Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland


Scotland has a new Parliament and it has North Sea oil, but is it yet an independent, self-sustaining democracy? Is it a true nation? In Stone Voices, Neal Ascherson launches what he calls an imaginative invasion of his native land, searching for the relationships, themes, and fantasies that make up "Scotland." Beginning with a breathtaking portrait of the countryÆs landscape, and of the way humanity has indelibly marked even its rockiest contours, Ascherson takes us on a journey through ScotlandÆs past, ...
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Scotland has a new Parliament and it has North Sea oil, but is it yet an independent, self-sustaining democracy? Is it a true nation? In Stone Voices, Neal Ascherson launches what he calls an imaginative invasion of his native land, searching for the relationships, themes, and fantasies that make up "Scotland." Beginning with a breathtaking portrait of the countryÆs landscape, and of the way humanity has indelibly marked even its rockiest contours, Ascherson takes us on a journey through ScotlandÆs past, interweaving his historical accounts with a rollicking report on a back-country bus expedition he joined during the 1997 referendum campaign that led to ScotlandÆs first modern Parliament. He asked voters then what kind of country they hoped for, what they feared, and what they expecteduquestions that animate his book as well. In his search for a nation, Acherson explores many themes: the slow, hybrid formation of the Scottish people over centuries of successive immigrations; the way their most renowned intellectuals and writers came to hate the national church; the peculiar nature of their diaspora; the coexistence of their search for an oauthentico Scotland with the myths others create; and the ScotsÆ proud sense of true independence. Stone Voices enlightens us about Scotland, about Europe, and about the conditions for freedom that we must all seek today.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Ascherson is a journalist and author of international repute. He is also a Scot (on his mother's side) actively involved in his country's successful campaign to achieve partial autonomy. More to the point, perhaps, he is a writer with the vision to see around and beyond his subject even as he addresses it, and the sensitivity to notice the shadows on it. — Richard Eder
The Washington Post
Stone Voices is erudite, well written and often funny. Ascherson is too good a historian to be deluded by prejudice; he knows, for example, that the Highland Clearances were carried out mostly by Scots landlords, not by genocidal Englishmen. Yet even he cannot resist occasionally fingering his scars. — Adam Sisman
Publishers Weekly
Journalist and historian Ascherson (Black Sea, The King Incorporated) takes a close look at his native country-its history, its landscape, its populace, its aspirations for independence-in this richly textured portrait of a nation "at home in hard, stony times." For many, thanks to Braveheart, Scotland may conjure images of William Wallace crying freedom. But Hollywood drama aside, Ascherson's examination of Scottish movements for sovereignty, both political and cultural, and Scots' concerns for equality and popular rights during their turbulent history show how such a spirit rings true today. Culminating with the passage of the referendum establishing Scotland's first modern Parliament, Ascherson's account offers vivid scenes from the author's cross-country promotional campaign and intimate details of a nation's doubts and faith in the face of great political change. Ascherson investigates the elements that have shaped Scotland's oft-debated history as he meets them face to face, including emigration, religious and racial intolerance, regionalist feuds and influences, bilingualism and the abundant interpretations and reinterpretations of what is considered "authentic" history. Ascherson also pays close attention to the Scottish geology-with its shallow, wind-thrashed soil and barren, boulder-filled valleys-that makes it a beautiful but difficult land for its people to inhabit. An enlightening read, Ascherson's volume will encourage readers to attend to Scotland's future, as well as to the forces that affect their own freedoms. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This is a unique book. While not a standard history that follows a time frame, it is a thorough examination of select aspects of Scotland's history, with a particular emphasis on the politics. Ascherson (Black Sea), who writes for the Independent in London, blends extensive research with his personal experiences to form an analysis of his homeland that spans centuries and covers such issues as archaeology, anthropology, and varying social highlights. Whether he is discussing the country's landscape, past demography, and changes in immigration or re-creating his 1997 back-country bus expedition during the referendum campaign that led to the country's new Parliament, Ascherson consistently delivers insightful anecdotes and glimpses into the country's formation and its people. Because this work is intended for serious academics or those with a sound foundation in Scottish history and politics rather than lay readers looking for light entertainment, it is most appropriate for scholarly collections.-Jo-Anne Mary Benson, Osgoode, Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A British journalist and historian examines Scotland’s movements for home rule and independence--not necessarily conjoined--and illuminates their tangled roots. Ascherson (Black Sea, 1995, etc.) sees the politics of Scotland, old and ongoing, beset with what he calls "St. Andrew’s fault": the divide between a tentative, nonassertive majority perennially jostled, admonished, and sometimes inspired by an assertive minority that is usually exhorting "patriotism" to people unsure whether they live in a nation, an underprivileged colony, or some kind of artifact. What all should grasp, Ascherson believes, is that the urging for collective freedom, a.k.a. nationhood, is a rare Scottish continuum in an otherwise turbulent, chaotic, and often violent history. For those who apprehend it, the message can seem as old as the myriad standing stones left behind by a Neolithic culture, but it’s not that easy to learn a history rent over centuries by the worst kind of religious repression and political revisionism, whether in collusion with England or by Scots factions acting on their own. Even today, the author argues, Scottish history gets short and "less coherent" shrift even in Scotland’s own schools. Ascherson does his best to provide remedial thinking, explaining why England’s return of the Stone of Scone (as a "loaner") was greeted by a mass shrug, why having their own Parliament (since 1999, facing initial reelections this year) makes some Scots uneasy, and why Scots surprised even themselves by celebrating Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which portrayed 13th-century patriot William Wallace. The tone is mostly affectionate and informed, except when, say, Margaret Thatcher is painted as a 20th-centuryLongshanks who hammers the Scots with economic policies that gut linchpin industries like mining and steel. For this and other reasons, it’s Ascherson’s hunch that Scotland will someday depart the UK for its own rendezvous with Europe. Greatly accessible compendium of scholarly passion.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809088454
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/5/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 921,520
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Neal Ascherson writes for The Independent in London and The New York Review of Books. His books include Black Sea (H&W, 1995) and The Struggles for Poland. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt


The inward gates of a bird are always
It does not know how to shut them.
That is the secret of its song,
But whether any man's are ajar is
I look at these stones and know little
about them,
But I know their gates are open too,
Always open, far longer open, than any
bird's can be . . .

Hugh MacDiarmid, 'On a Raised Beach'

Every day, I would drive to the hospital in Oban, taking just under an hour each way. That year there was an unexpected gift of a summer, with the big rains staying away from May until September. Enough fell in the mornings or at night to wet the land, from the season of rhododendrons glaring into the ruins of the big house through to the September rowans, gathered in heavy red swags outside the small house to which its owner would never return. In the afternoons, it was fine, sometimes very hot, and the grass in the fields was cut early and easily for silage.

On the way, I passed a great many stones, some of them raised up as monuments or gathered together into funeral cairns which had once stood taller than houses. I had known these stones all my life, and for most of that life I had assumed that they were unchanging. As a small child, in fact, the difference between natural stone formations — 'living rock' - and old masonry had not been at all obvious to me. Masses of stone like the foundation blocks of the Dean Bridge in Edinburgh might equally well, as far as I was concerned, have been put there by men or abandoned there by glaciers or extruded from the magma by a volcano. They seemed to me no more or less intentional than the equally black and angular basalt crags rising out of Princes Street Gardens to support the Castle. I liked the style and the feel of these dramatic stones; that was the point, and explanations about what was artefact and what was 'nature' seemed beside that point. In the dark, Cyclopean cities of sandstone and granite left by the Victorians, a good many Scottish children grew up with the same impression.

In his poem 'On a Raised Beach' MacDiarmid wrote:

. . . We are so easily baffled by
And do not realise that these stones are
one with the stars.
It makes no difference to them whether
they are high or low,
Mountain peak or ocean floor, palace, or
There are plenty of ruined buildings in the
world but no ruined stones.

It is not the stone which can be ruined, but the stone artefact created by human sculpting or building or even by the transforming power of human imagination alone. Five thousand years ago, slabs of Dalriadic schist weighing many tons were prised off the face of a cliff, slithered downhill to the level ground, levered and lugged upright in foundation pits and then commanded to change their substance — to become ritual spires of condensed fear and memory. The slabs which cracked apart on their journey or as they were raised upright merely turned into two slabs. But a standing stone which falls becomes a ruin.

One standing stone which broke in recorded times is close to the Oban road. A long gorge runs from Loch Awe down towards Kilmartin, dug by a vanished glacial river, and where the gorge widens out, near the farm called Creagenterivebeg or Creagantairbh Beag, at a place called Tigh-a-Char, the wreck of the thing sits up against the wall of the road to Ford.

This was the tallest stone in the district. The stump still protrudes six feet out of the earth, and the broken slab lying beside it shows that the stone originally stood some fifteen feet high. The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland states that 'it was blown down in 1879'. The local historian Alan Begg agrees, but is cautious about which of that year's storms did the damage. He writes with awe of the 'huge Druid-like stone which broke and fell . . . My grandfather who worked in Ederline and Craigenterive Mor used to say the great stone fell "the night of the Tay Bridge Disaster". Thinking back it seems to me now, according to the old of the time, that "all sorts of things that took place happened on the night of the Tay Bridge Disaster".'

