts about people I had heard of, but didn’t know much about e.g. Thomas Telford, a man who made a significant impact on the Highlands where I hail from. There were a number of people who piqued my curiosity enough that I immediately went to do further research on. These obituaries could be used as a starting point for a History teacher to use in a class project investigating past and current attitudes to these historical people.

There is however a noticeable lack of women, in the modern world this strikes me as a huge omission and jars a bit. I’d be curious to know if women were largely ignored when it came to getting a Times obituary write up in the first place, or whether the choice of obituaries included largely excluded women.  There is also a tenuous link to Scottishness for some of the inclusions (although.. “What makes a Scot?” is a question that has been and will continue to be debated). In his introduction, Linklater mentions Lewis Grassic Gibbon for example and I felt his lack of inclusion to be a mistake when considering some of the other inclusions. Linklater himself states that part of the reason for inclusions were how interesting and well written the obituary itself was, but it still struck me as an omission.

Linklater also mentions the fact that obituary writers were anonymous so as to not have their political allegiances held against them. Despite that, it’s often easy to infer the bias against some of the individuals, highlighted particularly in the rather short and scornful obituary of Keir Hardie. Again, this is something Linklater explains this in the introduction – that many now considered titans of the past were not considered so at the time of the writing. That said, in some cases it appears rather incongruous, in the case of beloved writers in particular. This works in reverse too, with the glowing obituary of Douglas Haig for example, a man whose reputation has been thoroughly trashed in the years since World War I.

Overall, a very interesting collection of obituaries that shine a light on some of the current opinions of the day. I think this book would be a great gift for someone interested in learning more about some of the well-known, and less well-known people from Scottish History.

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