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 correspondent
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.