BOOK REVIEW / From the great depression to a Highland fling: 'Landscape and Memories' - John Prebble: HarperCollins, 18 pounds

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The Independent Online
HOLLYWOOD'S Arthur Freed, the producer of Brigadoon, notoriously remarked that he shot the movie on a set because when he went to Scotland he found nothing there that looked like the real Scotland. Similarly, Spencer Chapman confessed that the found the 'roof of the world' disappointing until he came to 'the real Tibet of my imagination'.

Freed and Chapman obviously subscribed to Wallace Stevens's thesis, whereby the imagination is always superior to reality; but the interesting thing about John Prebble, who has brought Scottish history to a mass audience in his distinguished books, is that in his case the fit between imagination and reality is perfect.

An Englishman, the son of a Smithfield meat porter, Prebble was enchanted by the Highlands long before he saw them, and at school in west London he and a Jewish friend gave themselves Highland sobriquets. Yet Prebble was not disappointed when he finally visited the promised land, and his deep appreciation of the landscapes of Glencoe, Culloden and the other Jacobite places produces many eloquent passages in this book.

More an apologia pro vita sua than a conventional autobiography - it is disappointingly thin in the areas where a good autobiography should be densely textured - Prebble's book provides a thumbnail sketch of a life distinguished more by thought than action. Brought up on the prairies of Saskatchewan in the Twenties when his parents emigrated after the First World War, Prebble returned to England and a career in journalism in the Thirties when his family failed to make a go of it in the Canada of the Great Depression.

When war came, Prebble spent six years in the ranks with the Royal Artillery. Selected for officer training, he deliberately sabotaged his prospects by revealing his pre-war membership of the British Communist Party. When the war ended he was recruited by Beaverbrook and even invited to his villa on Cap d'Ail but, unlike Michael Foot, A J P Taylor and other men of the Left, he never fell under the Beaver's spell. He wrote some good novels, then achieved his life's work with a riveting series of books on Scotland's past: The High Girders, Culloden, Glencoe, The Highland Clearances.

The rest is history, in more senses than one. Despite, or perhaps because of, his success in bringing Scottish history to a mass audience, Prebble was marginalised and patronised by the academic establishment. Academics damn him with faint praise. Like Shelby Foote, the great novelist-historian of the American Civil War, whose career so closely matches Prebble's, he can afford to ignore his critics. It is true that Prebble has not kept abreast of all the recent Jacobite scholarship - it can surely no longer be said, for instance, that the reasons for Bonnie Prince Charlie's visit to London in 1750 are unfathomable - but this is unimportant; out of 50 precise and professional scholars you would be lucky to find one who could match Prebble as a writer.

One of the most interesting tensions in the book is that between the radical, angry ex-CP man and the romantic drawn to tales of the Highlands and the Jacobites - it is significant that the epithet 'Homeric' recurs in Prebble's text. But Prebble's sense of irony never deserts him. Nobody is as good a crusher of today's oppressed as yesterday's oppressed. The Irish survivors of the potato famine were prepared, less than 20 years later, to tear New York apart rather than be drafted to fight for the 'niggers' in the American Civil War.

Prebble laments that similarly freed blacks and dirt-poor Irish emigrants became the means of suppressing the Plains Indians in the 1870s and that the MacDonalds who had suffered at Glencoe could have produced in John Alexander MacDonald (the Canadian politician), a scion who referred to Louis Riel and the Metis as 'those miserable half-breeds.' Dour, gritty, tough and uncompromising in both thought and prose, Prebble's book is ultimately a paean to the dissenting radical tradition in British socialism, owing more to Langland, Bunyan, the Levellers and the Diggers than to Marx and Engels.