Why, oh why do they not teach us Scottish History?

A reappraisal of Marinell Ash’s 1980 book, The Strange Death of Scottish History, Ramsay Head Books.

We’ve all heard this lament before: from legions of patriots in thousands of locations from the bus-stop to the pub, to the queue at the supermarket and, just now, fresh from the Hogmanay do. Rehearsal of this particular Jock’s Grievance has not, however, been limited to the voices of the woman, man and dog in the street. A google search will, in the first ten results, produce articles on the theme from – somewhat unsurprisingly – The National, but also, and perhaps less obviously, from The Scotsman, the TES, The Spectator, The Guardian and, yes, even The Daily Express. The complaint has then, some institutional standing too – and from across a broad political spectrum, though, admittedly, the Express is outraged that it is only the wrong kind of Scottish history that is being taught.

That it is not absolutely true that Scottish history is not being taught in schools, and that everybody must know this, does not seem to affect the quantum of outrage with which this trope is regularly trumpeted as a call to arms. In my own schooling case, I was taught at a ‘normal’ large comprehensive state secondary school -decades ago – and, before I could drop history as a subject, received the two compulsory classes -one on Edinburgh in the Age of Enlightenment, and the other on the reign of James IV. Every kid got this material by the time they were 14. It was of course, a fairly limited historical snapshot. ‘Comprehensive’ applied to the broad cross-section of social backgrounds and intellectual abilities of the pupils (Tom Devine tells us that by the mid-seventies 98% of Scottish school children were attending this type of school) and not, obviously, to the breadth of any subjects taught to pre-certificate level. Scottish history is nonetheless, part of the curriculum for every child. So why will the yapping Scottish dogs not let this bone of contention go?

If – despite the fact you’ve heard it before – you stay with those newspaper articles beyond the headline, or carry on listening to the patriot in the pub, you’ll usually find out that beyond that initial trumpeted absolutism, the question breaks down into at least one of several possible qualifications. Yes, admittedly, a ‘Scottish History’ is taught, but why is it so minimal, or worse, so marginal; or why does it only stick to certain ‘safe’ subjects? (i.e. North British Edinburgh rather than the Wars of Independence, The Reformation, the 17th century religious wars, the story of the Union, the Jacobite Rebellions, the immigrations from Ireland, or even the whole medieval period…?)

In effect, this qualifying logic runs, the scope is only ever a particular one, which cannot be balanced, smacks of partisan agendas, and leads to distorted views (The Guardian, The National and the Express can all agree on that last point …). It seems that everyone is supersensitive here – the teachers, the populace at large, the media, the students, the political parties and allegedly even the ‘authorities’ – about the various aspects and periods of Scottish history and the way they are taught. This touchiness extends to the point that, as per the title above, ultimately, nobody believes that ‘Scottish History’ as such – and not just ‘versions’ of it – is taught.

Of course, historiography – the way history is studied and written – is controversial – or at least a live discussion – everywhere, and rightly so, in terms of its scope, its methods and their social, political and cultural consequences. But is it the case in any other country that it is denied that effectively any history at all is taught because a specific approach or a finite amount – or certain specific periods only – are in the curriculum? What might be the significance of this evident hypersensitivity in Scotland?

It is in order to gain some traction on that last question that I recommend a reading – or a re-reading of Marinell Ash’s The Strange Death of Scottish History. Published in 1980, and much forgotten or rarely even name-checked nowadays. Californian-born Ash observes there that in the mid-to-late nineteenth century Scottish historical consciousness seems to have been sidelined into commemoration of a series of ‘meaningless or highly selective images of Scotland’s past’.

For history this outlook would give us a collection of emotional and sectarian caricatures of ‘great’ individuals, including Willie Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, John Knox, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Rabbie Burns, as well as all the attendant tartanry and kailyard it can muster. Ash borrows from, and misquotes philosopher George Davie in characterising this process as an ‘historical failure of nerve’ by the Scots (Davie had written of an ‘intellectual failure of nerve’ in The Democratic Intellect), thus conceiving of it as part of a culture-wide phenomenon in the nineteenth century. She sets out to investigate -via admirably exhaustive historical research – why Scots apparently lost interest in their full authentic history just at the time when, in the heat of romantic nationalism, other small nations -like Finland and Hungary – seemed to be finding theirs?

The irony that a Scots writer, Walter Scott, was one of the major influences on that Europe-wide phenomenon of romantic nationalism is not lost on any reader of Ash. Indeed Scott is at the very heart of Ash’s narrative as she shows how in the 1820s (in other words, towards the end of his life) Scott was able to use his great success and influence as a historical novelist, his personal charisma and political and social nous, to bring together a cross-section of writers and researchers – all bibliomaniacs – to work together in private book-clubs with the express aim of researching what remained of Scottish state records and publishing extensive histories.

For Scott, product of an Enlightenment education, tory with a small ‘t’, and crypto-convert to non-established religion (Episcopalianism), the state was well kept out of such enterprises, and the organic development by morally committed individuals of private institutions to meet society’s needs was the ideal. Thus, it seemed, was a ‘Golden Age of Scottish History’ born, and it produced publications which were based on extensive record scholarship and work from primary sources, and represented historical periods on their own terms and not on the basis of modern preconceptions.

