The Times Great Scottish Lives

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Member Reviews

This books brings to live through death the stories and histories of many of Scotland's citizens throughout the last 200 years, It is full of many recognisable and also some not so recognisable names from the breadth of Scottish society.
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I kindly received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a honest review.
This is an interesting book to gain snippets of information on the lives of some of the great Scottish lives of recent times. I should probably say great Scottish men, as women are woefully represented here. It is perhaps understandable that there were not so many noteworthy women from the late 19th and early 20th century, as women were just not given the same opportunities as men. However, this book covers deaths up to 2016 so you would expect there to be more of a balance in the sexes than there actually is in this book.
An interesting read and I have discovered some new names I was previously unaware of, but as discussed above- certainly not without emissions.
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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. 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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I’m confused.  What makes someone Scottish?  I have carefully read Magnus Linklater's introduction to this collection of obituaries of the great and the good.  He justifies some of his choices and some of his omissions.  He bemoans the lack of women in the collection, saying that it reflects the ‘age in which these obituaries were compiled’?  Really?  Margo MacDonald is included and she died in 2014.  Amongst the men, Ronnie Corbett died in 2016.  A funny man more worthy of inclusion than Lewis Grassic Gibbon, in Linklater's opinion but not mine.  So what ‘age’ are we talking about here?  

For me, for the purposes of a volume like this, a Scot is someone who is Scottish by birth.  At risk of being accused or xenophobia or, worse still, racism, how many Scots by birth have gone to live in England and from then on identified themselves as English?  Don’t all shout Tony Blair at once as that’s more an example of political expediency than fluid nationalism!  What makes Salford born Sir Peter Maxwell Davies Scottish other than that he chose to live in Orkney for the last 30 years of his life?  Dame Muriel Spark lived all her long adult life outside Scotland but was no less Scottish for it so why is ‘Max’ not English?  Did he think of himself as Scottish?  I wonder.  This isn’t a puerile argument.  It’s about meeting expectations and too many ‘Scots’ in this volume quite simply aren’t.  

Stepping down off my soapbox, despite my intrinsic problem with the use of the epithet Scottish, this is an enjoyable collection of obituaries.  I met people I’d never heard of before and enjoyed reading about those I had.
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One of my daily routines is the reading of the obituary pages in The Times newspaper. Skipping nonchalantly through the financial pages there is always that keen mixture of curiosity tinged with morbidity as you first set sight on the names appearing there. Sometimes you encounter once quite famous people who due to their absence from the media in recent years you assumed were already deceased or at other times the entire pages might be taken up with the passing of a great figure of world importance. Normally though it comprises of people who I must admit I have never heard of which should in no way detract from their achievements and be an indicator of their interest to others. 

These figures often from the world of academia, the judiciary or science can make an interesting and informative read. Yesterday the three previously unknown to me recipients were an Oxford classicist, an "non conformist artist" and a long distance runner who in their own ways had led lives worthy of subsequent narration to the nation. With this interest in mind it was therefore most pleasing to come across this anthology of over 100 of The Times obituaries devoted to those who have played a part in the life of the Scottish nation across all fields from science to football.

The introduction by Magnus Linklater a former Scotland editor of The Times succinctly sets out the parameters of the book pointing out that it should not be read as coherent history or a necessarily balanced selection and those figures like Charles Rennie Mackintosh that have been omitted received at the time only " a few sketchy paragraphs". This is indicative of how reputations can change over the years either detrimentally or positively. An example being that of Douglas Haig who recently has been subject to a more favourable reappraisal following the "butcher" epithet that derived from the revisionism of the 1960's. Although I read this cover to cover you can dip in and out of it as you please or tackle it from a thematic perspective for instance reading all the obituaries of the poets or prime minsters (of which there are a remarkable number) together. Linklater naturally points out the unfortunate gender imbalance here but this is indicative of society over the years but is changing albeit not fast enough.

Although not born in Scotland I have lived there for many years and have tried to gain an understanding of its history, culture and sporting achievements. After reading this book I must admit that my knowledge has increased and it has inspired a desire to seek out further biographical works on some of those included.
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