by SRB

Tom Devine on Previously – Scotland’s History Festival

November 14, 2012 | by SRB

This week marks the second run of one of the most remarkable, if unsung, festivals in the land. Previously is Scotland’s history festival. Over the next two weeks more than two hundred events will take place in Edinburgh’s bars, churches and theatres, streets and coffee houses. The ambition of the organisers is to take history out of the university lecture theatres, museums and libraries and present it to the people in the places where they gather and socialize.

If the festival of 2011 is anything to go by, that of 2012 will be another stunning success story. Nearly 6000 people across a broad demographic profile turned out last time for 236 events held by 69 partner organisations in a city wide celebration of Scotland’s history. The audiences were educated, stimulated and entertained by a rich programme of original theatre, guided tours, film, historical re-enactments, poetry, family history workshops, comedy and debates involving public figures and renowned historians.

One would have thought that an achievement on this scale might have found favour with those who control the cultural purses of the country but it is not so. For the second year in a row Creative Scotland has further harmed its battered reputation by offering not a penny in support of this wonderful initiative. As the 2012 programme laments: ‘The history festival is rapidly becoming the tragic Dickensian orphan of the festival family, pressing a wee button nose up against the window gazing at the goodies other festivals have.’

It might be argued that such parsimony is simply the predictable outcome of the lack of imagination of public bodies which cannot immediately grasp the potential when something fresh and invigorating comes along. I think, however, that the causes run more deeply and widely and apply equally to other parts of the arts and cultural establishment in Scotland. Astonishingly at this historic time for the nation many arts administrators, journalists, institutions and ‘creative writers’ seem unprepared to grant history full admission to their self-proclaimed constellation of culture.

No historian, as far as I am aware, was approached to sign the recent petition of numerous writers and artists criticizing the performance of Creative Scotland. I cannot remember either the last time a history book was even shortlisted for the award of the Book of the Year by the Saltire Society. Even classic studies of the past have failed to find a place there while long-forgotten and remaindered works of fiction dominate year after year.

Time and again too in the arts pages of the press ‘creative writing’ is narrowly defined as encompassing only  novels, poetry, drama and, occasionally, biography, assumptions that would never prevail in any other European country. The scandalous failure to help fund the Festival of History is one consequence of this myopic cultural mindset.

Thankfully, the great Scottish public begs to differ. Family history is booming, television history an extraordinarily popular genre, and history books regularly make the bestseller lists. We can therefore anticipate that the Cinderella of Festivals will once again break box office records over the next fortnight. 

[The Festival of History takes place from 13 November to 3 December at venues across Edinburgh. For a full list of events and to book, visit]


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