Sadly, within thirty years of Scott’s passing in 1832, it appears that the new Scottish history also suffered its own death – a sudden and strange one. Scott’s status and influence had helped to foster a consensus but by mid-century it was impossible to find an agreed history of Scotland. In Ash’s telling of it, this was because of irreconcilable political and religious divisions which ran through Scottish society. Of course, these divisions had existed in Scott’s time too, but around the period of his death and just after society was changing rapidly and these differences were exacerbated by a series of political and religious events – for example the emancipation of Catholics in 1829, the Reform Bill of 1832 (and subsequent Reform Bills), and the Disruption of the Established Presbyterian church in 1843. There were so many apparently insurmountable matters of principle for the various parties, and touchy points susceptible to slight by one lot or the other, that as Ash puts it, ‘there was no unified nation left to speak of.’ To make one crude simplification for the exposition of the irreconcilable type of these partisan views of history: either John Knox was a murderer, or Mary Stuart was a murderess. It seems no compromise was acceptable.

Ash offers us citations from both Dorothy Dunnet and the Declaration of Arbroath in epigraph to her work. Perhaps a more direct and stark communication of this situation as she describes it could have been garnered by another misquoting and misappropriating here too – though this time from Yeats’s words on Ireland:

Out of Scotland have we come

Great hatred, little room

Maimed us at the start.

I carry from my mother’s womb

A fanatic heart.

Getting a little distance from that history as a seething cauldron of fanatics and their hatreds began to be felt as a prerogative for much of the Scottish middle classes. For them great new opportunities were opening up from mid-century on with the growth of the British Industrial state and the expanding Empire, and many did not want to be weighed down by this hateful history of what now appeared as provincial bitter divisions and prejudices. Thus, what was presented for and by those middle classes as history of their homeland was the series of clichéd and prettified caricatures (as mentioned above) – a succession of historical kailyards which ‘did not endanger the new-found freedom from the past of which many imperial Scots were proud.’

This is, of course, a very brief and simplified reading of Ash’s book, but might it help us in understanding how some people can conceive of the presentation of a partial history as a mode of avoiding authentic history altogether, rather than as some type of ground or building block towards it?

That’s not to say that Ash’s thesis has not faced some relevant criticism here either. Some later writers and historians appear to have considered that Ash herself brings too many of her own modern prejudices to bear on her material, and in her conclusion, she sees the social and cultural possibilities for those 19th century Scots as too restricted and in terms too black and white. Thus Colin Kidd, for example, says of such relatively simple explanations that they ‘objectify a single valid past’ and ‘skirt the fertile particularity of a bygone age’. Historian Graeme Morton, with his concept of ‘unionist nationalism’, points to the intricacy and complexity in Scottish identity which was possible in mid-nineteenth century middle class Scotland before centralisation of the British state. This meant unionism could be a dynamic interaction of diverse and progressive interests, potentials and belief and critical systems. Hence as Buckle put it (cited by Ash), the Scots brought to the Union their deductive and principled spirit of thinking (as in Scots Law), and the English their pragmatic and inductive spirit (as in Common Law).

Current day critique aside, however, to what extent might we learn lessons about the present fraught stance with respect to teaching of Scottish History from Ash’s presentation of the history of Scottish History in the nineteenth century? Obviously, you cannot map the one set of circumstances straight onto the other. It is not clear, for example, that the current dominant socio-political faultline with its attendant binary positions – Unionist/Nationalist, or even Unionist/Independentista, is directly related to any of the major rifts as they played out across the mid nineteenth century: Protestantism/Catholicism, Presbyterian/Episcopalian, Established Presbyterianism/Free Presbyterianism, Tory/Whig, The Gentry/The People.

For sure, there are bitterly rigid, unbending positions taken by some nowadays too. Social media, indeed, appears to ‘turn hatred into sport’. The Unionists seem largely unable to contribute a dynamic case (as in Buckle above) for ‘unionism’ as a process, instead obsessing with, as Scott Hames put it a ‘reification’ or ultimately the Union as a fetish (‘Spitfire Britain and the Zombie Union‘).

Meanwhile, too many Nationalists seem to think that, after 300 years in a unique type of union, just continuing to assert that it is ‘normal’ for a country to be independent constitutes a valid argument. On the positive side however, we do now live in multicultural, globalised communities where tolerance is at a premium, and if the modernist project of the future has been abandoned then these communities also have little time for the backward-looking obsessions and antagonistic obsessions with history of an ever-decreasing set of exclusivist faiths. So is it too late again! – in our changing times, to evoke in the national debate the spirit of Walter Scott’s ‘breadth of sympathy, innate decorum and restraint and his disinclination to take sides’? Can we still hope for the strange resurrection of the Scottish present in a ‘fusion of emotion, reason, intuition and balance’? Perhaps that is the lesson we can learn from Ash, if we spend enough time, care and consideration on it.

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  1. Finlay Macleoid says:

    The Scots always like to see themselves as victims. Never one to do anything about it or change the situation. I wonder at times whether waiting for everything to happen have made them even more victims than before.

    1. Gerry Hassan says:

      That really is a bit of an OTT sweeping statement abt ALL Scotland and ALL Scots. Your comment as such a generalisation does not stand up – and is not what this exploration of the changing contours of Scottish history and how it is presented, prioritised and remembered is abt. And this is a live subject given the right-wing’s ‘culture wars’ and in contemporary Scotland, debates around the legacy of Empire, imperialism and slavery.

      1. Finlay Macleoid says:

        Read the headline to the article. Why Oh Why Do They Not Teach Us Scottish History.?

        1. Gerry Hassan says:

          It would be good to read the article. It in part abt the difference between ‘Scottish History’ and Scottish history: the latter neverending, contested, never a singularity and never official.

    2. Alec Lomax says:

      I ALWAYS like to see myself as a victim? Don’t think so.

    3. BSA says:

      Self hatred with a big dose of sour.

  2. @ Bella Caledonia Editor says:

    History is always an interpretation of the past, a retrospective (and therefore perspectival) narrativisation of the facts as we’re able to glean them from the surviving record of events. Hence the complaint of critical historians like Colin Kidd that the attempt to write objective history is an attempt to ‘objectify a single valid past’ from the plurality of possible interpretations or narratives.

