Review: Warriors of the Word
Michael Newton’s broad survey of the culture of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders, is well-written and reasonably accessible foray into a popular field. Reasonably because the book is not written as an introduction for the uninitiated. The book occupies that delightful place higher than the popular level but not intended for academic purposes. Newton writes for the educated layman, a demographic sadly under-served in the age of Wikipedia, not so much because he assumes a large amount of knowledge on the part the reader (in fact he opens the book with a quick overview of the history of the relevant period) but because his treatment of the subject matter is so in-depth. A certain, though not uncommon, familiarity with the subject matter would certainly be an asset but the only real requisite for getting the most out of Warriors of the Word is the inclination toward reading such a comparatively dense work. Perhaps the only exception is that Newton very surprisingly assumes a knowledge of the pronunciation of Scottish Gaelic (I had to resort to a Google search in order to twist sound out of Scottish Gaelic’s consonant clusters and diphthongs).
Warriors of the Word is the not the historical narrative typical of non-academic historical works today. Each chapter presents a theme and discusses that theme across a thousand-or-so-year swath of history in the Highlands and Islands. The individual discussions also do not move chronologically, though the progression of ideas and realities across time is often covered, though generally under sub-heading rather than the breadth of an entire chapter. Topics such as literature and oral tradition, clan society, cosmology, ethnic identity, and human ecology (the people’s understanding of their relationship with their natural surroundings) are all examined in detail in order to flesh out an remarkably complete sketch of the essence of life in the Highlands and Islands in the Medieval and Early Modern eras. Fascinating topics likely completely foreign to the history buff, such as the Cailleach, local nature spirits, or the nature of the Highland diet, are covered in remarkable depth. Of course Newton also addresses more well-known topics, such as unraveling the complex clan social structure and discussing the genealogy of the Scottish Gaelic language, making this book an excellent introduction for the neophyte to the topic despite its density.
The edition reviewed suffered from an usual preponderance of typographical errors, particularly in the form of missing articles and prepositions. Few if any of these were particularly egregious; they were remarkable only for their number. The binding also left a bit to be desired: though the spine and perfect binding remained intact the narrow strip of glue affixing the front and back covers to the inner pages came off.
Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders received a hearty recommendation. Both as an extremely informative (if dense) introduction to the history of the Highlanders for the neophyte or as an exhaustive survey for the lay enthusiast. Look for it at your local brick and mortar (if they don’t have it, ask at the cash).
Edition reviewed: Michael Newton, Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders (Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, 2009).