Bella interviewed Susan Morrison, one half of the team that has created Previously…Scotland’s History Festival launching today.
Where did this idea start from?
I had to wander along Princes Street one day and ask 10 people how many wives Henry VIII had. I got ten right answers. I then asked ten different and slightly baffled people how many husbands Mary, Queen of Scots had. I got six wrong answers, and two people who wanted to know the way to the bus station. I think the two correct answers were lucky guesses.
It’s a crazy story, but it woke me up to the fact that most Scots are wandering about in a fug of ignorance about their own national past. And that’s crippling for our nation. If you get your history from shortbread tins and tea towels, it’s going to be based on half formed tales of Jacobites, William Wallace and Rabbie Burns, that heady mix of Burns, Braveheart and Culloden – BBC for short – that leaves us in a bizarre state of maudlin teary eyed embattled victimhood.
I love our history. I love the history of a swaggering nation that dominated 18th century philosophy, built a navy that ruled the 15th century waves, and preached, prayed, fought, looted, disputed, talked and taught across the entire globe in 19th century.
We had to get our fabulous history out there. We needed a festival. I because I had absolutely no idea of the work involved in running a festival, I ensnared Ian Harrower, and off we went.
Why has our knowledge of – and treatment of our own history been so bad do you think? What’s behind this?
Well, history-teaching as a whole concept took a nose dive in the 1960’s and 70’s. There was a faint embarrassment about the imperial past, I suppose, so we took comfort in Romans and the World Wars, not to mention crop rotation. We still do the same today. My son at school is doing the trenches and the Nazis.
This was British history, or course. There was a belief that ‘English’ and ‘British’ were pretty much interchangeable. You could swop the names at will. Actually, some people who should know better still do, and I’ve been told it’s very entertaining to watch me screaming at the telly when it happens.
I’m not sure if this was a deliberate unionist policy, to be honest. It’s just an example of the Way Things Were.
And I’m sorry to say this, but teaching of history when I was at school was awful. The access to history outside the classroom even worse. Those big, stony buildings in the middle of Edinburgh and Stirling were just for tourists, and if you did go there, you might find a guide book written in the 1960s (blue cover, guaranteed to bore at fifty paces) or a wee man shuffling about who could tell you some stuff, but that, my friend, was that.
You had to go and find that history.
Can I just say that both the education and the presentation of history have changed beyond all recognition? Only this weekend I took my son up to Edinburgh Castle on Remembrance Sunday where he was enthralled by the military re-enactors in the Great Hall talking about the Old Contemptible. They let him hold the Lee Enfield rifle. In ten seconds a 12 year old boy engaged with history on a level I never saw in the six years I was at secondary school.
We need more of this.
History’s a contested subject. How do you manage to make it even-handed without being terminally dull?
Dull? Dull? History terminally dull? Wot? History’s not contested enough, Bella, and it’s never even-handed. [I think Susan misunderstood this bit of the question – Sheesh!, Ed] History is not just written by the victor, but also the big boys in any set up. Hence the domination of English over Scottish, male over female and rich over poor. As we uncover our history, and rediscover, for example, the women who fought slavery and the men who profited from it, the men who wrested workers rights from the men who jailed and transported them for it, and the women who battled for votes, education and equality then I look forward to far more contested subjects.
There are those who will cling onto the myths, the facts they thought they knew, and those who are uncovering – every day – new truths and details about our past. The most exciting thing about history right now is our burgeoning interest in it. Even historical icons like Culloden find themselves being re-examined and suddenly the ground shifts, details emerge and an accepted landmark of Scottish history becomes contested – how can that be dull?
If you think that’s dull, then I’m just going to have to fall back on my previous plan and have a certain divine Scottish historian mud-wrestle with a certain long-haired tv presenter…..
What are some of the highlights you’ve got coming up?
This is like choosing between my children. Now, in my day job I’m a stand up comedian, so I’m drawn to the Flyting. It’s a slanging match between two Scottish poets, Dunbar and Kennedy at the court of James 4, in 1504. It’s beautifully written in Scots and is wickedly funny, terribly clever, very mischievous and filthy. It’s also the first time the word ‘f&ck’ appears in print. Yes, people! Here in Scotland!! And there’s worse! Love it. That’s at Mary Kings Close (many thanks to them, too – they gave us the Close for nothing)
There are the afternoon teas at the Howard – calories and history, what’s not to love? – where we meet some of the greatest women Edinburgh ever produced, such as Mary Burton, Elsie Inglis and Millicent Bruce Peterkin.
You can learn the history of whisky and taste it at the Whiski rooms, or try beer history at the Beehive. You could eat history at Captain Taylors Coffee House on Edible Archive Day. Or you could go to our photography exhibition at the Axolotl Gallery called Jock Tamson’s Bairns, about the people who came to Scotland to make it their home, or you could find your ancestors at workshops throughout the city, go see classic cartoons at the filmhouse or take a tour called Sin in the City with Mercat tours.
Or you could come along to the Scottish Parliament and join in the debates – or come to the Devine Judgment debate with Professor Tom Devine and watch some historians get contentious!
There’s been a criticism that there’s not enough women involved in the debates, can you respond?
Two of our debates are being chaired by two fantastic Scotswomen, Sally Magnusson and Lesley Riddoch and all our debates have world-class women on the panels, historians such as Dr Catriona Macdonald and Dr Alison Cathcart. Not bad, year one. Will be better year two.
On the other hand, we are bringing women such as Mary Burton, Elsie Inglis and the suffragettes to the fore. We also have some great women working with us – in Captain Taylors Coffee House a fabulous young woman called Jackie Brown will introduce you to the Spartans and the Athenians, two cities locked in a rivalry that bears uncanny resemblances to the Scotland’s two great cities. No, not Perth and Dundee. And Edinburgh’s War is being discussed by Yvonne McEwan at the Dome. It’s one of my personal ambitions to elevate more women’s history.
Is it always going to be Edinburgh-focused? Have you got plans for the future?
We’re power crazy and we plan to either move it city to city, perhaps tri-city to start with, but ideally, we’d love it to become a national event by 2014. Just imagine a whole country drenched in celebration of its history. How cool is that?
7. What’s your favourite moment from Scottish history? If you could be whizzed back by Bella’s time machine to a moment in time, when and where would it be?
Ooooooooooooohhhhh……………..The day they launched the Great Michael in 1511 at Newhaven. My dad took me to the launch of the QE2 in 1967. I imagine it was a day like that, with flags flying, drums beating, people cheering and the English ambassador looking a bit queasy. Although the English Ambassador wasn’t at the QE2 launch….
We have a wonderful, exciting, dyamic, lively, funny, contentious, amazing history. Please come and enjoy it!
We will! Go here to search the programme and book your place.