The English Spy by Donald Smith

I’d gone to my local library to collect Road to Referendum by Iain Macwhirter, a book I’d reserved after I read about on FictionFan’s blog, and was browsing the shelves when this book, The English Spy caught my eye. Road to Referendum is about the run up to the Independence Referendum to take place in Scotland in September 2014. It also has chapters on Scottish history leading up to the present day as background.  So, it was quite a coincidence finding The English Spy as this is a novel about the build up to the political Union of England and Scotland in 1707 – the Union that Independence for Scotland would break.

My knowledge of the Act of Union in 1707 was limited to just the fact that by that union Scotland and England, together with Ireland and Wales, became the United Kingdom and I thought it was to settle the successor to Queen Anne who was childless and ill. Of course, it was much more complicated than that and The English Spy tells the story of how Daniel Defoe, at that time still known as Daniel Foe, was sent to Scotland under secret instructions from the English government to persuade the Scots to give up their independence. It’s a fascinating story of intrigue and backstabbing amongst the members of the Scottish parliament!

The narration moves between multiple viewpoints, mainly in the first person and some in the third person of various characters, some obviously historical figures and others possibly(?) fictional ones. There are Foe’s own account, letters between Isobel Rankin, his landlady in Edinburgh and her friend Nellie in Glasgow, the journal of Lord Glamis and a third person narrative of Robert Harley, the first Earl of Oxford. There are several other characters who pop in and out of the story – Lady O’Kelly and Aeneas Murray amongst others. This is a story about spies and the struggle between various factions for power and once I had got the characters sorted in my mind I was swept along with the intrigue and dangers of the times, keen to see how the Union came about.

The English Spy is a mix of fact and fiction but A Warning to the Reader at the beginning of the book clarifies that Daniel Defoe had indeed been sent to Scotland and was required to provide London with ‘clandestine reports on affairs in the north’. The Scottish Government was led by the Marquis of Queensberry who favoured union with England and the Duke of Hamilton was opposed to the union. Donald Smith warns:

Yet why did Scotland surrender its hard won and long cherished independence? The historians remain divided. What is offered here is fiction, yet as Defoe himself shows, the truths or apparent deceits of fiction may be uncomfortably closer to home.

Now, over 300 years later the question of independence for Scotland is still in question!

Dr Donald Smith is a founding member of the Scottish Storytelling Forum and of Edinburgh’s Guid Crack Club, and he is currently Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre at The Netherbow.  He has written, directed or produced over fifty plays and is a founding director of the National Theatre of Scotland.

Now to read what Road to Referendum has to offer.

8 thoughts on “The English Spy by Donald Smith

  1. Margaret – Oh, this sounds absolutely fascinating! And as you say, so many years later there are still so many questions. Interesting isn’t it how our eye can be caught like that by something that turns out to be a really engaging read.


  2. “Intrigue and backstabbing amongst the members of the Scottish parliament”. Nothing like the present then? It sounds fascinating. To actually be involved in factional in-fighting can be a painful experience, whether in a political, workplace or social setting, but it so often makes for good drama and literature. I do have reservations about inventing events involving real characters, if the invention runs counter to known historical truth. Does Smith do this here? Or does the fiction simply fill the gaps in the record as Mantel has done in the age of Thomas Cromwell?


    1. David, I don’t know!!! I don’t know enough about the times to judge, but I think the book is true to history going off the review quoted in the book from the Scottish Review of Books – ‘Conjecture, intrigue and unreliability are rampant, faithfully echoing the spirit of the momentous and endlessly debatable months before the Union.’ And also from Tessa Ransford (although I don’t know who she is) – ‘Donald Smith’s a voice we need to hear in Scotland … His deep knowledge of history, myth, story, religion, landscape and literature means that he has much real richness to draw on.’


  3. A librarian friend of mine is insistent that books talk to each other, so it’s not surprising that you found the one when you were looking for the other. As for ‘The English Spy’, I might put that on one of my book group lists when we get nearer referendum day and see what discussion it brings up.


    1. Alex, I think your friend must be right as I had Road to Referendum in my hands and was on my way out of the library when I though I’ll just look at those books on the back wall of the library. The English Spy was the only book I took off the shelf and it hadn’t been checked out since January 2012! I’ll be interested to see what you and your book group think about it if you do eventually read it.


  4. Sounds fascinating! I know the generalities of the Union but this sounds like it would fill in a lot of the detail about the men that Rabbie Burns’ called a ‘sic a parcel o’ rogues’.

    Thanks for the link – I hope you enjoy the McWhirter. 🙂


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