Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Scots and the English Civil War

I read, on someone’s blog that I have now forgotten the details of, a review of Alisdair McRae’s ‘How the Scots Won the English Civil War’ (History Press, Stroud, 2013). It was, I recall, largely an account of how bad the book was. Given that and the opportunity to acquire it cheaply, I was consumed by curiosity, and settled down to read it.

Recently, I supervised a final year undergraduate dissertation, which was an interesting experience. Without giving too much away, the project was the sort devised by a rather weak student who had heard the same word used in two different contexts, was thus convinced that there was a connection and pursued the said connection, in spite of all the evidence against such a link, the supervisor’s promptings that things needed thinking through differently, and so on.

Further, the execution of the project was on the lamentable side. Supervisoral suggestions and corrections to spelling, grammar and sense were ignored, and the project sailed on to submission riddled with errors and with more unreferenced quotes than you can shake a stick at. If you sense a little of the supervisor’s frustration here, you would be correct.

Of course, it all came to grief when it was marked, and the supervisor, yours truly, was called upon to second mark it. To be honest, I think that to first marker’s judgment was positively generous given the work submitted and the plagiarism detected. A shame, I think; it was a nice original idea.

Returning to the book in hand (or, in my case, on desk), I think we have a similar situation. One of the ironies here is, of course, that I was reading McRae at the same time as second marking the dissertation. It is a nice idea, but lamentably executed. I find it hard to believe that a reputable publisher let it go out into the world in such a state.

First, the good things. The idea of writing a history of the English Civil Wars from a Scottish perspective is a fine one. I am not aware of anyone who has taken this approach, but it would certainly give a different perspective to the goings on in England, and, of course, due acknowledgment of Scotland’s own, very bitter, civil strife of the time. I do, incidentally, on my ‘unread’ book shelf, have a number of other tomes on Scotland and the English Civil Wars waiting to be read, so it is possible that such a history does exist, but that I have not read it yet.

The book probably tries to do too much. A general account of the Thirty Year’s War is given, apparently to show the experience of Scottish mercenaries in Europe prior to 1640 or so. Fair enough, but the narrative gets rather clogged up by this and a lot of it adds little to any other general history of the Thirty Years War. I suspect that it is, to put it politely, derivative of readily available accounts in English of those events.

The book then moves towards accounts of the Bishop’s Wars and opening moves in the English Civil War, followed by the raising of the Scottish Army and its despatch south. This has some interesting detail on the raising of the regiments but is rather light on the political and social, let alone religious, drivers and meanings.

The best bits of the book are the descriptions of the Scottish actions at the sieges of Newcastle, Carlisle and Hereford. This includes information that I have not come across before, although it is lamentably referenced and so impossible to follow up on. The chapter on Marston Moor is all right, but the author wants to credit the Scottish infantry with saving the day and also claims that Cromwell and his cronies stole the credit (which might be true). As with most battle accounts, however, it is mostly garbled – the siege accounts are much better and even include useful maps, although the illustrations of re-enactors re-enacting are less so.

The book also includes an account of Montrose’s campaign, including detail on Phillpaugh, some of which I had not seen before, and a brief account of Preston which rather fails to give credit to Langdale’s before any Scots were in action (if, in fact, any Scots did anything much at the battle except flee).

The book finishes with a few comments on Scotland in the 1650’s and Montrose’s sticky end, as well as a lengthy and unnecessary gallop through medical ideas of the seventeenth century leading up to the death of Hugh Fraser.

The subtitle of the book, ‘The Triumph of Fraser’s Dragoons’ is the reason for this last bit. The dragoons appear briefly in the narrative but, as the author admits in the Epilogue, there is very little evidence to be found of their activities. I suspect that this could be said of most units in any army of the time, so should not have come as the surprise it seems to have done to the author. On its own terms, therefore, the book is a failure. No unit history of Fraser’s dragoons could be written, no matter how nice an idea it might have seemed at the time.

Which brings us to the lamentable state of the referencing. There is a list of references and some notes, so the work aspires to some sort of academic pretension. However, in the notes a reference is to Barratt (2002). A crosscheck with the reference list yields ‘Barratt (2002)’. Not terribly useful. In fact, it is a lot worse than the student dissertation is just dissed above. Furthermore there are copious quotes from historical sources. These are unreferenced. In my book, this is plagiarism, even though the sources are 350 years old or so. As I said, I am surprised that a reputable publisher let this through. I know that publishing is a rather cash-strapped business these days and that editors and the process of editing is expensive, but these are schoolchild mistakes. There are, out there in internet-land, various free (and paid for) reference management software products. A few clicks of the mouse button can tidy this sort of rubbish up.

So a nice idea but badly executed. A shame – I think the author has something to say, and that something is interesting. Despite the blurb proclaiming his avid historian credentials, re-enactment, television appearances and ‘numerous’ articles in the press and magazines, I suppose he won’t be the last to find that writing something book-length is a very different beast indeed.


  1. So did the Scots win the ECW? ;)

    1. Well, the book finishes in 1649. By 1653 they had well and truly lost and been occupied. but that is a bit of a detail, I guess...

    2. Ah, but is the post 49 period an Anglo-Scottish War rather than an ECW?

    3. Neat question. I guess the answer is 'yes'. Both England and Scotland were divided - Montrose was executed in 1650 for raising a rebellion for Charles Stuart, while in 1651 a Scottish army marched into England in favour of Charles Stuart and hoping to raise English troops.

      I've never quite figured out what the principle actors thought they were doing.