We've see the word "microhistory" defined as "the intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research". By focusing down on a narrow subject, whether it be an individual, a village, a family, or on the occasion of the first use of the word, a single event in a much larger battle, it is possible to ask "large questions in small places", to draw lessons that reach conclusions that might be lost or overlooked in large scale histories.
"The Rise of the Elliots of Minto: A Scottish Family's Life in the Eighteenth Century by John Evans" is a example of just how good microhistory can be. It takes as its subject the Elliot family of Minto, in the Scottish Borders, during the 1700s, and follows them through six generations. We've previously reviewed "The Victorian Elliots in Peace and War" by the same author, and our conclusion was that "You emerge from 'The Victorian Elliots' with a sense of awe at the scale of the task undertaken by the author in producing it, and the success with which he has done so. The result is a book which draws together a huge amount of original research, and which will in future be an essential port of call for anyone with any interest in the family or its considerable impact on Britain, and the world more widely, during this period."
It is perhaps no surprise to find the same conclusions coming to the fore when reading the latest book, but simply saying "ditto" seems to be opting out of one's responsibilities as a reviewer. We should really try a little harder to say just why we find this book so impressive. It begins, despite the title, with an introduction that looks at the origins of the Elliots, or Ellots, in the Scottish Borders, and then follows then through four often very bloody centuries until the start of the period focused on by the book. What emerges is an insight into the turbulence that beset the border areas of Scotland and England for so long, sometimes externally generated by passing armies, but often the result of much less formally-organised reiving or raiding by neighbour on neighbour or family on family.
The advent of the 1700s saw the influence of the Elliots of Minto expand and extend, in the corridors of power first in Scotland and then in the United Kingdom. Members of the family, again like many other Scots at the time, found their way much further afield, especially to North America and the Indian sub-continent: while others carved out niches for themselves in Europe and in Yorkshire. The superbly researched text is support by some fascinating illustrations that help bring people and places to life, plus some essential family trees. The chart setting out "The First Five Generations" immediately preceding the index at the back of the book is an essential companion for anyone wanting to keep track of how each individual relates to the family as a whole.
This is a book that will be of enduring value for anyone with an interest in the family or the Scottish Borders, but it also succeeds in telling the much wider story of Scotland's place in the UK and in the world during the 1700s.