    The task of the critical historian is to challenge and undermine through his or her research the dominant narrative that masquerades as objective history and thence the power structures which that dominant narrative supports.

    Instead of spoon-feeding kids the supposedly authoritative content of objective history, we should be teaching them how to evaluate against the available evidence the strengths and weaknesses of the various rival interpretations that make claims on their belief. This is the real work of decolonising our history and freeing it from the hegemony of its dominant narratives.

    1. BSA says:

      Your last paragraph describes the principles which were introduced to history teaching throughout the 1970s and ’80s when I taught history and which are, as far as I know, still in place. What was missing then and probably also now was the most basic awareness and simple narrative which would give some framework and perspective for critical teaching. That cannot be just the responsibility of schools, and the absence of Scottish history from popular media or its routine conflation with English history doesn’t help, The BBC has a particularly bad record on that.

      1. @ BSA says:

        Indeed, you need to know a narrative in order to be able to critique it.

        I don’t have a problem with kids being inducted into the various narratives that ‘frame’ our understandings of the past. It’s the absence from the curriculum of counter-narratives to the Scotocentric, Anglocentric, Eurocentric dominants that I have a problem with; the absence of alternative constructions of history from non-Scottish, non-British, non-European perspectives that might serve as counterbalances and contrasts to the given one, whatever that might be.

        1. @ BSA says:

          I suppose it all boils down to what we understand by ‘Scottish’ history. Do we understand it as the narrative of ‘the Scots’ as an ethnic community or as the diverse narratives of ‘the Scots’ as a multi-ethnic civic community?

      2. florian albert says:

        ‘What was missing then and probably now was the most basic awareness and simple narrative which would give some framework and perspective for critical teaching’.

        Absolutely correct.

        The historian Tony Judt made the same point; ‘Supposedly critical approaches, intended – let us be generous – to help students and children form their own judgements are self-defeating. They sow confusion rather than insight, and confusion is the enemy of knowledge. Before anyone – whether child or graduate student – can engage the past, they have to know what happened, in what order and with what outcome.’

        1. BSA says:

          Study of the past is the study of the dynamics of society – how and why things change, how different people experience the same change and whether things really do change at all. Whatever other benefits it may have the study of a single reign or similar theme is static, like sociology, unless it has a much longer perspective, however superficial at school level, and gives a limited understanding of change. The danger of feeding pupils only a narrative though is that they may end up with the idea that things seen backwards from the present were inevitable and miss the point that Lenin was taking a very big punt at the Finland Station and Bruce took an even bigger punt when he disposed of Comyn.

          1. @ BSA says:

            ‘The danger of feeding pupils only a narrative though is that they may end up with the idea that things seen backwards from the present were inevitable and miss the point that Lenin was taking a very big punt at the Finland Station and Bruce took an even bigger punt when he disposed of Comyn.’

            And the benefit of presenting history as narrative is that students may end up with the idea that the account of ‘what happened, in what order and with what outcome’ they’re being presented with is NOT inevitable, that other accounts or narratives are available.

            In other words, the benefit of presenting history as narrative is that it frustrates attempts to objectify a single valid past from the plurality of possible interpretations or narratives; that is, it frustrates attempts to ‘colonise’ history.

        2. @ florian albert says:

          The fallacy in Tony Judt’s argument is that knowing ‘what happened, in what order and with what outcome’ is itself an engagement with the past, which is always made from some cultural perspective.

          Why, in a postmodern multicultural democratic Scotland, should ‘our’ cultural perspective be privileged over those of other citizens in our determination of ‘what happened, in what order and with what outcome’?

          1. florian albert says:

            ‘in a postmodern multicultural . . . Scotland’

            I do not regard Scotland as ‘postmodern’ and I doubt that ‘multicultural’ is an accurate description of the country.

          2. @ florian albert says:

            ‘I do not regard Scotland as ‘postmodern’ and I doubt that ‘multicultural’ is an accurate description of the country.’

            Nae bother, florian. Our respective understandings of ‘Scotland’ are probably constructed by different narratives, which plurality of understanding is the postmodern condition. Singularity of understanding and the hegemony thereof is the condition of modernity.

          3. Niemand says:

            Yes but at some point you must teach actual facts – this happened and this is the main reason considered by these people but there are also alternative interpretations. In doing that you have to decide which of these facts to teach. But you have to make that decision as you do not have infinite time. One of the big problems today it seems to me is that people only see history through modern eyes which is the worst outcome as we learn nothing that way. And for school children critical thinking cannot be engaged with without the materials themselves served up to them as it were.

          4. @ Niemand says:

            Of course, you ought to report that which is the case (the facts) AND how you know that it’s the case. This gives students the opportunity to judge for themselves the quality of the knowledge you’re seeking to impart. It also helps to point students in the direction of contradictory reports so that they can compare the quality of your knowledge with that of others’ knowledge.

            It seems to me that the big problem is that people tend to see the past as something that’s objectively given rather as something that’s constructed from incomplete and partial evidence (the putative facts). The unfortunate outcome of this is that they learn nothing of the consciousness (e.g. the provision decisions, prejudgements, biases, etc.) they carry into the work of that construction; that is, nothing of themselves. And without such learning, the student can’t grow.

          5. Niemand says:

            Well there is (or used to be) a critical thinking A-Level.

            I don’t disagree with you in principle but I think there is some naivety here about the capacity of school children to not only try and learn and understand the past (from scratch in essence) but also to take on board not only how contingent it might be but that that contingency is also disputed! There is a grave danger that at a young age it will lead to great confusion and distrust. It is a very tricky balance and I think only appropriate at a certain age at any serious level.

