How did you come to write this book?
I used to be a journalist. I was doing some research for a magazine article about some battles involving Scottish troops and I noticed that the times when things went wrong were often ignored in many mainstream histories or dismissed in a sentence. I found myself wanting to know more and the more I found out the more fascinated I became.
Some of the disasters everyone knows about. One I found out about at a bus stop in Norway when I saw a sign that loosely translated appeared to say “This way to dead Scottish people”. I got my start in journalism as a copyboy at the Glasgow Herald and some of the first research into the incidents in this book was done in the paper’s library during my lunch hour. Though I never dreamed then that one day I’d write a book, I was just curious about some of the lesser known incidents in Scottish military history.
Why didn’t you write about the triumphs, the blood and glory?
That stuff has pretty much been done to death. And without being a downer I don’t think there really is such a thing as a military triumph. Someone always gets hurt. War brings out the best and the worst in people and if we only read about the victories we’re not getting the full story. I wanted to take a realistic look at the Scots at war.
You now live in Canada, did that make it more difficult to research this book?
No. I was living in Edmonton at the time and had access to the University of Alberta Library. The library has a tremendous collection of 19th and early 20th Century books and I found almost every book I needed there. The various regimental museums in Scotland were also incredibly generous to me and dug up stuff for me from their collections. By the time I got the National Library of Scotland the list of books I still needed for my research was tiny.
What was the worst disaster?
That’s really hard to say. It would be wrong just to think in terms of the number of casualties. The incidents involving civilian deaths, sometimes less than a handful, had profound effects at the time and some of the repercussions are still being felt today. Every death is a tragedy and a disaster for someone. One of the chapters features a battle which cost one of my ancestors his life. I’ll pretty much guarantee that nearly everyone in Scotland has an ancestor who died in one of the incidents in this book. We’re talking about 2,000 years of history and fights on almost every continent.
What do you want readers to take away from reading the book?
A better understanding of Scotland’s past. We’re in real trouble if we start believing our own propaganda - or Whitehall’s for that matter. The British Government has been ruthless in exploiting Scotland’s pride in its fighting men.
What makes you think you’re qualified to write this book?
I’m interested in the topic. I can’t remember when I couldn’t read, or swim for that matter, and a lot of that reading was about Scottish military heroes. My little head was filled with stories of what uncle so-and-so had done in “The War”. Then when I came to Canada I was asked to cover military affairs for the paper I was working at and I read even more so I could understand what was going on. I ended up being sent to Kosovo and Afghanistan, so I’ve seen what war can do to a place.
And this is your second book?
No, I wrote “Scottish Military Disasters” before “How the Scots Created Canada” but the Canadian publishers got their book into print first.