Scottish history is a forbidden subject for senior pupils in our schools

Local schoolchildren enjoying a visit to historic Dumbarton Castle and Mary Queen of Scots. Pictures by Bill Heaney

By Elspeth Crocket, Arts and Culture correspondentCrocket Elspeth.jpg 2

Netflix’s OUTLAW KING, based on the life of Robert the Bruce, will hit our screens shortly, to be followed by a new film about Mary Queen of Scots which is due to launch in December.  Given the massive impact of BRAVEHEART in the nineteen nineties, it will be interesting to see the reaction to these productions – for Scottish history is highly political.

If you don’t believe me, think back to 2014, when David Cameron managed to prevent the screening of OUTLANDER before the independence referendum.  As a powerful member of the British ruling elite he had a nose for threats to its power and was taking no chances.

It’s not that there isn’t a passion for history.  People flock to lectures and talks, visit castles and sign up for history courses all the time.  I’ve done that myself, and participants’ most frequently voiced comments, in my experience, reflect dismay that they didn’t learn more in school.

There are reasons for that.  Let me tell you what happened to an acquaintance of mine, a principal teacher of history at a Glasgow secondary school and a specialist in Scottish and Irish history.  One day he was summoned by the headteacher who informed him that he shouldn’t teach Scottish history beyond second year since it was “too political”.  When Tom asked why teaching Scottish history was seen as too political while banning it was not, no answer was forthcoming.

I believe that Scotland has existed in a quasi-colonial relationship to the British state since 1707.  And all colonial powers tend to denigrate, ignore or repress the language, culture and history of the people they colonise.  A knowledge of your own history boosts self-esteem and enhances national cohesion, the last things colonising powers want.  So people who have been colonised tend to be portrayed as backward, savage, unenlightened etc.  I remember listening in disbelief to a 2011 documentary about the palace of Holyroodhouse, which described the people of sixteenth century Edinburgh as “tribes”.

It’s worth remembering that, if the coming together of the Picts and the Scots under Kenneth MacAlpin in 843 is taken as the beginning of the emergence of the Scottish nation, our pre-union history is nearly three times as long as our post-union history.  Yet, until recently, apart from some time spent on the wars of independence and maybe a project on Marry Queen of Scots, Scottish pupils were taught practically nothing about this period.  They were certainly not taught the history of the 1707 union, when fewer than 400 people in a nation of about a million had the vote.

A few years ago, David Dimbleby presented a TV series entitled “The Seven Ages of Britain”.  This gorgeously filmed cultural history was, predictable, almost entirely anglocentric.  The series opened with Saint Columba landing on Iona in 563, then skipped to the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment.  Dimbleby came to Glasgow’s “Aye Write” festival to promote the book of the series.  He was asked if nothing of cultural import had happened here in the intervening 1200 hundred years and eventually apologised.  I asked him why he had used the term “Tudor Britain” when no such place had ever existed (when England was Tudor Scotland was independent, and Stewart).  He had no reply.  When the standard question “Which historical characters would you like to have dinner with? He answered “JamesI1“.  By this time the audience was on to him and quite a few people shouted “James VI”  I’m glad to say there was no queue for his book

Things, though, are improving.  The last thirty-odd years have seen an explosion in numbers studying Scottish history, the old “and then there was light” theory is no longer the stock-in-trade of unionist historians and the present Scottish government has introduced a requirement for 20% of the marks in the Higher history exam to be on specifically Scottish subjects.  Not before time.

It is surely the right of every child to have access to all aspects of their own history, be it family, local, national or international.  And, if you want to reconnect with your own history, why not pay another visit to Dumbarton Castle, which has the longest recorded history of any site in Scotland.  Guided tours are now available at no extra cost.  It’s your history, enjoy it, it’s your right.



  1. I couldn’t agree more, Elspeth. While independent Scotland was one of the most progressive states. Divorce and the right of women to own property in their own right was introduced in 1560. The Scottish Parliament created the first compulsory national register of land ownership in the world. Just three examples of legislation which it took our southern cousins to emulate 300 years later.

    While our history is being celebrated our legal system is being marginalised as almost all consumer contracts Scots enter are governed by English Law.

    I’ve challenged the Law Society of Scotland to campaign to stop this; so far not a word of recognition from them.

  2. Totally agree Elspeth. I had the good fortune that my HIstory teacher at Clydebank High was Doctor Iain McPhail (or the Doc as we called him). McPhail was passionate that his pupils should learn the History of their own country – indeed he went as far as teaching us about Pictish cup and ring marks that are at the Whangy. As he could not find a book that would support his teaching he went as far as writing his own two volume “History of Scotland” for this purpose. Copies (second hand obviously) can still be bought, for instance here https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/A-History-of-Scotland-Books-1-2-by-I-M-M-Macphail-/223127467676)
    While working, if there was a discussion about Scottish history, I was often surprised by colleagues saying “how do you know that?”, or – and this is true – “I thought Scotland wasnt discovered till 1603”. There is something horribly dysfunctional about young people not being taught the history of their country – even if it is contended. But of course, this creates an identity that is not fully consistent with the notion of “Britishness”. In this regard I thought your tale about the teacher told not to teach Scottish history after second year, was quite shocking. Why should kids not be introduced to the creation of Scotland as a country, the wars against England, the influence of the Stuarts, and indeed the identifiably Scottish contributions to the British Empire?

  3. I’m puzzled by this article. Scottish history is not compulsory after S2 because History is not a compulsory subject after S2. Nor is Modern Studies, Geography, or most other subjects.
    However, Scottish History is a compulsory part of National 4, National 5 and Higher History. Any pupil studying at these levels spends a third of their time studying Scottish History. Did you not know that?
    I teach the Scottish Wars of Independence and the Scottish Reformation at my school, as well as Scottish politics and social issues as part of the Modern Studies courses at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher level.

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