          6. @ Niemand says:

            Like mathematics, a facility for critical thinking has to be built up gradually, over the course of a child’s education. Studying rival theories about what happened, how, when, and why (‘History’) is a useful way of whetting that facility.

            No one expects five-year-olds to be able to write great literature or paint fine portraits, but that’s no reason to refrain from doing creative writing or art with them.

  3. Peter Brown says:

    Really impressed to hear you studied The enlightenment and James IV. Both excellent choices by your class teacher. However my Edinburgh school didn’t bother us with such details and focused on the Russian revolution, The Napoleonic wars, and the First World War. Unimpressed, I moved to higher economic history, where a course entitled 1500 to 1750 turned out to mention Scotland about twice.

    When a fellow student enquired why Scotland was not included he was told nothing much was happening in Scotland during that period.

    There was a dearth of publications on Scottish history; TC Smout had only just published, and teachers had to source most of their materials. The seats of History (there were no seats of Scottish history) in our universities were held by non-Scots and a degree in history did not imply any knowledge whatsoever of Scottish history. Teachers tend to teach what they themselves have learned, so it is a self perpetuating circle.

    so beyond primary classes of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace and spiders and Stirling bridge, all my knowledge of Scottish history has been acquired independently after school.

    Simply reading Adam Smith has taught me more than two years of economic history did at school.

    Out of ignorance springs bigotry and that spawns an imaginary history. We need urgently to ensure that all pupils get a good grounding in the basics of history to fight against ignorance and bigotry.

    1. L Riddell says:

      There were chairs of Scottish history at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow from 1901 and 1913 respectively, held by Gordon Donaldson and Archie Duncan in 1969 (date of Smout’s History of the Scottish People).

      Not enough, of course, but other people taught Scottish History.

      Not many students took honours in Scottish History – the way students chose their courses initially was a lot less sophisticated then than now – but more students could and did take individual courses as part of other degrees.

  4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Until relatively recently most teachers in Scottish schools who taught history were unable to study it at university and so most of them taught the British history narrative including the British narrative of pre-Union Scotland and England.

    Some whom I knew were also dismissive of a distinct Scottish history and viewed it as ‘nationalist’ and ‘parochial’.

  5. florian albert says:

    ‘Why, oh why do they not teach us Scottish history ?’

    One obvious reason for not prioritizing the teaching of Scottish history would be that the important decisions of the last three centuries have not been taken in Scotland, or for Scotland alone. There was no ‘Scottish’ decision to go to war in 1914 or 1939. These decisions – leading directly to the death of tens of thousands of Scots – were taken in London. At the relevant time, the vast majority of Scots were happy that this should be so. Similarly, decisions to widen the franchise and to create a welfare state were taken by a British government.

  6. Andrew says:

    I taught History in 4 separate secondary schools in different parts of Scotland for almost 40 years and I can assure you Scottish History featured largely in all of them. Not exclusively our own History, that would be to copy what happens in most of England. And Mike, you will be pleased to know our pupils were encouraged to evaluate evidence and realise that History is rarely black and white.
    It is sad that so many claim they were never taught any Scottish History but they should realise how little time is given to the subject. All pupils do History up to S2 but most never do any more and the time allocated to the subject can be as little as one hour per week. In S3 they make course choices and History has to compete with several other subjects, which is fair enough. Except in making their choices pupils are often encouraged by school policy to concentrate on the “important” subjects (English, Maths and Science) even when they have relatively little aptitude for them. In S3 they usually begin courses which lead to external exams at some level where the syllabus may have only a few opportunities for Scottish History to be taught. I dare say as teachers we could do better, but please remember these constraints.

  7. Adrian Roper says:

    In September 2014, a few days before the referendum, I was walking through the Grassmarket in Edinburgh and came to the pavement memorial to the Covenanters who had been publicly executed there in the Restoration period of the Seventeenth Century. A group of school children were gathered round with their teacher. In the middle of the memorial someone had carefully chalked the blue and white Yes symbol. The teacher said “Whoever drew that symbol obviously had no idea what this memorial is about”. I remember thinking the complete opposite was true. Surely the Covenanters rejection of the power of a London based King and his appointed Bishops was an assertion of Scottish independence and therefore resonates with a contemporary independence movement?
    Maybe the matter is more nuanced and historians wrangle about it. I simply offer this anecdote as an example of how Scotland’s past can talk to the present and how this dialogue is closed down – by some teachers at least. What might I have heard if the teacher had asked his class this question:
    “Do you think that symbol should have been chalked here?”
    And “Why do you think that?”.

  8. Willie Lawrie says:

    When I were a lad in the late 40’s/early 50’s until I left secondary school in 1958 the only history that sticks in my mind was the Battle of Agincourt and the Battle of Cressy and of course 1066 and all that. Why was I (and my classmates) subject to English history?

  9. Robbie says:

    Aye your right Willie same here,left school 1952 ,history was 99%about England or Britain which was same thing ,King Arthur pulling a sword from a rock making him the rightful king of Britain 5th n 6th century,knights of the round table, Robin Hood ,then there was the Lionheart and crusades blah blah. Great stuff when your kids to be honest ,never felt like a Victim tho ,but then again even “tories in Scotland are lightweight“

    1. @ Robbie says:

      King Arthur and his deeds are anti-English myths. They narrate the struggles of the ancient kings of Britain against the invading English during the early medieval period, at much the same time that they were also engaged in struggles against the invading Scots and English in the Old North or ‘Hen Ogledd’.

