Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray

Scots Wha Hae…

😐 😐

Through interviews and extracts from letters, Daniel Gray sets out to pay homage to the Scots who went to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, as part of the International Brigades. Gray claims, and I have no reason to doubt him, that more Scots per head of population went than from any other country and sets out to show the strength of the Scottish reaction against Franco and fascism.

As a Scot, there are many things about the Scottish psyche that annoy me, but two stand out. The first is the habit of too many Scots to always boast about how we’re the best at whatever we do, and especially that we’re “better than England”. (This always seems like such a pathetic boast to me, even assuming it were true, since it comes inevitably from people who despise England – is it such a great boast to be better than a thing you despise? “I smell better than a skunk.” Wouldn’t it be better to be better than something you admire? “I smell better than a rose.” Anyway…) The second is the habit of many Scots to pretend that Scots are homogeneous in their views and, of course, always in agreement with the view of the person making the claim. So you will hear people say things like “Scotland rejects the Union” when in fact 55% of Scots voted to stay in the Union. Or “Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against our will” when in fact 38% of Scots voted to leave the EU. Daniel Gray commits both of these Scottishisms, repeatedly.

Book 11

There is, I think, no doubt that proportionally more Scots went to Spain than from the other countries in the UK. However, as Gray tells us, the total figure was in fact 549. Not an insignificant number, but hardly a mass movement either. He goes on at length about how “Scotland” was totally behind these men and the Republicans generally, while simultaneously admitting to all the individuals and groups who were pro-Franco or neutral, including not only the UK government and the Tory Party, which at that time was the most popular party in Scotland (with 48.9% of the vote in the general election of 1935), but also the Catholic church and, not least, the Labour Party. He makes it clear that most of the men who went were members of or affiliated with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), an organisation that never rose to being anything more than a small minority group, even in its stronghold of Red Clydeside (simplistically, industrial Glasgow and its surrounds). He constantly goes on about the men going from “Scotland” while simultaneously showing by his own account that most of them went from the areas of Glasgow where the CPGB had most influence. He talks repeatedly about the German and Italian support of Franco, while doing his best to pretend that the CPGB and the Republicans were mostly independent of influence from the Soviet Union.

It’s not that there’s no truth in his account. From what I could tell the facts he gives are evidence-based. It’s that there’s far too much skewing of the narrative for this to count as history. It is hagiography, written by a man who clearly shares the political slant of the men and women who supported the Republicans. I would agree that majority opinion in Scotland would probably have been anti-fascist, and certainly it appears there was a lot of fund-raising for the Republican side as well as the people who actually went to fight. But then as now, Scots were not a homogeneous group, being divided between urban and rural, well-off and poor, Catholic and Protestant, Labour and Tory, etc., etc. Had he written a book about Glasgow’s support for the Republicans it might have felt more accurate, since Glasgow, although also not homogeneous, has for over a century been the major centre of left-wing support in Scotland.

Despite this, there is some interest in reading the accounts of the men who fought and the women who fund-raised, nursed, campaigned, etc. The book is not particularly well written and some of the chapters are shaky in their focus, often because Gray is distorting the narrative to suit his bias. But I found I learned quite a lot, though often by reading between the lines and resorting to Google to fact-check. I was hoping for a serious history book that would have done more than tell the individual stories of some of the men who went; that would delve into the rise of Communism in some areas of Scotland and would look in an objective way at how wide-spread this was, and equally how wide-spread or otherwise the support for Franco was. This book makes claims about the near-universality of Scottish support for the Republicans, and that may be true, but it doesn’t provide the evidence needed to back up the claim.

One last criticism, of the publisher, Luath Press. This is without exception the worst formatted purchased book I have ever read on Kindle. The font size changes randomly from paragraph to paragraph, the captions of pictures are inserted randomly within surrounding text, there are typos and formatting issues throughout. To actually sell a book in this condition is disgraceful and I’d think long and hard before ever buying another book from this publisher.

So overall, interesting enough if what you want are anecdotes about the Scots who went to war, but not a serious contribution to the history of the period, and not in any way comparable to the Orwell book it homages in its title.

Amazon UK Link

41 thoughts on “Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray

  1. Interesting review. Yes, I get fed up of all these claims that the whole of Scotland is anti-union, left wing. etc – even republican, which blatantly isn’t true given the number of people who turned out to see the Queen’s cortege.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect you’re right – I’m sure that’s happening just now in Ukraine. I think he also said in the book that some of them were running away from trouble at home – debt collectors or police, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Or unhappy marriages or dull lives.
        Anyway, I won’t be reading it and it doesn’t sound as if many others will, either.
        I’m reading a book at the moment called The Paths I’ve Trod by Elizabeth Burchill, an Australian nurse who was nursing in Spain during the Civil War. Her chapter on this time was a different view to books you’ve reviewed in that she was most concerned with the starving women and children rather than the politics etc. Not sure if the book is readily available and the Spanish section is only a chapter, but it is interesting. The book has been loaned to me by my aunt, who was the author’s god daughter.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, that does sound interesting! Unfortunately it seems to be out of print over here and the second hand copies that are available are ridiculously highly priced. Maybe it will get reprinted at some point in time. What fun to have an actual connection to the author!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. If one’s going to write anon-fiction book of history, it seems to me it ought to do a solid job of reflecting what really happened and keeping a balanced perspective. In your case, FictionFan, although it must have been annoying at best to read something skewed like this, at least you could put it in perspective. I wonder about those who’d read the book and accept it as a truly accurate account of the Scottish experience in the Spanish Civil War. And I know just what you mean about the formatting problems. Those can drive a person mad!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, Margot, the independence movement has led to an awful lot of skewed history being produced in Scotland over the last several years – books designed to push an agenda and willing to manipulate and even distort the history to do so. There was a scandal a couple of years ago where some of our real eminent historians challenged the government over the fact that they felt kids were being taught pro-indy propaganda in school history lessons. It’s quite worrying, because so many people do simply believe anything they’re told, especially if it makes them feel good about themselves…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yikes!!! 😬😬😬 Well, at least you know about the situation and are able to discern the bias. Someone like me who is completely ignorant on the subject might come along and accept at face value what is said. Lack of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I knew before I began reading that it wasn’t a book for me (based on content, not its low rating). I’m sorry that it was a disappointment for you, though. Arghh!! on the formatting issue!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was disappointing – I feel there’s an interesting book to be written on the subject, but this isn’t it! The formatting made me really angry – you don’t expect that kind of thing in a book that you’ve paid for, especially not when it’s pretending to be a serious factual book.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Why do authors draw attention to other, better books with their titles? They’re setting themselves up to suffer by comparison automatically! I would not have suspected there was any significant connection between Scotland and the Spanish Civil War so this sounds like an interesting premise for a book. And Canadians are exactly the same way you describe, always proud of the fact that we’re “better than the USA” while also looking down on the US.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s crazy, isn’t it. As soon as an author does that they set up expectations and make the reader remember how good the book they are referencing was, so immediately the reader is going to start making comparisons! I actually thought that far more Scots had gone to Spain than it turns out actually did. It’s part of our kind of folk history that we were on the Republican/socialist side, but a couple of books that I’ve read, fiction books, have referred to people dallying with fascism too in Scotland between the wars, so it always makes me wonder how much we’ve just created a narrative we can feel good about with the benefit of hindsight. Haha, of course Canada *is* better than the US though… but don’t tell the Americans I said so… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s interesting too, the folklore a country or people can create around a historical event. It doesn’t surprise me that Scotland would be on the Republican side and of course people went to Spain from many other countries, I just never put those two facts together!

        I do think Canada is better than the US and I could spout off a list of reasons why but we Canadians also try to be humble…or at least more humble than our neighbours!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ha, sometimes I think we take folklore too far in Scotland – you’ll be having a discussion about what the govt is doing and somebody will inevitably bring up Robert the Bruce – from 700 years ago! 😂 It shouldn’t be too hard to be more humble than America! Any country that declares itself the “leader of the free world” and actually believes it doesn’t have a problem with excessive humility… 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  6. It is odd that this book refers back to Orwell’s brilliant account, not a good move. It’s too bad the author didn’t treat the subject with more rigor, it sounds as though it could be a really interesting story in the right hands. And there’s no excuse for such dire formatting problems.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do feel there’s an interesting book to be written on the subject, but sadly this isn’t it. I never understand why authors reference someone else’s great book – it inevitably leads to comparison and they rarely work in favour of the new book. If it weren’t for the title I wouldn’t even have felt these books were remotely comparable! The formatting made me so angry – you don’t expect a publisher to produce such a sloppy book.


  7. An interesting review. I recognise some of the Scottish one-upmanship in the NZ Australia relationship, though it seems to be less prevalent or to have more of a joking edge these days, I think. It seems to be a case of smaller countries measuring themselves against their larger close neighbours.
    A pity this wasn’t a more satisfying reading experience for you, both in terms of quality of writing and formatting. Your review reminds of the book “Kiwi Compañeros: NZ and the Spanish Civil War”, which I’ve now requested from the library.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Anglophobia among some Scots is really bitter and much worse than it used to be before that pesky independence referendum, which seems to have stirred it all up again. It drives me crazy, especially since I quite like England and the English! I hope the Kiwi book is done better than this one – I feel there’s an interesting story to be told, but sadly this one didn’t do it. In general I’ve been disappointed with the level of bias in most of the SCW history I’ve read – none of them have been as objective as I expect history to be this long after the event.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. When you are having to do your own googling as you read a history book – not to learn more but to fact-check – it’s a sign that something has gone wrong somewhere in the process! And the formatting issues would have annoyed me enormously.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, I know! The major benefit of the internet! If I’d been reading this without being able to fact-check I suspect I’d have given up pretty early on. The random changes in font size were appalling – I’ve never seen that before. Does no one check things before publishing??

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hoo boy, font changes halfway through the text? Cringe.

    I had to look up the definition of Hagiography (thank you by the way, I love learning something new like this!) and it seems to describe this perfectly – a biased account. I hate when people generalize a whole country, province etc. too, it’s just so lazy, and obviously not accurate? People can live right next door to each other and be completely different with differing opinions LOL

    Liked by 1 person

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