Scotland's Story By H E Marshall Galore Park pound;16.99
Great Tales from English History: The Battle of the Boyne to DNA Robert Lacey Little, Brown pound;14.99 16-plus and adult
Sean Lang discovers it's not so much a question of truth as a matter of capitals in these Merry Tales of the Past
Storytelling in history is back in favour at last and publishers have started unearthing juicy tales of battles and beheadings with not a historical source in sight. Henrietta Marshall's Our Island Story, first published in 1905, turned David Starkey, the TV historian, on to history - so she has much to answer for. Her newly reprinted Kings and Things, first published in 1937, covers the same ground in a twee bedtime-story style, with Much Use of Capital Letters. "Yes, Life (in Elizabethan times) was Interesting and Safe and Comfortable. But the Queen was growing old. The Queen was growing Very Old." Edward VIII "wished to marry a Lady that many of the Top Best People all over the Empire thought would not make a Good Queen". Because they thought her a gold-digging American floozie, actually.
A bit saccharine for the school library - better for the Christmas stocking Scotland's Story offers what it says on the cover - apart from David Starkey's promise that the author is "astonishingly accurate". As in Our Island Story, Henrietta Marshall intermingles fact, legend and outright fantasy so that Shakespeare's version of Duncan and Macbeth is presented as true, which it isn't, and - astonishingly - the date of the union of the Scottish and English crowns is wrong by five years. Interestingly, all those heroes from English history who were Brave and Bold and Wise in Kings and Things come out as Greedy and Bullying and Bad when they feature in Scotland's Story. But if you yearn for stirring tales of Wallace, Montrose and Argyle, and don't mind too much about the facts, this will last you until well after Hogmanay Robert Lacey finishes his trilogy with a volume that takes us up to Watson and Crick announcing DNA to their local pub. The tales are short vignettes, no more than four or five pages each, many with a link to today: William of Orange (Willem van Oranje) was nearly killed at the Boyne (modern Catholic graffiti: "1690? Let's have a replay!"); Captain Bligh was actually a comparatively benign and indulgent commander (just don't tell Hollywood); and no fewer than 16 English football clubs named their terraces "kops"
after Spion Kop, the scene of a tragic slaughter in the Boer War. The book is a delight to dip into, with plenty to rescue a last-minute assembly or a Friday afternoon lesson
Sean Lang is a research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University and honorary secretary of the Historical Association