      1. Niemand says:

        Yes it is odd how this gets lumped together with the ‘English’ invaders (in the form of the Angles and Saxons) who did not establish dominance until the mid 6th century. King Arthur if he ever existed was Romano-British i.e. colloquially, a Celt. Parts of England that held out longest (like modern day West Yorkshire under the rule of Gwalog, probably) still have quite a dominance of ‘Celtic’ DNA to this day. Ted Hughes wrote a poetry collection called The Remains of Elmet referencing this, Elmet being the name of this last Celtic stronghold, the deeply wooded Pennine valleys and haunt of vagabonds and refugees.

        1. @ Niemand says:

          Yes, and much of the evidence for this history lies in the later epic narratives of early Welsh literature, including the Historia Brittonum, which is the national epic of the indigenous British (Brittonic) or ‘Celtic’ people, that was written around 828 and survives in numerous recensions (e.g. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae – the main source of our whole Arthurian ‘English invasion’ narrative) that date from after the 11th century and continue right down to the present day.

    2. Willie Lawrie says:

      I had forgotten about those other English history lessons that you mention. Thanks for reminding me.

  10. @ Bella Caledonia Editor says:

    The trouble is that, with the rise of nationalism, the universalisation of education, and the nationalisation of schools in the late 19th century, there was a tendency in the 20th century to use history to promote national sentiment (e.g. a sense of ‘Scottishness’ or ‘Britishness’), foster nationalism and patriotism, and give students the official narrative about national enemies. In the 21st century, attention has increasingly moved away from learning national history towards learning world history, which requires students to engage with non-western cultures towards the cultivation of a decolonised world and preparing them for life in such a world.

    Apropos of this, the teaching of history in French schools has been influenced by the pedagogy of generation produced by the Nouvelle histoire of the Annales school, which rejects the traditional ways of reading and writing history that focus on politics and ‘great men’, the composing of grand historical narrative (as opposed to ‘petits récits’ or the localised representations of restricted domains, none of which has a claim to universal truth status), the over-emphasis on official administrative documents as basic source materials, and the over-weighting of individuals’ motivations and intentions as explanatory factors for historical events. In French schools, children are expected to learn about the various approaches historians take to their interpretations of the past as well as about the evidence of which those interpretations are understandings.

    This hermeneutical approach to teaching history in France has long been opposed by traditionalists, who decry it as a postmodern innovation that leaves the youth ignorant of the basic dates and facts that should inform their patriotism and national identity. I can imagine how it would be similarly opposed by nationalists, of whatever hue their apron, Saltire or Union Jack, in Scotland too.

    However, something like it is required if we’re ever to decolonise our history.

  11. Johnnie g says:

    I find it patronising when supposed experts say – “you definitely did get taught Scottish history in school”. It would have been nice to have gone to the school of their schools. Certainly mine didn’t teach Scottish history.

    I remember one painting session relating to tartan and Jacobites for an afternoon in P4. That was it. Then WW2 in P7. Churchill as God’s gift, and “I wish I wore my uniform to VE day”. In secondary school there was American, English and Egyptian history, all in a very dry way.

    I did my Highers at college, but didn’t do History as the curriculum focused on the Ottoman Empire which didn’t appeal to me back then. In Higher English we read Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots play. The teacher was German and spoke about the excesses of the RC Church. Interestingly, Pope Benedict resigned that same evening. She also told us about James Macpherson’s Ossian being a “silly forgery” (this was her PhD topic). We focused much more on Dickens. She now teaches a ‘British Studies’ degree programme. Most of my Scottish history in school was in her class.

    I was once told that formal education doesn’t make you smart, but it does show you the entry to various paths you can go down to become smart.

    I like the idea of having a national epic which all students have to read and memorise. What would it be, or is it yet to be written?

    1. @ Johnnie g says:

      ‘I like the idea of having a national epic which all students have to read and memorise. What would it be, or is it yet to be written?’

      I don’t think it’s been written yet. But a literary work of epic scope, which seeks to capture and express the essence or spirit of our polyethnic nation, would be a wonder worth memorising indeed.

      1. Niemand says:

        I suggest Anarchy in the UK by The Sex Pistols.

        Simple, catchy, easily memorised and says it all 😉

    2. Alec Lomax says:

      The national epic already exists, it’s called Lanark. I doubt though, that the author would have wanted forcing young people to read and memorise it

      1. @ Alex Lomax says:

        Good call! Lanark is ‘white’ Glasgow’s Divina Commedia, Alasdair Gray its Dante Alighieri.

        Though, I’m not sure how well it captures and expresses the essence or spirit of Glasgow’s ‘non-white’ communities though, or that of communities out with Glasgow.

        Maybe we’re looking for an epic that comprises a constellation or compendium of work from all Scotland’s diverse communities, and not just a single work from one of them. Why should any one work or tradition be so privileged?

        1. Adrian Roper says:

          The challenge for meeting the brief for THE Scottish epic (apart from the need for memorable verse) is to weave together the identities of native Britons (capital Dumbarton), Irish Scots, Vikings, Northumbrian Inglis, post Union Brits, and post Empire Awcomers – and of course Lowlanders and Highlanders – and Eastlanders and Westlanders – and Borderers and Islanders – and men and women.

          Plus it needs an epic purpose (or two).

          Maybe bridging these ethnic, cultural and gender divides is a core purpose. Pushing Scotland towards being a place on earth where differences are acknowledged and celebrated as part of the bigger identity. Pushing against the internal hatreds that blight Scotland at every level.

          Maybe challenging the inequalities between levels or classes and areas is another core purpose.

          Maybe the threats of climate disaster and warfare for resources is another core purpose. Pushing Scotland to be a place that is future facing, and concerned beyond itself.
          Any takers?
          Victoria McNulty?
          Maybe it needs an inclusive collective to get holed up together for a couple of years.

