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Couple with the last word on Scotland's story

Jack Webster looks up two authors who spent

seven years compiling a national encyclopedia.

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THE task of bringing the full story of Scotland, her history and traditions, facts and figures, and famous sons and daughters, under one encyclopaedic cover is one which seems to have scared off the nations's writers down the years.

Such a mine of information can, of course, become a minefield of inaccuracy if the job is not tackled with diligence.

Mr John Keay and and his wife, Julia, may not have escaped the gremlins entirely but they have at least tackled the monumental task with a good sense and thoroughness which has taken up the past seven years.

Mountains of paper and print-outs have burgeoned at their shooting lodge near Dalmally in Argyll as they amassed between 4000 and 5000 items, spreading over a thousand printed pages and reaching a grand total of a million words.

The result, published this month, takes you topographically all the way from Muckle Flugga to the Mull of Galloway, from Walter Scott to Jock Stein, and through such a range of categories that you marvel, once again, at how much this small nation has given to the advance of civilisation.

Celebrities have had to wait until they are dead and suitably assessed at a distance before finding an honoured place. So the modern scene is portrayed through subjects, by which you will pick up that George Mackay Brown is a living poet and Alex Ferguson a football manager.

At a launching party in Edinburgh, the Keays met some of their 120 contributors for the first time. Allowing for the help of experts in their various fields, however, the authors still managed to write 60% of the massive tome themselves.

So how did they come to a task of this magnitude?

Mr Keay, 53, the son of a sea captain from Fife, went to Oxford before settling to freelance writing in London. There he met Julia who, by chance, was another Fifer whose parents had moved south.

Mr Keay was writing a book about India and the couple were married in the Himalayas before returning to this country and deciding they wanted to escape the rush of the city.

They found their haven of peace in the Argyllshire hills and have been raising their four children, engaging in some farming and forestry, and pursuing various writing projects ever since.

''I had written a book on cattle-droving, which needed historical research,'' said Mr Keay,''and together Julia and I had done a series for Radio Scotland. I think on the strength of that -- and the fact that we were two writers in the one establishment -- we were asked if we were interested in writing an encyclopaedia of Scotland.

''The idea came from a London publishing editor,'' said Mrs Keay, ''and we decided to have a go. The original idea was to deal with the topography of Scotland but we developed it beyond that.''

They settled to their task in 1987 but, half way through, the publisher ran into difficulties and the contract was taken over by HarperCollins in 1991.

The budget had to allow for the large number of contributors required to complete a task of this size.

''We made lists of subject areas, like industry, sport, agriculture, and so on,'' said Mrs Keay, ''and came up with 20 main categories. Within those lists, we made other lists and gradually expanded the range.

''We know a lot of people in the academic world and were able to find out who were the experts in various subjects. The National Library in Edinburgh was very helpful in pointing us towards people who were authorities.''

Mrs Keay spent 18 months of solid reading, taking cues from other publications, and noting names, battles, events, and personalities. For her, it has been seven years of total commitment.

Speculative writing projects of this nature are precarious earners so Mr Keay had to squeeze in other books to keep the wolf from the door. He wrote a history of the East India Company and was editor and main contributor to the Royal Geographical Society's History of World Exploration.

But always it was back to Scotland's encyclopaedia until the seven-year undertaking was completed. ''We wouldn't have missed it for worlds,'' he said. ''It was great fun.''

Inevitably, readers spring to the passages which interest them most and are quick to point out the flaws. Following that precise route, I was not long in finding a couple of mistakes about the Queen Mary and Alistair MacLean, subjects on which I have written books and about which readers have sought to challenge my own accuracy.

While Jock Stein stands supreme in the history of Scottish football, one might also have looked for other footballing legends, like Matt Busby and Bill Shankly.

But it is all part of the risk you take. The Keays can be well satisfied with their efforts. Members of the family joined them in Edinburgh this week for the launching.

Anna, 20, came up from Oxford, where she is studying at her father's old college. Alex, 21, is fish-farming in Argyll, Nell, 17, is studying at Langside College, Glasgow, and Sam, 15, is still at school.

At least Scotland now has an encyclopaedia of its own, a base upon which the Keays and others can build in the future. For the moment, the couple can retreat to their idyllic setting in Argyll and take a more appreciative look at the scenery.

*Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, by John and Julia Keay, published by HarperCollins at #30 until December and #40 thereafter.

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