Further along the main road to Oban, there is the stone at Kintraw. Today you would never know it had ever fallen down, and yet everyone in the district remembers that it collapsed in the winter of 1978 for reasons not clear: a bull stropping his itchy flank, or a Dutch camper backing his Dormobile without looking in the rear mirror, or perhaps Keats's unimaginable touch of time.

But in contrast to the monoliths of Ballymeanoch or Creagantairbh, this fall was unacceptable. Kintraw, or the terrace bearing the stone and the cairn beside it, is one of the most spectacular and celebrated outlooks in the West Highlands. The A816, after crossing a high plateau of 'frowning crags' and 'horrid desolation', suddenly plunges down a defile and bursts out onto a vast view: the head of Loch Craignish three hundred feet below, the sea stretching away towards the mountains of Jura and the horizon which is the rim of Ireland, the yacht masts in the anchorage at Ardfern glimmering across the water.

Artfully positioned in the middle of this view, on a grassy platform beside the road, are the stone and the cairn. The image of a tomb with its mourning pillar-stone, silhouetted against the prospect of nature like a romantic contemplative in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, is irresistible. In fact, there are two cairns here, and archaeological investigation has not clearly associated the stone with either of them. But nobody is bothered about that. The place is a resource; it has Outstanding Natural Beauty; it is Heritage, which requires heritage management. So this stone, unlike the others, was put back.

First there was an archaeological rummage around the socket, which turned up nothing much. A photograph taken in 1979 shows the stone lying prone on the grass beside the square excavation pit. It resembles a pulled tooth, its lower shaft an unpleasant greenish-white where it had been grasped in the earth's gum. Then the stone was reinserted, this time with its base in a concrete plinth. In the process, the workers set it at a different angle, no longer aligned to its original axis, which enraged all those who fancied that it had been carefully positioned to mark astral and seasonal events.

The repair squad also took the opportunity to correct a slight tilt which had apparently developed over the millennia. The big bird which used to perch on the Kintraw Stone to digest its kills ('the Buzzard Stone') has resumed its place. All expectations have been generously satisfied. As the Swedish archaeologist said when his Crown Prince reopened the famous Bronze Age cairn at Kivik in south Sweden, restored with a new entrance passage and specially wrought bronze doors: 'it looks older than ever before.'

But the first stones which came into view on my way to Oban were the huge uprights at Ballymeanoch. There are the remains of a henge monument here, and a later circular cairn, and six standing stones arranged along what may have been the two flanks of a broad ceremonial avenue. It brings to mind the 'cursus' monuments of the same age which are found all over Britain, the two parallel banks which can run for many miles uphill and downhill across the landscape. Unearthly beings, invisible or impersonated by robed shamans, may have been invited to pass along these avenues, between earth banks or files of standing stones, and perhaps the living people lining the route hid their eyes as they passed.

In my lifetime, one of the stones fell. It was an outlier, not in the main alignments, famous because there was a hole through it. Deep cup-marks have been ground into the faces of almost all the stones; it could have been Neolithic patriarchs or Victorian cattle-boys who persisted with the grinding until one pit penetrated to the other side. It became a peephole. Engaged couples met one another's eyes through it; papers scrawled with wishes were threaded from one side to the other. Then, at some moment in the last century, it fell or rather broke off halfway down. Nobody knew what to do with it. The stump was eventually uprooted, and archaeologists found cremated bone in the foundation pit. The top section, with the hole, lay around in the grass and got in the way of farming. A few years ago, it was dumped into a field-drain some yards away. Today it lies on the edge of the drain among other dislocated pieces of schist.

The new hospital where my mother was, the Lorn and Islands, is built on the southern fringe of Oban. Beyond its roof you can see the big Hebridean ferries entering and leaving the bay. The ambulances arriving from Lochgilphead, Tarbert or Campbeltown come over the southern hill and then swing off the main road directly into the hospital reception bay.

One day they brought an old friend of ours, Marion Campbell of Kilberry. She lay in the same ward under an oxygen mask, eyes closed, silver hair scattered on the pillow. Marion was an historian, novelist and poet; she was a patriot antiquary, a sailor in war and a farmer in peace; she was the mother of scientific archaeology and of community museums in Mid-Argyll. Only two days before, I had telephoned her, and found her cursing and joking at the onset of what she said was a nasty cold. I told her how much I was enjoying her biography of Alexander III, published at last after many years. This cheered her. 'Purr, purr!' she responded.

Copyright © 2003 Neal Ascherson

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