          1. @ Adrian Roper says:

            The higher purpose of a national epic lies in the forging of a national identity; that’s what national epics are for.

            Johnnie g’s call for a national epic is timely since what it means to be ‘Scottish’ has become highly questionable as a result of the recent deconstruction of the traditional ‘ethnic’ criteria of genetic inheritance (‘bloodlines’ or ‘race’) and cultural inheritance (commonalities of language, history, art, religion, custom, etc.).

            It will be interesting to see what (if any) literary work emerges from the multiplying plurality of contemporary Scotland that will capture and express its essence or spirit as a nation. Perhaps that work already exists and just is the collective dissonance of all the various literatures that are extant within the borders of our jurisdiction at any given time, taken as a whole; a kind of Borgesian ‘book of sand’.

          2. Niemand says:

            I doubt it because any such desire to create a unified national identity is a load of bollocks. Identity is bollocks.

            I jest, to some extent. But this focus on identity generally nowadays is such a dead end.

          3. @ Niemand says:

            Indeed! The desire to create a national identity is the desire for assimilation, which has been one of the great evils of nationalism. We should rather insist that ‘Scotland’ is left to go its own way into a national antisyzygy, a republic of multifarious identities joined only by an agreed framework of such law as must be imposed to maintain the peaceful and productive communal order that’s conducive to the best interests of everyone alike.

          4. Adrian Roper says:

            But wouldn’t “insisting…on an national anti-zysergy…republic” be aided by an appropriate epic? And wouldn’t the people who created and lived in such a republic identify with it?

          5. @ Adrian Roper says:

            Indeed, it would have to be an epic that expressed the non-identity of the nation, with which its non-identical citizens could then nevertheless identify through its purely civic institutions, and which would thereby transcend the reductivism of your standard national epic.

            What would such an epic look like? Something akin, perhaps, to Hugh MacDiarmid’s modernist swansong, ‘In Memoriam James Joyce – from A Vision of World Language’, which aspired to lay the groundwork for the realisation of ‘Scotland’ as a truly cosmopolitan consciousness. Maybe our task in renewing ‘Scotland’ is to build on that groundwork rather than pursue a narrow nationalism.

          6. Niemand says:

            Adrian – yeah perhaps but I am struggling to envision what such an epic could really be given what it would need to encompass. But I am happy to be proved wrong.

            Funnily enough (and don’t scoff) the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony tried to do something a bit like this didn’t it? I actually quite liked it.

            I guess I am cynical about this concept of identity full stop. We all like and want to protect, preserve and allow to flourish things in our culture that we love and I am as much into that as the next person but what I don’t get is why this has to define my identity, whatever that even is. I always though you identify *with* things but I don’t see how you can identify with yourself. One cannot identify ‘as’ a Scotsman or Englishman, you just are one by birth or where you live (if the ‘natives’ allow that is). And if you want to you can even reject that label altogether. Identity is a shapeshifter and chimera and there is no ‘true’ identity as it is a construct that sadly seems to be used more to divide than unite.

          7. @ Niemand says:

            ‘Identity’ is a highly ambiguous term. In the social sciences, it tends to be reserved as a term that denotes one’s self-affiliation to a group (e.g. women, Portuguese, disabled, black, philosophers, working class, etc) however that group is ‘objectively’ defined. In philosophy, it tends to be reserved as a term for the ‘self-sameness’ that makes an entity definable and recognisable over time. It also enters popular usage as a person’s ‘specification’ – the information that can be used to uniquely identify, contact, locate, or specify that person. None of these meanings is the same as any other.

            I don’t have a problem with ‘identity’ as such. I do, however, have reservations about a) the power-relations that subordinate self-affiliation to assignment by some ‘higher’ authority, b) why we would want to ‘fix’ or ‘limit’ the being of an entity (and especially a human entity) in its possibility by making it definable, and c) the possible misuse of the data that comprises a person’s specification in consideration of both a) and b). In other words, I have reservations about the possible manipulation of a person’s specification and definition (as in ableism, ageism, classism, nationalism, racism, sectarianism, sexism, etc.) to the end of exercising power over that person.

      2. Johnnie g says:

        People are talking about the content being internationalist and national, which is cool. The idea of everyone studying the same text also makes it national. Everybody would have this in common. But the text would need to be worthy. I know the Polish have long done this with Pan Tadeusz. Not sure if other countries do it too, for example Finns with Kalevala, etc.

        1. @ Johnnie g says:

          The point is that, in today’s fluid multicultural Scotland, no single text can surely be worthy of serving as a national epic. The collective history of our various citizens is a tangle of too many disparate threads to be woven into a single narrative.

          1. Johnnie g says:

            I’m with Adrian Roper here. A national epic can contribute to the vision of a global commune. I will pitch a piece to Mike Small tonight relating to this.

          2. @ Johnnie g says:

            I look forward to reading it.

        2. Adrian Roper says:

          The opening lines of The Brus are worth a look. The concept of “suthfast” will need some post modern reassessment!

          1. @ Adrian Roper says:

            Indeed, the whole claim that a narrative can be ‘sincere’ or ‘secure in its truth’ (‘suthfast’ in Early Scots, deriving from the Old English ‘soðfæst’) or ‘just what it purports to be’, as Barbour claims of his national epic, is highly dubious under the condition of knowledge in our postmodern, ‘post-truth’ society.

  12. Gerry Robertson says:

    IMHO I would contend that History per se is not worthy as a subject in any educational environment, school or otherwise let alone Scottish history or indeed English/Uk for all its failings, distortions and inaccuracies does not stand up to scrutiny. Many notable worthies would argue of course that it IS important if simply to learn from past mistakes but of course this is just bunkum. We have very rarely learned anything from history and certainly rarer still from our past mistakes as evinced from the attrocities of two world wars and has still not dented the desire in some for yet more blood letting. Lurking in the past does nothing for your mental health, does not make for a healthy society and is counter productive and restricts the need for change ( ”we have always done it this way so why change?” brigade). Considering the injustices of today and not the distant past is surely enough motivation to bring about change for the better.

