Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Al Fayed and the princess of Scots

His writing was once the preserve of dusty professors and earnest Phd students - but now the work of Walter Bower, a medieval Scottish historian, can be snapped up by the wealthy customers of Harrods, thanks to the efforts of the store's owner, Mohamed Al Fayed.

Mr Al Fayed's interest in this most obscure of scholars was tickled by Bower's greatest work, his Scotichronicon, a nine-volume treatise in Latin, which the historian wrote in the seclusion of the island of Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth, 550 years ago.

Bower explains that Scotland gained its name not from an Irish tribe, as most modern historians agree, but from an Egyptian princess - a theory which, not surprisingly, appeals greatly to Mr Al Fayed, a native of Alexandria and the owner of a castle in the Highlands.

The Bower history presents as fact the tale of an Egyptian princess, called Scota, a sister of Tutankhamen, who fell out with her pharaoh father and fled his wrath sailing north with her sons to a group of windswept islands off the northwest coast of Europe. Princess Scota brought with her the Stone of Destiny to this new country and, on her death, Scotland was named in her honour.

The rest is history, if you are an Egyptian billionaire, or myth, according to most academics.

Harrods customers can judge for themselves, because Mr Al Fayed has funded a print run of the book - last printed for public consumption in 1998 - which is now stocked in his Knightsbridge store.

At present the book is unavailable in Edinburgh, but 24 copies can be bought from the Harrods' branch of Waterstones, with many more available online from the same source.

In an interview at the weekend, Mr Al Fayed revealed that as a boy he had been taught that the Egyptians had discovered Scotland, though it was clearly the recent edition of Bower which had coloured his imagination.

“Go and ask about a book called History for the Scots, it's written by Walter Bower,” Mr Al Fayed told BBC Scotland. “A sister of Tutankhamen had a fight with her father, left Egypt with her two sons and her army and sailed up north ... She was called Scota. She told her two sons: ‘This is your land, go there and call it Scotland'. They went there and married a lot of Scottish ladies and definitely increased the culture. They founded Scotland.”

Modern day historians are less likely to take Bower's account seriously. Alastair Macdonald, from the University of Aberdeen, said that the Scotichronicon revealed more about the mindset of its author than it did about the origins of the Scottish nation.

“Bower was a chronicler who was writing for his own times. He developed one of the myths which explained how the Scottish nation came into existence. Every medieval nation had myths like these. They tell us a lot about what Scottish people thought in the Middle Ages - and this is a ferociously anti-English work.

“But they don't really tell us where the Scots came from as a nation. It certainly wasn't from Egypt. They are nice stories - but I don't think any academic would take [it] seriously,” said Dr Macdonald, a lecturer in the university's department of history.

Yet Mr Al Fayed is not without supporters. In his book From the Holy Mountain, the travel writer William Dalrymple explores some intriguing connections between the Middle East and Scotland dating back to the Dark Ages. He points out that the English scholar Alcuin, writing to the Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century refers to the Celts of Scotland as “pueri egyptiaci” - the children of Egypt.

He says that there are many striking similarities between the Celtic churches of western Europe and the Coptic Churches of the Middle East, dating back to medieval times. Handbells, T-shaped crosses and crowned bishops, familiar after the Picts were converted to Christianity and widely used by the Copts, were unknown in other churches. The “wheel” cross was a Coptic invention, appearing as a symbol there 300 years before it first appeared in Scotland and Ireland.

It may just be, therefore, that Mr Al Fayed is rather nearer the mark with his medieval theory of a fleeing princess who founded a nation than he was with his theories about the flight and tragic end of a more recent princess.

And in this he has an ancient historian to back him. When he completed his greatest work, Walter Bower wrote in the margin of the Scotichronicon: “He is not a Scot who is not pleased with this book.”

No comments: