If that is right, the perspective is sadly parochial, for Robin Bell chooses to view the sweep of Scottish and European history from Auchterarder, the small town in Strathearn.
Bell's book is really two books: a history of Scotland and Europe, and a parallel history of Auchterarder and a few miles around.
It is undoubtedly true that history is often told from the point of view of the winners and/or from the perspective of big, self-important cities. So it was a good notion to cover Scotland's – and to some extent Europe's – tumultuous history from the unlikely viewpoint of a little country town. In that sense, this most certainly is the history of Scotland as you've never read it before.
The idea is bold, but when it comes to the execution there is an immediate and sadly insurmountable problem: not much of great significance ever happened in Auchterarder. So Robin Bell punctuates his narrative with brief, almost apologetic little links as he switches from national or international affairs back to the town.
For example: "In the short term, the capture of Constantinople made little difference to Auchterarder -" Or again: "The Auchterarder area did not suffer the invasion panic attacks that gripped coastal Britain -" When, very occasionally, something of wider significance does happen in the vicinity of Auchterarder, Bell seizes on it with an almost desperate alacrity.
It would of course be possible to write a detailed account of a small area, drawing examples and lessons from local history that have much wider resonance. But that is not quite what Bell attempts. Instead he produces almost twin accounts, side by side; a readable and refreshing romp through Scottish and European history, and a more reflective account of what happened in Strathearn through the centuries. Try as he may, he cannot quite prevent them coming across as essentially discrete narratives.
Bell obviously knows, understands and even loves Auchterarder. His strong sympathy for the town and its hinterland shines through. Understandably, he writes with a little less authority when it comes to the wider Scotland. For example, he attributes the great statue of John Knox in the quadrangle of New College, Edinburgh University, beneath the Assembly Hall, to Pittendrigh Macgillivray when it is actually the work of James Hutchison. I'm sure he would not have made this error had the statue been situated in Auchterarder.
These misgivings apart, this book has a lot to offer. Indeed, if you can get over its essentially split personality it has many merits, not least the clarity of the prose style and a sharp eye for quirky detail which gives the fluent narrative the occasional welcome flash of mischief – particularly when Bell is writing about politicians.
And sometimes he writes with an opinionated zest which is enlivening; he is not scared to take on some of Scotland's most cherished heroes. His brief passage on Robert Burns is a masterpiece in miniature, an effective presentation of the theory that the poet's life and deeds contradicted his actual poetry. Bell sums up: "As the hypocrite's hypocrite, Burns has been the much-quoted darling of generations of Scottish politicians."
Occasionally he can be distinctly mordant. After noting that it took a long time for the British (English?) government to offer a level of bribes high enough to achieve the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, he notes: "It then took almost 300 years more for another British government to offer sufficient political bribes to break up the Union of Parliaments again in 1999." So the douce flow of Bell's prose sometimes eddies into something more choppy, and his book is all the better for it.
Set On A Hill: A Strategic View Over Scottish History