    1. @ Gerry Robertson says:

      Everything is History (construed as the investigation of what happened, how it happened, and where, when, and why it happened), even the study of the physical world. Every event is a historical event.

      1. Gerry Robertson says:

        Yes but investigation of the past is only useful if we learn from it, use it constructively for our betterment . I would contend that we don’t and I can cite many examples to support that view the most obvious is WW1 ” a war to end all wars’. Unlike other subjects Historical reference is only party useful if it is limited to say the last 50 years beyond that it becomes distorted and useless as an effective educational tool. As we know only too well Lecturers/Teachers, Historians and Governments have their own selective material to promote their own views which is unhealthy in a modern society and serves no useful purpose.

        1. @ Gerry Robertson says:

          ‘…investigation of the past is only useful if we learn from it, use it constructively for our betterment.’

          Indeed! And, as has been argued elsewhere on this thread, it’s useful as an exercise by means of which we can a) develop our critical thinking skills and b) discover and outgrow the prejudices and biases we carry into our engagements with the past. That’s what we learn from the practice of history and the ‘betterment’ we derive from practising it.

    2. Adrian Roper says:

      “History is bunk” said Henry Ford (in 1916).
      I remember having to write an essay either for or against this statement in school (in 1972).
      I can’t remember what I wrote but it was definitely against. My current arguments against are:
      1. There is no method of erasing history from everyone’s brains.
      2. If we don’t study history we will still have unstudied versions swilling about.
      3. Those who want to manipulate people with myths and fantasies will favour the absence of disinterested historical studies.
      I could go on, but that’ll do for starters.

      1. Adrian Roper says:

        I just had a thought.
        Karl Marx.
        His idea that beliefs are shaped by the most powerful economic interests.
        Do we get the history that the powerful want us to have (and have other histories silenced)?
        Is that why Scottish history has been marginalised in Scotland?
        And why the slave trade has been marginalised in Scottish history?
        Is there a better explanation?

        1. @ Adrian Roper says:

          Strictly speaking, Marx argued that all our narratives (including our historical narratives) are ‘ideologies’; that is, the consciousness that’s shaped by the relations into which we enter to produce our own means of subsistence and thereby reproduce our lives.

          So: less a case of history being written by the victors and more a case of it being written by the impersonal economic forces that shape our consciousness and of which that consciousness is nothing but an expression.

          [Disclaimer: other understandings of Marx are available.]

  13. Ewan Scott says:

    The truth is that some Scottish history is taught in school in Scotland – I can recall the Reformation, and some superficial stuff on the Covenanters and the Jacobites. I clearly recall in PRIMARY school – David Livingstone, Paraffin Young, and a few more ( over and above Bruce and Wallace – both of whom were minimalised).

    In secondary school History was more about UK history, the Corn Laws, the Enclosure Act and a few other topics – but not specifically Scottish History.

    Now, I don’t think that we can move on without learning from the past – so, I would hope that our children are taught about our history – how the land was owned and worked, how industry changed Scotland. How the clan system actually worked – and the bloodshed that accompanied it. I would want our young people to know how the Union came about – about the duplicity of Scots throughout history.

    We should teach about the arrival of the Italians, the Poles, the Germans escaping conflict, or as a result of conflict. We should learn of the arrival of latter day immigrants and refugees. Of how they becamse part of a modern Scotland.

    Without knowing where we came from, we are not a nation, just a collection of people .

  14. Adrian Roper says:

    Note to Editor:
    Why is it possible to reply directly to some posts but not others? Technical glitch?

    My reply is (I think) to Neimand’s argument that human identity should be unconstrained, and as free from identity-label discrimination as possible.
    My questions are:
    1. How identity-flexible and free of discrimination are people living in Scotland now?
    2. How probable is it that they will have more identity-flexibility and freedom from discrimination in an independent Scotland?
    3. Which future state is most likely to cramp the diversity and scope of the human spirit amongst the Scottish population: an independent Scotland or the UK?

    The EU (and being in it or out of it) is relevant as well. Anyone want to be a European?

    1. @ Gerry Robertson says:

      ‘1. How identity-flexible and free of discrimination are people living in Scotland now?’

      No more or less than are people living anywhere else in late-capitalist societies.

      ‘2. How probable is it that they will have more identity-flexibility and freedom from discrimination in an independent Scotland?’

      0% Making the Scottish government independent of the UK government will make no difference whatsoever to how our identities are formed in late-capitalist society.

      ‘3. Which future state is most likely to cramp the diversity and scope of the human spirit amongst the Scottish population: an independent Scotland or the UK?’

      Neither. Our identities and the diversity thereof don’t depend on which centralised political organisation imposes and enforces the rules by which the population within a specified territory must abide, but are rather a function of the relations into which we enter with one another in the production of our means of subsistence.

      ‘The EU (and being in it or out of it) is relevant as well. Anyone want to be a European?’

      I self-identify as (among many other things) ‘Scottish’, ‘British’, and ‘European’. In late-capitalist society, you can self-identify with any brand and with as many brands as you want, irrespective of whichever jurisdiction you’re subject to, whether Scotland or the UK or the EU.

      1. Adrian Roper says:

        Thanks Gerry
        You may be right, although it’s harder to identify as a European without the freedoms of travel, work and residence that we had until recently, even if they were perks of a particular late capitalist club.
        But another question:
        Assuming you want an alternative to late capitalism, do you think the creation of an independent Scotland is more or less likely to contribute to the process of change?

