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Thursday, March 5, 2015

“Robert the Bruce, King of Scots”, by Ronald McNair Scott

253 pages, Peter Bedrick Books, ISBN-13: 978-0872263208

Robert the Bruce, King of Scots is an entertaining read, and it is obvious that the author, pure-blooded Scotsman Ronald McNair Scott, is an avid fan of King Robert I, which energizes his writing and helps make it more accessible to more people. However, it is for this selfsame reason that the book borders on being more a work of historical fiction than a work of history, as Scott’s obvious and oft-repeated admiration for this (admittedly) admirable monarch is obvious to even the most pro-Scots of Scots. While this love of Bruce may serve to warm the cockles of the hearts of all true Scotsmen who bled St Andrews blue, it is proves to be less than a disinterested and professional biography of this critical figure in British history.

The problem with this approach for the serious historian is one’s views and prejudices get mixed with what should be unadulterated facts – indeed, McNair Scott often presents as fact, without comment, a lot of things that are only speculation, and also presents a number of things I think he’d like to believe are true but has no way of corroborating. The book also follows John Barbour’s 14th Century verse historical romance, The Bruce, very closely, and while this dependence on Barbour is part of what makes the book exciting as narrative, it’s important to remember that Barbour was not writing objective history, but rather a highly embellished and romanticized version of Bruce’s life. Barbour does try to be true to real events, but there is much in that poem that is driven more by the conventions of medieval romance, narrative necessity, and Barbour’s own political biases and agenda, so part of what makes Scott’s book compelling as narrative is also what makes it suspect as history.

For all its flaws, Robert the Bruce makes for a compelling read and should go far in correcting the image so many have of The Bruce due to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and its excited over-dramatized life of William Wallace (another, admittedly, great Scottish hero). McNair Scott offers an excellent view into King Robert’s life, and his background on Scotland is generally excellent; he does a good job bringing several of Robert’s cohorts to life (a particular favorite of mine being Sir James Douglas, otherwise known as “Black Douglas”, who used clever strategy to kill out every English noble who dared take possession of his ancestral home) and his many other characters are also well-fleshed-out. Keeping the bias and one-sidedness in mind, I still give this work a strong recommendation for anyone looking for a good read on one of history’s most brilliant diplomats and military commanders who is too often overlooked. Hopefully, this book will correct the deficiency and give Robert the Bruce the appreciation he deserves – maybe even his own movie?

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