Far from being irrelevant, because of its size, Scotland could become central thanks to a new approach to history, explains Tom Devine.
Professor Tom Devine is one of Scotland’s foremost historians.
In his two most successful books, The Scottish Nation (1999) and Scotland’s Empire (2003), Devine has written histories of Scotland that place it firmly within an international context. He stresses the importance of economic and social trends over chronologies of kings, queens and great men of history. He has written on the Anglo-Scottish Union, sectarianism, the Scottish Highlands, and the British Empire. Devine was born in Motherwell in 1945 and educated at the University of Strathclyde. In 1998 he became director of the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, the first centre of advanced research in Irish and Scottish Studies; it was based at the University of Aberdeen. In January 2006, he took up the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh. He has written or edited over thirty books and is one of the few authors who can say he (briefly) outsold a Harry Potter book (a distinction The Scottish Nation earned when first published in Scotland). In 2000, the Queen awarded him the Royal Gold Medal, Scotland’s top academic award; he is thus far the only historian to receive it. Colin Waters met him in his room at the University of Edinburgh in July of this year. The room was bare except for a number of cardboard boxes on a table. The history department was moving from its premises in Buccleuch Place, one house along from where Francis Jeffrey once lived, to a new address, the West Wing of the Old Medical building at Teviot Place, where all the historical departments will sit under one roof. A vintage paperback copy of Engel’s The Condition Of The Working Class In England lay on top of one of the boxes. Once the tape recorder was running, Devine settled in and gave the Scottish Review of Books detailed answers to questions on why Scotland matters historically, what would have happened if the Act of Union of 1707 hadn’t taken place, and questioned the ‘tradition’ of wearing a kilt at a Scottish wedding.
Scottish Review of Books: If you were a young man today, a postgraduate say, what areas of history would you be drawn to? What patches of the dark past need illuminating?
TM Devine: You have to understand that I came to history quite late. I stopped studying it in year two of my senior secondary school because – people of my generation still talk about this – it was so ineffably badly taught. It was boring, it was fact driven, it was old, boring political history. I did geography instead. It was only when I became a student that I was converted and realised history had a much greater intellectual potential at university level than geographical studies had. Not by choice but by serendipity I moved into Scottish history. I think I would be attracted to the general area of global development and within that, international mobility.
In other words, it’s the sort of thing I’ve become interested in recently – migration, immigration, emigration – not least because it is today one of the major policy issues worldwide so there would certainly be an audience for it. I find it fascinating why people in the past, more so than in the present, have moved, what impact that has on the host country and on the source country, and at the same time, the processes of adaptation. I’m writing the penultimate chapter of a book for Penguin, Scotland’s Diaspora, and it is called ‘Dreams of Scotland, American-style’. The findings in it are even to me quite startling. About the way third, fourth, fifth generation members of the Scottish immigrant population in a sense build up a quite different identity from the homeland, often brazenly so. That’s one of the reasons for such a friction between the Highlandism of the North American diasporic communities of 1707 and Scotland itself. Because to a large extent, and this is one of the fascinating features of this story, that identity was not Scottish really at all. To some extent it leant on Scottish symbols. But it was built up across the Atlantic. And it is foreign to modern Scotland. The other aspect in terms of that, for twenty years I’ve been interested in comparative approaches to history. Especially small country history which I’ve been professing for most of my career. Intellectually, I feel you can’t do it properly unless you place your case study, in my instance Scotia, into a broader context, an international context. In my new book there’s comparisons with Italian, Irish, Norwegian, and German immigration, so as to bring out what’s distinctly Scottish.
If you do think comparatively, you have got to get up to speed with other historiographies. Scottish history is very healthy at the moment, but it wasn’t thirty or forty years ago. It was introspective, parochial. The way to make sure we keep it moving intellectually is to make sure we don’t ever fall behind in modern historiographical trends again. We’ve got to keep thinking about the new areas of gender, popular culture, microhistory, and my own favourite, the French-originating, histoire totale which is where you build up a composite picture by looking at everything from politics to the economy to culture to religion. That’s one of the saving graces of small country history. We can do histoire totale in a small country, where even with England, it’s difficult to do. You can do it in a French region or one of the Scandinavian countries or, predominantly, Scotland.