        1. @ Adrian Roper says:

          ‘Assuming you want an alternative to late capitalism, do you think the creation of an independent Scotland is more or less likely to contribute to the process of change?’

          What ‘I want’ is neither here nor there.

          Making the Scottish government independent of the UK government is neither more nor less likely to contribute to the dissolution of capitalism. Only the contradictions inherent in capitalism itself can bring that about.

          1. Adrian Roper says:

            So do we just wait until the inherent contradictions of capitalism unfold or can we make choices and take actions to try and help the contradictions along the road to dissolution?
            Sorry for all the questions.
            I think I’ve got stuck inside the Socratic method.
            My own answer is probably implicit in the question.

          2. @ Adrian Roper says:

            The contradictions inherent in capitalism (and its ideological expressions, which include the choices we make) unfold through our actions as we collectively live and work within its terms of reference. Our task is to enact those contradictions and, as Socrates prescribed, ‘follow the argument wherever, like a wind, it may lead us.’ (Republic 394d)

          3. @ Adrian Roper says:

            That should rather read: ‘…unfold through our actions as we collectively live and work within THE TOTALITY OF its terms of reference.’

            The point is that there’s no Archimedean point outside the totality of global capitalism (and its ideological expressions) from which we might ‘lever’ an alternative. The motor of historical change (like that of biological change) is immanent rather than transcendent. The idea that we can instrumentally engineer an alternative to capitalism as a form of life is sheer bourgeois vanity; ‘utopianism’, as Marx called it.

          4. Adrian Roper says:

            Sounds like a recipe for human inertia and hopelessness.
            Didn’t Marx want philosophy to drive change?
            Maybe he was one of they bourgeois.

          5. @ Adrian Roper says:

            It’s not a recipe for anything. It’s an attempt at forming a naturalistic explanation of how social change occurs organically over the course of time, without reference to any transcendent driving force, in exactly the same way that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection tries to explain biological change.

            Marx didn’t think philosophy drives change. He proposed that the driving force of social change is immanent in the structure of our social relations itself; that is, in the relations into which we’re obliged by the material conditions of our existence to enter collectively in the production of our means of subsistence. Philosophy, along with all other cultural phenomena – all the ideas we acquire of the world and of ourselves, all our art, religion, science, etc., our very consciousness – is nothing but an ideological expression of those relations.

            And, yes, Marx’s philosophy is itself a ‘bourgeois’ philosophy; that is, an ideological expression of the capitalist relations of production by which advanced industrial societies in 19th century Europe produced their means of subsistence. It’s this consideration that led critical theorists to develop over the course of the 20th century the praxis of self-reflexive critique, with a view to subverting the increasingly global hegemony that capitalism exercises over our consciousness.

    2. The problem is I have to upgrade my Askimet Spam filter which means comments being moderated manually : (

      Hoping to get this fixed soon.

  15. Adrian Roper says:

    Apropos various contributions to this thread, here’s the potential opening of an epic.

    ⁃ to a national/global epic with an anti-capitalist, anti-modern, backward narrative intended to prepare people for a return to living more lightly on the earth
    ⁃ written with Wales in mind but open to wider application

    Worshipping the future has failed.
    The words of English speaking kings
    Scientists merchants and industrialists
    Have proved to be worse than lies.

    They promised us the world
    But it came with the worst of reckonings.
    Money and greed led us all by the fists
    And hid the world’s end from our eyes.

    The best way forward is back
    Back to a language of backward gaze
    Where truth is a maze of genealogy
    Sung by the best old bards.

    Better to live in a shack
    And sing with intricate rhyming phrase
    The whole of your family’s memory
    Than to be lost for words

    When famine comes to the mansion
    And pestilence scales over private walls
    And those who profited most from progress
    Crown their end with war.

    Better to chew good scansion
    The tough sweet doomed prophetical calls
    That held us high in all our lowness
    And not want for more.

    1. @ Adrian Roper says:

      Bella left the loch o her hame an gaed intil the uplands whan she was thirty year auld. She haed the jey o her speerit an her laneness there, an she wearied o it no for fifty year. But her hert tuirn’t at lest, an she raise wi the daw ane morn an step’t oot afore the sun.

      “Muckle staur!” she speir’t. “What maun yer happiness be gin ye haedna thaim for wham ye shine?

      “Ye hae cam up til my weem, here, for fifty year. Ye maun hae wearied o yer licht an o this traik athoot me, my eagle an my serpent.

      “But we bade for ye ilka morn, taen frae ye yer fourth, an blist ye for it.

      “An see! I am wearie o my wiceheid, lik a bee that haes gaithert owre muckle hinnie; I want the hauns ti haud the haill o it.

      “I wad gie it awa an dale it oot, til the wice amang fowk hae groun cantie in their dafferie an the puir in their walth aince mair .

      “Owre the heid o that, I maun gang doun intil the daipths juist as ye yersel dae i the easin, whan ye drap ahint the sea an fesh licht til the daurk side tae, fouthie staur.

      “Lik yersel, I maun ‘gang doun’ – as thaim intil wham I wad dissowle cry it.

      “Sae bliss me, lown ee, that can see e’en ane surfeit o happiness athoot envy!

      “Bliss this cup that wad skail sae that the watters micht ruin gowden frae it an beir the scarrae o yer jey owre aa the warld!

      “An see! This cup wad be tuim’t again, an Bella wad be human again.”

      An sicwice stairtit Bella’s doun-gaein.

      1. Adrian Roper says:

        Thank you, anonymous bard.
        Another prologue.

        Like Osian speaking Scots.
        A bridge between old hostilities.
        And a journey down in prospect.


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