Northern Lights: A History of the Arctic Scots

Pegasus. Sept. 2023. 304p. ISBN 9781639362707. $28.95. HIST
In this posthumous book, the late Cowan (The Declaration of Arbroath) charts the accomplishments of several Scottish explorers who mapped some the Arctic regions. Pointing to adventurers such as Alexander Mackenzie and surgeon John Rae, the book rightly emphasizes the readiness with which Scottish explorers adopted Inuit methods of survival and travel. The author’s assertion that Scottish attitudes toward Inuit people were uniquely better among 19th-century explorers is less than convincing. Cowan also claims that British Arctic exploration was bloodless but doesn’t factor in long-term impact on the region’s Indigenous tribes, the many fatalities at that time, and the exploitation of wildlife. Most of the book’s pages are devoted to John Ross and James Clark Ross, the uncle/nephew team whose joint and individual endeavors covered wide swathes of polar terrain. Their four-year entrapment in the Arctic Archipelago foreshadowed the doomed and fatal voyage of Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror over a decade later. The book also highlights the overland adventures of surgeon/naturalist John Richardson and notes that he should be of greater renown.
VERDICT An imperfect work that some Arctic-exploration readers may still find to be a broad overview of Scottish contributions.
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