So Scotland, far from being irrelevant in the study of history, could become central because it supplies a test bed for identifying trends that affect larger countries too?
Absolutely. I’ve always argued this. Scotland is an incredibly interesting case experience of so many larger trends in society; take, for example, the sheer speed and electrifying impact of its modernisation, the fastest in Europe before Soviet industrialisation in the 1920s. The nature of that great leap forward. Then there is the extraordinary global diaspora. One of the things I’m currently working on is trying to demonstrate the Scottish diaspora of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can no longer be described as imperial; it was actually global. Scots were everywhere, particularly at the middle class professional and commercial level. Then there were soldiers, missionaries, entrepreneurs, merchants, and above all the professionals, the engineers, the Scottish doctor – and very interestingly, the Scottish professional role in environmental science in the nineteenth century. It’s no coincidence that John Muir came from Scotland as he was absolutely representative of a whole cadre of Scots, many of them originally scientists, many interested in agriculture. As a footnote to that, there was an extraordinary emigration of Scottish gardeners. To have a Scottish gardener in the USA in the nineteenth century was regarded as highly prestigious because they were thought to have state of the art knowledge. The challenge in having recognised the positive impact of Scots is not to get bogged down in the Burns supper school of Scottish history. Not to get bogged down in ethnic conceit or boosterism. I was at the biggest academic conference in the Year of Homecoming, held in Inverness; a minister in the current government introduced it and more or less gave a sermon on the work of Arthur Herman.
In other words, he hoped the result of the conference would be to show the extraordinary achieving effect of the Scots immigrant worldwide. Now remember this was an academic conference, not a political rally. You’ve got to keep the balance without becoming arid or too academic, between recognising this country undoubtedly punched above its weight and the other, darker side. You have to be careful you don’t overestimate the country’s achievements. It’s quite a challenge.
Preparing for this interview, I read an anthology you contributed to almost twenty years ago, Why Scottish History Matters. Another contributor, Christopher Harvie, writes: “History is as much a matter of personality and background of the writer as of objective investigation into historical fact.” Is that true and if so, how does it apply to you?
As an undergraduate we were taught to know the historian before you know the history. Obviously, it’s sometimes difficult to know where people are coming from. The background is important. I was born and brought up on a housing scheme in Motherwell though I cannot claim to have come from the poorest ranks in society.
My father was a schoolteacher and one of the very first Irish Catholic MA graduates from a Scottish university, in the 1930s.
I think I tend to be very conscious of the downtrodden, of those who have suffered, but I would hope it would be quite difficult to tell where I come from in terms of background and politically. On the other hand, I might be the person least aware on that front of the sins of omission and commission. It was quite fascinating to me to learn in the blogosphere in the late 1990s that I was a Nat and in the current blogosphere I am an overt unionist.
Is a historian a good person to talk about now, the present? And if not, what use is history?
One of the things I say – it’s hackneyed because I’ve used it so often – when asked about the present or the future is “Not my period”. But actually, I now do a lot of work for media which has a contemporary or even a semi-futuristic aspect. So what would be the advantage a historian
has? He only has two advantages over a political scientist or sociologist. The first is perspective – you can situate the present in the past so you see the way things evolve and so are not too taken aback by modern developments as you can see them as part of a process which has built up from the past. The other thing is – another Devine cliché – history is the queen of all other disciplines. With history, you are forced to look at society in the round. The whole business of my discipline is explanation, analysis, interpretation. You are forced to find not answers, as often answers can be readily given out in a semi-convincing way, but the questions. That can be useful when looking at a modern situation. Even a medievalist working with the questions he or she would ask of their period can leap forward to the present and ask what the issues here are.
If history does have a use, can you give an example of where it has been useful officially? A world leader who has drawn on history to the benefit of their people or the people of the world?
It’s difficult to reflect on that. I don’t think politicians in the main in Britain or elsewhere read academic history. A lot of the history politicians read is popular history – I’ve just given the example of Arthur Herman. I’m sure in the 1960s and 1970s, there were a lot of references made to John Prebble’s trilogy on the tragedies of the Highlands – Glencoe, Culloden and the Highland Clearances.
The one I can think of in a quite striking way, I think she was even asked to go to Downing Street to conduct a seminar, was, at the time of the great constitutional debates of the late 1980s and 1990s, Linda Colley. Her book Britons argued that the Union was actually a construct, it wasn’t a natural, organic development from the past. It was a construct that depended on certain foundations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as Protestantism, empire and a joint economic aspiration and achievement. If you take that on board, it’s easy to see that if the foundations disappear, you get the possible disintegration of the UK. That’s an example of a book that is seen as a reputable academic text that has had an effect in the wider political arena at least in terms of debate. It was often used to demonstrate the parliamentary union of 1707 wasn’t likely to last forever. But in the main history, especially in Europe, has been used for bad purposes. And historians have often been accomplices in that.
It’s interesting you make the distinction between politicians reading popular histories as opposed to reading academic histories. What effect does that have? I take it you’re not making the distinction of popular bad, academic good?
No, no, far be it from me to say that. The Scottish Nation has sold nearly 100,000 copies, so I hope there is at least a degree of semi-academic respectability to it too. Having tried to write a popular book, it is possible, and increasingly a number of historians are able to do it, to cross the divide. My publisher is Penguin. If you look at its history list, it consists mainly of eminent historians who are also able to write books you wouldn’t only find in their history department. In my youth I had the elitist view that the only history worth writing was based on documents. I wasn’t interested in world history, music, popular tradition, literature as sources. It was a myopic view. The other view I had – I recall vividly the early 1980s when I had a senior management role at Strathclyde, my secretary had a standing rule not to let the media near me. My view in those days about the way to communicate new work to the public was through teachers that you are training and the education they give in schools. It was the immaturity of youth. Now I’ve gone to the other extreme. I feel evangelically that it is vital that the work my colleagues have done should be out there in the public domain, not shut away. If I have a concern with current newspaper reviewing practices – and I would say this, wouldn’t I? – some of the best written work in Scotland over the last twenty-five years has come from the pens of Scottish historians, but it’s increasingly rare, excepting historical mega-books that might have wider sales, to be reviewed in the press. Whereas it is quite common for what I’d describe as arcane novelettes to be reviewed. I sometimes wonder if newspaper literary editors understand the hunger for history. It’s amazing to see the numbers that turn up in this university to history-based events. For a lecture, we can fill the McEwan Hall with minimum difficulty. I often think this is because of the greater interest in identity that has developed over the past twenty-five years. And also, people were starved of this. Forty-, fifty- and sixty-year-olds were starved of it at a school level.
Does making history readable diminish its veracity? Does the creation of a narrative necessarily simplify?
I can only respond on a personal level. I can’t actually write narrative history. My whole intellectual training from when I was an undergraduate right through to how I now write and teach, I think in terms of interpretation, analysis and argument. I’m convinced from taking part in public events, if that style of history is packaged in a certain way the general intelligent public will accept it. My two books that have sold most – The Scottish Nation and Scotland’s Empire – are both non-narrative. They’re argumentative, they put forward themes, they try to address problems. I’m certain if they were published fifty years ago, there would have been hardly any interest in them. Because people are looking for answers to questions of identity in Scotland in an age of transformation, there is a market. I would say not many academic historians can do it; I don’t say that in an immodest sense. They’re not interested in doing it, they prefer to address their peers. But if you are interested in doing it, it is difficult. Because you are distilling and at the same time you have to keep an eye on the fact you are not writing for an expert readership, while bearing in mind your peers will be reading it too. So, it’s not easy, but it is extremely satisfying to communicate with the wider public.
You spoke a little earlier about your younger self’s belief that the only history he was interested in writing was that based directly on documents. Closer to today, for your larger, more popular volumes – Scotland’s Empire and The Scottish Nation – you had to do some synthesising of other historians’ work. Is that a valid methodology? I’m aware of some of the sniping that might go on. What I’m working on currently is the third part of a trilogy. I didn’t plan it that way. The trilogy covers 400 years of Scottish history. The last two books in the trilogy are really histories of Scotland out there in the world. For that, I’ve had to get up to speed with historiographies of America, South Africa, Australasia, New Zealand, and even Asia and China, as Scots were active there as well. There is no way you can write such a text based on archival research because essentially it becomes global history albeit with a target on a certain ethnicity. It’s impossible to do. The way I describe that kind of writing, which is different from my normal academic style of writing, is interpretative synthesis. They’re not compilations in that I’m simply repeating what others have said. I’m taking the building blocks created by others and trying to put a stamp of interpretation on them, which taken together might have a different emphasis from the original contribution. In some cases, I come to quite different conclusions from what those original writers were getting at. Once I see the total architecture, a different picture often appears. It’s fascinating to move away from the very detailed, very precise research dynamic you get when writing a work based on original work to the grand sweep. There’s an intellectual liberation. There’s almost a tradition in European historiography that once you get to a certain age, you start doing this sort of thing. It’s not what a younger colleague yet to make his name with original contributions would write. It is a suitable vehicle for the gerontocracy.
What’s your opinion on virtual history or counterfactual history?
It depends how well it’s done. It’s almost an inevitable part of history philosophically. It’s not my own cup of tea in terms of writing but is an interesting approach in tutorial writing. ‘What if…?’ Suppose the RAF hadn’t won the Battle of Britain. There was an interesting war game that took place some years ago with some of the surviving German generals and former Luftwaffe pilots. And the general consensus, after taking all the variables into consideration, was that the German invasion ships would have been annihilated by the Royal Navy.
At great cost to the Navy. But the Brits would have brought every possible force to converge on that. Even D-Day was difficult in 1944 when the Allies had complete control of the air and the seas. That’s an interesting use of counterfactual history as it forces the conventional historian to downgrade a little the significance of the Battle of Britain in the final defeat of Germany.
The counterfactual question that springs to my mind is, What if Union had not been achieved in 1707?
First of all, it wasn’t inevitable that the Union would happen. A range of particular circumstances came together. The critical factor was the beginnings of the titanic struggle between what was then England before the Union and France for world domination, which lasted throughout the eighteenth century. If the Scottish Parliament had voted against Union, I wouldn’t suggest there would have been militarily confrontation immediately but if the War of Spanish Succession which threatened to restore the Stuarts, the Catholic Stuarts of this time, to the British throne, had been going against England, I am convinced there would have been a military invasion of Scotland. The English could not have tolerated a weak northern flank. It would have been the obvious route into England. It’s interesting that every single one of the Jacobite rebellions, of 1689, 1715, and 1745-6, began in the West Highlands, even although they were by no means simply Highland risings. That gives a false impression. Numerically, there was probably more commitment from the North-East Episcopalian areas than from Catholic ones. If you want to put it in a counterfactual sense, if England had mastered France by 1715, 1720, and restored international stability, the Union as it happened in 1707 might never have come about. The other aspect of that which is equally intriguing is, where was Scotland going to go. This was the age of mercantilism, the age of protectionism in Europe. The Scottish navy consisted of six ships. In the eighteenth century if you were going to make your way in terms of the American empire or Indian Empire, you needed substantial naval muscle. Scotland was being frozen out of Europe, its traditional markets. England was already using blackmail in the Alien Act; in other words, if they didn’t come to the table to discuss Union, all Scottish estates in England would be sequestrated and the major Scottish goods sold in England would be banned.
So you could say that by the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, especially given the symbolic significance of Darien – when Scotland did try to break out of this constricting vice and found its own colonial presence in central America and by so doing enter the profitable Asian trade in spices and textiles – Scottish elites longed for an economic union with England. From the Scottish end then there may have been a growing desire for Union over the long term even if the discussions of 1706-7 had broken down. The alternative as the elites would have seen it would have been national immiseration. They would have been frozen out of a world dominated by the big players. Whereas after 1707, Scotland had the armour plate of the British state around itself; the way I put it in one of my books was rather than break the door down of the British Empire through Darien, they went in the back door by stealth.
By the end of the eighteenth century, you can see something of the old aphorism that England ruled the Empire but Scots ran it. The saying exaggerates slightly, but when you look at the thing statistically, from trade to the military, the Scots were disproportionate in numbers in relation to other UK ethnicities. One in ten of the Great Britain population was Scots; if you look at the East India Company, at the civil service elite grade, a third to a quarter were Scots. The Hudson Bay company was dominated by Orkney men. The other big fur trading company, the North West Company, was dominated by Hebrideans. The Hebrideans were very effective at debauching the Indian peoples through rum in exchange for pelts. The tobacco trade was dominated by Glasgow merchants.
The second chapter in the book I’m writing is ‘Did Slavery Make Scotland Great?’ In the West Indies, management and plantation ownership were dominated by Scots. This enterprising didn’t start with the Union, it began before it, in Europe.
My thesis was these people learnt their tradition of ruthlessness and profit-making and how to cut corners in the four centuries when they operated in Europe. Unlike other parts of the UK, they had perfected these techniques in Europe before swinging west. They couldn’t have exploited the west without the military support and protection of the Union. The other thing they got, which not even Ulster Protestants got, was a level playing field despite Scots being Presbyterian because the Act that secured the Church of Scotland was incorporated in the Union. Although in England Presbyterians were Dissenters and therefore handicapped in commercial pursuits, that was not the case with the Scots. The Union was a necessary but not a sufficient cause of development, which we can see in the example of Ireland. Ireland was in the Union but it became a satellite of England. A source of raw materials and cheap labour. Scots managed to go their own way in a semi-independent sense.
If Scots had been invaded they certainly wouldn’t have got the trading concessions they achieved in 1707. To some extent, and I know this will not go down well in certain political circles, those gentlemen of the early eighteenth century, and remember we’re talking of an electorate that was 0.06 percent of the Scottish population, so this was the elite of an elite – to some extent they managed to get their cake and to eat it. They got their commercial privileges and, excepting the periods in which there were Jacobite uprisings, by and large for most of the century Scotland was allowed to govern itself. Historians talk about semi-independence in this period. All England was interested in was not exploitation of Scotia but its own security. Once that was buttressed and secured they were fine though they might loathe the Scots because of their commercial rapacity. This is one thing I haven’t yet been able to understand or explain sociologically: why were eighteenth century Scottish merchants and traders so rapacious and greedy? It goes right through to the nineteenth century with Jardine Matheson & Co, the world’s greatest drug traders of all time. Who imported a massive opium supply to China and debauched the entire Chinese elite in return for tea. One of the speculations I sometimes have was inspired by reading the words of a recruiter for the Hudson Bay Company in seventeenth century Scotland: “This is a hard country to live in.” I wonder whether the option of failure had a much higher threshold for Scots than the English, who had more in the way of economic opportunity down there. So that Scots were virtually prepared to do anything to turn a buck.
Who were your historical mentors?
Overwhelmingly, they were English scholars or scholars trained in England. There was an explosion in Scottish university expansion in the 1960s and early 1970s, particularly in humanities and social sciences. A lot of people came north. Because my degree was in Economic and Social History, these people who had studied working class housing in Leeds were able then to move over to looking into working class housing in Glasgow. Or if they were looking at trade in Hull, they could transfer their skills to looking at trade in Leith. Whereas for political historians of England, it is more difficult; they are specific to type. The economic and social historian is more general, he’s looking at themes. The great men who taught me included John Butt, Edgar Lythe, James Treble, and the person who taught me how to write an essay, Tom McAloon. The year after I got my degree, Chris Smout’s History Of The Scottish People came out. That was a new type of Scottish history. It moved away from the emphasis on politics and religion, putting a new emphasis on society. But Chris himself is another manifestation of the English invasion. They brought with them advanced techniques by the standards of then traditional Scottish history. Now when you look at the Scottish history establishment, they are overwhelmingly Scots. That was a generational thing. The English kick-started the revolution in the modern period, less so in the medieval and early modern period. The current generation are mostly Scots trained in Scots universities.
