Thursday, December 15, 2016

Scots at War: Guest Post by the author of Devil's Bible Series, Michael Bolan

Today, I have a guest blog from Michael Bolan, author off  'Devil's Bible Series'. Let me mention that the opinions are his. 

“Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.” Winston Churchill

To hear such the quintessential Englishman so eloquently and enthusiastically praising the Scots is perhaps surprising, but one must consider the curious relationship that the Scots have with their big brother south of the border. Centuries of rivalry, royal disputes and land-grabbing have left their mark on the pair, from the heated enmity of Robert the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie, to the less violent, but equally bitter fighting between Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon.

Churchill was right. The Scots have traditionally punched above their weight, providing the world with poets, playwrights, engineers and scientists, to name but a few. They even produced the world’s current number one tennis player. Per capita, they enjoy more Nobel laureates than any country outside the Nordic region. Unlike most countries, however, most of Scotland’s finest have risen to fame outside their native land.

This phenomenon is nothing new, and starts way before the infamous clearings of the mid-18th century, where hundreds of thousands were effectively forced from the land of their birth. The truth of the matter is that Scotland is like many other small countries which find themselves on the periphery of Europe – there’s a desire to be closer to the action, a curiosity about what lies beyond the hill/ valley/ river. So the Scots have found themselves exercising their innate wanderlust for millennia – even Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set one thousand years ago, makes mention of mercenaries travelling from the Western Isles to fight in foreign wars.

After having lived in Russia for some years, I noticed that the flag of the Russian Navy was a saltire – just like the Scottish flag, but reversed – a blue cross on a white background. When I commented on the similarity, I was told that a Scot had founded the Russian Navy. It turns out that the Scottish naval officer Samuel Grieg didn’t quite found the Russian navy, but he did make it professional for the times, earning several major victories on behalf of his adopted nation. One of a dozen officers selected by the Royal Navy to support the Russians, his rash courage set him apart and led to his swift promotion to Admiral.

Perhaps it’s the whisky, but the Scots throughout history have always enjoyed a good fight. It’s natural that the British Army would be full of Scottish regiments, but their Celtic wanderlust could never be completely satisfied by remaining in Britain, so thousands took ship for wherever they could. In later centuries, this meant the New World – especially Canada and New Zealand, but in the 17th century, the time in which The Devil’s Bible Series is set, this meant mainland Europe.
Europe was fractured beyond current recognition during the 1600s. There was no Germany, no Italy, no Belgium. Instead there were dozens of duchies, principalities and tin-pot city-states, whose borders shifted on an almost daily basis. This was also the time of the birth of international commerce, as the Dutch East Indies Company and other multinationals became more powerful than many kingdoms.

This was a world of opportunity, and the Scots seized that opportunity with both hands. Between 1620 and 1640, some forty thousand Scottish men served in European armies, over 15% of the adult male population. I knew that Scotland’s history was littered with emigration, but I had no idea of the scale.

And these men were no mere squaddies, either. Many of them rose to fame and prominence in their adopted nations. My favourite success story is that of Alexander Leslie. Born on the wrong side of the sheets, Leslie ploughed all his energy into fighting, first in Scotland, then in the Netherlands and finally in Sweden, where he was knighted and rose to the rank of Field Marshal. When he finally left Swedish service, he returned to his native Scotland where he became Lord Balgonie, Earl of Leven, and captain of Edinburgh Castle. Not bad for the son of "a wench in Rannoch".

Churchill might have overstated the case of Scotland’s contribution to civilisation, but in one respect, the northerly nation is beyond compare. Be it the Picts that forced Hadrian to build his wall, the gallowglasses that held the Vikings at bay for centuries, Alexander Leslie and his European armies, the kilted regiments that travelled to the farthest reaches of the British Empire – the Scots have raised fighting to an art form.

And if you don’t believe me, just walk down Edinburgh’s Rose Street at closing time.