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Donald Smith: Freedom And Faith - A Question Of Scottish Identity (St Andrew Press)

There is a good reading list at the end of this very thoughtful little book, by the director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh's Royal Mile, that anyone with an interest in the story of the nation whose people will vote on independence in September would find useful.

However, just two of the books on it (of 40) could be said to have been written to directly address the question this year's referendum voters will be asked. There is a paucity of objective (or even subjective) new literature to turn to, in much the same way that there has been a conspicuous lack of intelligent, informed and valuable debate on the topic of Scottish independence that goes beyond political point-scoring and economic (in the narrowest free-market-capitalism sense) nit-picking.

During the last few months of 2013, I was meeting weekly with 15 university students who were all passionately interested in the way the outcome of this year's vote might affect their future and that of Scotland. They were also all, I was given the clearest impression, uniformly disappointed in the prosaic and shallow level of the debate and the quality of the information on which they are supposed to make their choice.

They, like the rest of us, should fall upon Smith's book like ravenous beasts. They, as Theatre Studies students, will know his name, for his was an important voice in the literature that eventually produced a National Theatre Of Scotland. This book comes from another side of the multi-faceted Smith, an adoptive son of the manse, who has been as immersed in the story of the church in Scotland as he has been in its stage and page narratives. Here, he has been inspired by the late Stephen Maxwell's book Arguing For Independence, and - although he does not put it quite like this - Freedom And Faith aims to plug the spiritual gap in that argument. I am not sure it does, but it is well worth reading from cover to cover just the same, and I take my hat off to him for giving the job a mighty fine shot.

Because those big questions - even the relatively simple, but actually very complex, one of the nature of the emotional pull that will lead many people to place their cross in eight months - need answering, and few of those batting back and forth the minutiae of 21st century statehood in the print and broadcast media seem to be tackling them.

If you are a member of a church, read Smith's book; and if you think all religion is bunk, or you put some vague value on the spiritual side of your Scottish existence, read it just as carefully. In a series of carefully linked essays, he encapsulates the story of Scotland and of the relationship between church and state in that history - and up to the present sorry state of both the Kirk in Scotland and Roman Catholicism. He delves into questions of landscape, heritage and culture that make Scots and Scotland what they are. He boldly explains ideas such as "sin", "salvation", and even "love" that are rarely taken seriously enough without any sort of embarrassment and an unusual confidence that he knows exactly what the words mean.

He also gives an exemplary, contemporary and personal, reading of the broadest sort of ecumenical Christian theology in a chapter of such clarity it will surely start fights amongst religious obscurantists of all denominations. And be cheered to the rafters by those of genuine religious faith, even different ones, I suspect.

I am no historian, but I recognise that his romp through Scottish history - from Dalriada via Bruce and Wallace to the Union Of The Crowns and the establishment of the Scottish Office - contains a number of assumptions, assertions and opinions that are contestable, but nonetheless you will value the way he presents them. Are you tired of the familiar science vs religion dichotomy that the atheists and their opposites rehearse? Read it beautifully put in its box and lobbed over the side (page 74). But as a man of faith himself, Smith is equally critical of the church and its particular shortcomings in Scotland, after its brief heyday in the middle of the last century, to the extent that the Kirk's St Andrew Press deserves particular praise for publishing regardless.

As Smith sees it, independence is an opportunity for faith to reassert itself, presumably casting the sins of Keith O'Brien and the hand-wringing of the General Assembly over gay clergy into the dustbin of history. That may possibly be an uncommon reason to vote Yes, and also betray an optimism about the future of faith that few, in the Scottish Christian churches at least, could honestly confess to. But frankly his conclusion is almost incidental to the joy of joining him on the journey.

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