A new biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper appeared recently. A recent collection of Trevor-Roper essays included ‘The Invention of Tradition’, which argued tartan and other facets of Scottish identity were ersatz. What did you make of his arguments?
That article originally appeared in a volume edited by Eric Hobsbawm. They got together a collection of essays on the theme of invention of tradition. Historians are looking now at why myths are created, not simply to debunk them. Trevor-Roper’s essay on the Highland tradition is erroneous in several ways, but also fascinating. I’ve tried to build on it in some ways. One of the chapters in one of my books is called ‘The Origins of Highlandism’. He was the first person to ask the question, by implication rather than overtly – how does one of the most urbanised and industrial societies develop a rural face, a Highland face? Especially given that in the eighteenth century the Highlanders were, not least because of the Jacobite menace, regarded by most Lowland Protestant Scots as pariahs. Trevor-Roper’s essay stimulated me to ask why that was the case, which goes back to what I’m working on at the moment. The mid-nineteenth century emigrants took Highlandism with them, even although they may have come from Lanarkshire or Renfrewshire. They still had the kilts, tartans, pipe bands, bens and glens. It all made an impact on them. Then their descendants, especially those in the American south, further developed this exoticism. Including institutions like ‘the kirking of the tartan’, where the cloth is symbolically and reverentially taken into the church and blessed. That’s only one of the interesting innovations. All societies to some extent are entities based on myth or semi-myth. The only problem I have with the Trevor-Roper article is that some of his facts were wrong, such as the part where he argues an Englishman invented the kilt. My response to that was that I feel uncomfortable that it was a Scot who invented it.
I feel uncomfortable having worn one once, at a wedding.
That is very interesting, the way the kilt has again become de rigueur over the past twenty years. It’s only recently that it’s become ‘traditional’ for Scottish males to wear kilts to weddings. I remember reading a review by Alex Salmond of Allan Massie’s book on Anglo-Scottish relations; during it, Salmond recalls a recent visit to his old high school in Linlithgow, where he observed
at a sixth year dance that all the boys were dressed like Charles Edward Stuart. He wrote when he was at school had any boy dared dress like that they would have been taken into the toilet and beaten up!
Your books have often returned to the industrialisation of Scotland. What influence has your interest in this subject had on Scotland and how we think of it?
Material forces are extremely important in moulding any society. The tradition up until I went to university was that history was very much political history. In Scotland, there was also a strong tradition of religious history. In the pre-democratic age that was essentially the history of elites. I was more interested in the mass. If you’re more interested in the majority of the population, you have initially to discover – where did they live, how were they employed, what effect did immigration and emigration have, how did changes in society such as industrialisation affect them. Right through to the start of the 1990s, I felt that the base of society had to be understood before you could understand the super-structure.
But you really should evolve, and some of my recent work has had a much broader definition of the Scottish past. But if you read The Scottish Nation or Scotland’s Empire you will see the economic or material factors are still core alongside the other influences of culture and religion.
What’s your take on the current teaching of history in Scotland and England?
I think the professionalistion of university teachers and the research input is much higher now than it was in the 1960s. I interact with teachers quite a bit through seminars I give. There are three things to say about high school teaching. Again, the professionalism and the imaginative contribution and the enthusiasm is light years away from the boring experiences I had at school in the 1960s. Secondly, certainly, the current Scottish government is much more interested in conveying the need to teach more of the national history as what I’d call ‘the spine’, without neglecting the broader picture because that leads to introspection and parochialism. The third thing, and it is the fundamental thing, whatever history teaching there is going on in schools, there simply isn’t enough time devoted to it to be able to convey anything in serious depth. Up until year two, there’s no more than an hour or two given over to history teaching; after year two, pupils select a so-called social studies subject, could be history, could be modern studies, or geography. After this point, those studying history collapses to about a third of the cohort. In several countries, the recognition is that the national history is important in the creation of the modern citizen, and they make history compulsory up to the age of sixteen. Things are better than they were twenty years ago, but I think there’ll be a real struggle to change the situation dramatically because the curriculum is already overcrowded. If more time is going to be given over to historical pedagogy, what other subject is going to lose out?
The Conservative government also appear unusually interested in history. Interesting that it is two Scots – Niall Fergusson and Michael Gove – who are planning the overhaul of the English historical curriculum. Their concept of it has been called a “campaign for real history” – the teaching of English or British history in the form of a grand narrative. Any thoughts?
That’s the important word, narrative. Again, I suspect given their political orientation that what they will mean by history will really be the political story and the rise of British greatness. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. It’s not the emphasis in Scotland where really it’s very much a dialogue between governmental education standards and teachers.
How do you feel that this popularisation is often led not by academic historians but by amateur historians or media-friendly historians?
I recall in my youth, you had these magisterial performances to camera by AJP Taylor. He just stood there and talked, like an ordinary university lecturer. And also Sir Kenneth Clark with his great series Civilisation. If there is a concern it is that I don’t comprehend why media managements need to have people who are effective presenters but who don’t have the intellectual and cultural hinterland. When a certain controversy over The History Of Scotland blew up, one of the points I made was that if they wanted a young telegenic presenter, male or female, there are plenty out there teaching in universities. In terms of the popularisation process that is an issue because I doubt whether someone who was a skilled research historian would necessarily be willing to say certain things to camera if he or she didn’t believe it. I’m doing this myself at the moment. It’s the first time I’ve been a presenter although significantly it’s on the radio. I’m fronting a programme called The Old Firm – An Alternative History. I’ve only ever done interviews before, but I’m now much more involved in the making of the programme. I’m much more aware of the challenges of selection, of editing, of balance, and of dealing with interviewees, some of who may or may not have an axe to grind. I’m probably a bit more sympathetic now to those who come from a media background because that requires considerable skills.
Does a Catholic background affect or inform your work in any way?
Well, sometimes people think I’m Bishop Devine’s son. I have to put on record there is no blood relationship. I’m possibly breaking a confidence but after a lecture I gave in Glasgow cathedral several weeks ago, at an ecumenical service held there to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation, I got an email a few days later from the Grandmaster of the Orange Order saying what a fine and fair and balanced job I had done. He wrote that he’d seen my occasional media comments on the Order and that he had to say that they were usually balanced and in some cases blisteringly accurate. So people are aware of where you’re coming from. It’s certainly influenced some of my work as I’ve done a lot of research into Irish immigration. I don’t think it has an effect in other ways. I have heard certain rumours about bad-mouthing going on, asking why someone from an Irish Catholic background is writing a history of Scotland, but that’s fairly untypical. By and large, Scotland is a broadly fair society.
Pope Benedict visits Scotland next month. I wonder if you could reflect on it, especially with reference to the last time a Pope visited Scotland, John Paul II in 1982. In comparison with that trip, how historical a visit will Pope Benedict’s be?
It will be important and the impact will be in the short run considerable. It’s not a case of the different levels of charisma of the two pontiffs but because we’re living in different times. In the early 1980s when Pope John Paul II came to Scotland, Catholicism, especially Catholicism from an Irish background, still wasn’t accepted.
It was marginal. The papal visit in 1982 and the meeting with the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the huge reputation of Pope John Paul II, the enormity of the proceeding, what was it, 240,000 people, the largest crowd ever assembled in Scotia, that decisively shifted the position of the Catholic community in Scotland. It’s interesting that from that time, the Catholic hierarchy began to raise its head above the parapet. To the extent that the media now goes to them for comments on moral and spiritual matters. Thomas J Winning was the first one to do it. He’d stand up and comment on every subject going under the sun. That was unheard of in the 1950s and the 1960s. The papal visit was important in raising the confidence level. Because the old attitude was if we keep our head down there won’t be as much trouble as there was in the inter-war period. The other dimension now is that Scotland is a significantly more secular society. And it has to be said that Pope Benedict doesn’t have the profile or pulling power as Pope John Paul II had for non-Catholics. For the Catholic people of Scotland Benedict’s visit will be a wonderful pastoral visit, rather than something historically catalytic.
What’s your current take on sectarianism in Scotland?
To understand sectarianism, I used to divide it into two different concepts.
There was structural sectarianism and attitudinal sectarianism, the latter of which could simply be called bigotry. Structural sectarianism is discrimination on the labour market; that’s diminished to a significant degree. And the latest social stats to do with mobility, occupation, social position, demonstrate that for Catholic people under the age of 55 there’s not very much distinction now in terms of educational attainment, in terms of the jobs that they do, in terms of the numbers that are in the educational and managerial classes. But I’m not absolutely convinced that attitudinal sectarianism particularly in some parts of the west of Scotland is in its death throes. For a start it takes time for elements that are to do with the emotions, upbringing, and identity to disappear. You can legislate for employment discrimination; you can’t really legislate for those other factors. Sectarianism is dying but it’s not dead. I still use in tutorials what I consider to be a unique fact. In the year 2010, Scotland is the only jurisdiction in the world where its government has an anti-sectarian policy, albeit less vehement than it was under the previous Labour administration. It’s the only such in all the areas around the globe where Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants settled. It doesn’t exist in Australia, America, South Africa or New Zealand. So I ask the students why do you think that is? It returns us to a comparative approach; what is specific and significant about Scotland? Very interestingly this radio programme I’m doing with the Beeb, although about football, it’s about the wider aspect, the social dimensions. Some of the contributors to the programme, you hear two polarities about whether sectarianism is the force it was. Some say it’s in its death throes. One contributor says there’ll always be sectarianism until the Ulster problem is fixed and denominational education is ended. That’s a view expressed by non-Catholic observers. Personally, I find that latter observation unconvincing, and I’m not saying that as a Roman Catholic; Catholic education is prevalent around the world and doesn’t seem to cause the problems that exist here.
How deeply have you got involved in politics in the past? By which I mean, have politicians approached you?
I was approached by a very senior member of a political party about three years ago to stand for a constituency that was about to be vacated by an equally senior member of this particular party. I’ve contributed to seminars held by both the main parties in Scotland, the SNP and Labour party. And I have acquaintances in all four political parties. But I would never get into the business of advising on policy. If I have any expertise, it would be a straightforward question of professional advice, not political advice.
Did you take any part in the debate or campaign leading up to the 1999 devolution vote?
I spoke at the time. You could say it was a policy issue but I thought it was a national one. I was completely committed to devolution. I thought it was long overdue.
It was as much a question of the country taking some degree of responsibility for its own affairs, but it was also to do with the massively over-centralised structure of government in this country. I was certainly gung ho for devolution. Whenever I was asked by the print, television or radio media I made it clear where I stood. Devolution was a big constitutional issue on which you could make a stand that wasn’t party political. I’ve always tried to keep my political views private. There has been speculation. I’m also aware of other historians who without apparent difficulty are overtly committed to a particular political party. I happen to think that is professionally quite difficult. You were asking earlier about whether being Catholic affects what I say or the work I’ve pursued.
I think a fortiori if the public thought you were a paid up member of the Conservative Party and indeed a candidate, it would cloud the waters a bit. It’s a personal matter. There are others who would say it’s irrelevant, that you stand up for your political beliefs, but personally I think it’s better to be discreet.
You’re retiring next year. How are you planning to spend time? Projects?
I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do. I’ve got four books on the stocks right now. Three of them are edited collections with my essays in them. And there is this Penguin book, of which I’ve only got one and a half chapters left to write. And my research leave extends to summer 2011, so my intention is to rid myself of contractual obligations by the time of my retirement so that it might even be possible to think of a life-changing experience in the short time available.