Do Scotland’s school pupils learn enough about our history?
Some people have claimed Scottish history isn’t adequately represented within the Scottish education system. We sent Ros Nash to check the facts on this issue.
As part of a Scottish parliament debate in January 2021, SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson said: “The snapshots of Scottish history now taught at National 4s and National 5s are much better than before but remain limited. Teachers select one of five topics from the wars of independence, Mary Queen of Scots and the Reformation, the Treaty of Union, migration and empire, and the Great War. It’s still desperately unambitious considering the years of learning available during a pupil’s school life. History should start at the beginning and be honest, warts and all.”
But was he right? I spoke to four history teachers at secondary schools across Scotland to find out their views.
Adam Jamieson-Caley teaches history and politics at Thurso High School in Caithness. I asked him whether choosing one of five Scottish history topics was sufficient at National and Higher levels.
“I would say it’s enough. It would be unfeasible to cover the entirety of the history of Scotland, so the snapshot of key periods of time within a 700 year or so period is adequate, especially if ancient history is covered in the junior phase. If nothing else, there are times historically where there would not be enough – in quality or number of sources and expertise – to draw from to create an equally robust curriculum as the topics that are currently available.”
Hugh Mcmillan taught history at Dumfries Academy for many years before giving up his post eight years ago to become a successful poet. He has worked as a supply teacher during that time and doesn’t believe studying one of five topics is enough.
“Part of the problem with history generally, no just Scottish history, is it’s pretty itsy and bitsy. The teaching of history in general is sporadic and patchy and it’s up to the teacher how to do it. So kids will learn a tiny little bit about Scottish history but not the context or background to make any meaning of it. And that great gulf of Scottish history up to the Middle Ages is massively rich, as rich as England’s. But nobody knows a single thing about it. That’s partly the fault of the way history is taught rather than the way Scottish history is taught.”
All the teachers I spoke to said that during S1-S3, schools and teachers have a lot of flexibility over which topics and which Scottish topics are covered. Adam’s school teaches the Vikings at this level, for example, as well as Stone Age Scottish history. A teacher in the central belt who asked not to be named teaches her S1 and S2 pupils a Scottish topic beginning with Skara Brae and going through to Mary Queen of Scots.
Many people have suggested that the Highland Clearances are not covered adequately in schools, given its hugely devastating impact on the Scottish population. However, as Adam pointed out: “At both National 5 and Higher levels, with the migration and empire topic the Highland Clearances are a key piece of information in reasons for internal and external migration, so this is covered at the senior phase.”
Although the Highland Clearances are only covered as part of one topic, migration and empire is at least one of the more popular choices. In a similar way, pupils can learn about the Jacobite Rebellions, but only if their teacher happens to choose the Treaty of Union topic. Again, this is one of the more popular choices, but not all pupils will encounter it at secondary school.
At a senior level (S4-S6) teachers choose one Scottish, one British and one international topic. Most of the teachers I spoke to believe the balance is right here.
“We are trying to allow young people to know their place in their local, national and international society and become global citizens,” Adam said. “So to separate out the course like that allows for a fair amount of each. We alter [the topics taught] fairly regularly at both senior and junior phase to keep it fresh for ourselves as teachers and we choose them primarily due to what we consider to be the most engaging for the age and stage of the pupils in front of us.”
Award-winning teacher William McGair has been taking history classes at Dumfries Academy for 40 years. He noticed a big shift in attitudes towards Scottish history in the mid- to late-1990s.
“There was a growth in awareness of Scottish identity in the run up to the Blair government in 1997. But as well as this political change, I also think it boils down to [the Hollywood film] ‘Braveheart’ coming out in 1995. There was an awakening in Scottish history. And I think when we [history teachers] saw how young students responded to that story and we thought it was time to start teaching them the real story of Wallace and Bruce.”
Hugh agrees that Braveheart had a huge impact on the Scottish psyche.
