Book review: Historic Bute – Land and People

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Historic Bute – Land and People, published this autumn by the Scottish Society for Northern Studies, is probably the most comprehensive attempt yet to make the island the focus of serious academic study.

There’s no shortage of books about Bute and its history, but in most cases they concentrate on the island’s relatively recent past. Historic Bute, born out of a conference held by the SSNS in Rothesay in the spring of 2010, is very different.

You might, if you’ve been round Rothesay Castle or visited Vikingar! in Largs, know a little bit about the Vikings’ links to Bute and the Clyde, for example. But Historic Bute delves into much more detail about the island’s Scandinavian associations – many of which can still be detected today, if you know where to look – than any other book yet published.

There’s also a chapter looking at aspects of Bute’s environmental history in the Middle Ages, a look at rural settlement patterns, a fascinating study of the Bute Mazer – a medieval drinking vessel prized as a Scottish national treasure – and an examination of environmental improvement on the island in the 18th century.

And there’s human interest too, most notably a study of the witch-hunts which took place on the island in the 17th century and which, according to author Lizanne Henderson of the University of Glasgow, covered some 65 cases during a period of around 40 years, including 56 suspects in one year – 1662 – alone.

All the contributions to the book have been written by eminent academics, and so if you’re looking for a little light coffee-table reading, Historic Bute may not be the ideal choice. But it’s a valuable contribution to the collection of literature about the island - and a fascinating starting point for serious academic study of Bute in the 21st century.