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Near Stirling, Scotland, stands a memorial to the warrior William Wallace, put to death at the orders of the English king Edward I in 1305. Within that memorial stands a glass case, and inside of it stands a broadsword 1.7 meters long. Legend has it that the hero himself wielded the weapon, and so "Wallace's Sword" it is.
Magnus Magnusson, a native of Iceland who has long lived in and written about Scotland, may spoil it for some readers when he writes that Wallace's Sword probably wasn't Wallace's. To use it, Wallace would have had to have stood at least 6-foot-6 in height and to have lived two centuries later. The business of the sword is just one of the "cherished conceptions" about Scottish history that Magnusson picks apart and then, corrected and improved, restores. At other turns he considers the true identity of the legendary king Macbeth (and entertains some surprising but plausible theories about the king's alter ego); reconstructs decisive battles such as Otterburn, Flodden, and Glencoe; and looks closely at the complicated negotiations (and, many would say, treacheries) that led to the union with England of 1707. Magnusson closes with an account of modern independence movements and the recent return of some measure of national autonomy, opening a "new chapter in a nation's story, which the people of Scotland are now beginning to write."
Lucid, witty, and unafraid of controversy, Magnusson's book does a fine job of condensing a complex history, stretching out for 10 millennia, into a single volume. --Gregory McNamee [via]