“’Braveheart’ takes a tremendous slagging for its historical inaccuracies,” Hugh said. “But I think it’s a marvellous film – it kindled the sense that Scottish history was important. Important enough to do a Hollywood feature film on. I’ve never seen such an atmosphere in a cinema, not with folk shouting and applauding. And it’s because we were being treated as important for the first time. That’s something you just don’t get in the ordinary media.
“Perhaps it’s inevitable, given we’re in this relationship with England, that Scottish history has always been the poor relation. Scottish history, like Scottish language and Scottish literature, is a political issue. Everything boils down to the constitution in terms of those topics.”
Hugh and William both suggested one important topic not currently covered at all by the curriculum is the formation of Scotland itself.
“In the early 2000s, we [the teachers at Dumfries Academy] brought a Scottish topic into S1 based on the foundations of the four kingdoms of Scotland and how they became one country,” William said.
“So you studied Strathclyde, Dalriada and the Lothians and found out about the differences between the kingdoms, and the Stone of Destiny. It was the story of how they all merged into one. The kids quite enjoyed it. But eventually that was removed. I would think some sort of ‘where did the Scottish nation come from?’ should be taught. Because I suspect in Germany and in Russia and the US, that’s a very big deal. I don’t know if you took even some very able kids and asked them, ‘How did Scotland come about?’, they’d be able to tell you. I do think that is a missing part. Sometimes it’s almost like Scottish history didn’t exist before William Wallace.”
“My great bugbear,” Hugh told me, “is there’s a thousand years of Scottish history that’s just never covered in schools unless it’s done in S1 and S2. Scottish history has always been the poor relation. Even though the Scottish government has insisted, quite rightly, that we do Scottish history, what tends to happen at every Scottish secondary school is we just do the wars of independence over and over again until everybody’s dizzy.
“I mean it’s good that Scottish kids get a good concept of these wars of independence and the identity of Scottish nationhood and our place in the whole English-Scottish thing. But there are no bones to hang it on.
“The concept of Scottish history outside of school, if people are interested in history they get fed English history of course. I don’t think necessarily that has been a deliberate thing but because we’re outnumbered ten times to the English, every bit of media, every TV programme, books, magazines… they tend to concentrate an English history with Scottish history as a footnote.”
However, the central belt teacher believes all the main Scottish history topics are covered and that there is a good balance between Scottish, British and world history.
“Kids like learning about Scottish history. The only problem is that Scots in WW1 is a British topic that has been put into Scotland,” she said. “The issue is, we have to use Scottish examples [and] these can be hard to find. For example, [when teaching] women and the vote most of the examples are of English suffragists/suffragettes.”
The issue of adequate resources and teaching materials came up several times.
“I don’t think teachers have sufficient resources to teach anything,” Hugh said. “I was in a school the other day doing a poetry thing. A guy wrote a history book ages ago, which is totally out of date now, but they were still using moth-eaten copies of that. So I think resources are a difficulty for them. But also resources of time. There are some really talented teachers who may want to teach early Scottish history or the Ness of Brodgar, but they basically don’t have time to develop courses.”
Many of the teachers I contacted praised primary school teachers for the huge amount of work they put in teaching young children about Scottish history. As Hugh said, “I think they do tremendously good work in pritomary schools. I think a lot of kids come from primary school knowing more history than they’re going to learn at secondary. Primary schools do a brilliant job but they do have a lot of time to concentrate on one thing.”
With the Scottish Qualifications Authority being phased out and replaced in 2024, it’s likely the curriculum will change before too long, with potentially significant changes on the horizon once a new educational body is established.
But for now, as William pointed out, “Things have got better. And at the end of the day somebody has to make a decision. You can have criticism about the amount of Scottish history in the National courses, but I think [the education authorities] have tried their absolute best. With the SQA going, there are probably more opportunities to develop new things. But one of the great things about Scottish education is you do have a choice and it’s about the teacher’s experiences and interests.”