EVEN today, when we are blessed with an avalanche of history books, many Scots remain painfully ignorant of their nation’s past. This is not a problem for which there is an instant panacea. For too long, influential Caledonian cringers and whingers have argued that if children in school are force-fed stories about their ancestors they will grow to become narrow-minded and parochial adults. That this is not the experience elsewhere appears not to trouble these sages. From their point of view it is better to know what happened on the other side of the planet than on their own doorstep, as if the one was mutually exclusive of the other.
And so generations of Scots grew up oblivious of countless of the events that shaped us. We knew not of Skara Brae and the Sutherland Clearances, of the Border reivers and the Glasgow rent strikes. Scotland’s past was indeed a foreign country where things were done differently. It is not so long ago, for example, that children had to choose between studying Geography and History. Indeed, many opted for the former because the teaching of the latter was so arid and uninspired. Moreover, Scotland’s story, what little was known of it, appeared in the main to be one of failure, of Cullodens and Floddens, of defeats prised from the jaws of victory, of tragic queens and dissolute kings. We knew not of the inventors and intellectuals who shaped the modern world.
As this issue of the Scottish Review of Books demonstrates, we have in recent decades, historiographically speaking, been making up for lost time. Never before has there been such an embarrassment of riches. In one of the books under review, Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present, its author, TM Devine, considers how the teaching and writing of history has changed over the years. ‘In 1907,’ Devine writes, ‘the Scottish Education Department in its memorandum on the teaching of history in schools directed that the curriculum should develop from the study of Scotland to British and then to international themes but always throughout by stressing the nation’s role in empire.’
Then, apparently, the most popular textbooks were called Cormack’s Caledonia Readers, which overtly and imperialistically championed ‘heroes’ such as General Gordon, Sir Colin Campbell (of Indian Mutiny fame), Mary Slessor, the missionary and, inevitably, David Livingstone, ‘the most famous and venerated Scotsman of the nineteenth century’.
In addition, in the mid-Victorian era, there was a reverence among Scotland’s legal and academic elite for the constitutional history of England. Consequently, notes Devine, ‘when the first Chairs of History were established in Scottish universities in the later nineteenth century, no Scottish-born appointees were made’. It was not until 1901, with the creation of the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography at Edinburgh University, that there was an established professorship of Scottish history in a Scottish university.
Inevitably, such neglect had a ripple effect. For instance, it is remarkable to learn that for several decades in the twentieth century few if any serious books on Scotland’s past were published. Change, when it arrived, came from an unlikely source. John Prebble, English-born and Canadian-raised, was inducted in Scottish history in a tartan-tinted town in Saskatchewan. Though such books as Culloden (1962), The Highland Clearances (1963), Glencoe (1966) and The Darien Disaster (1968) were routinely derided by academic historians (‘utter rubbish’ was how Professor Gordon Donaldson, not the sweetest of writers, dismissed them), they were seized by a reading public desperate to know more about the land of which they were the present tenants.
It was left to another Englishman, TC Smout, to pick up the mantle cast aside by his academic colleagues, first in 1969 with A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830, and then, in 1986, with A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950. In these, he showed that it is possible to produce a compelling narrative without forsaking scholarly credibility. As their titles suggest, this was history as seen from the bottom up, relating how people lived and toiled, worshipped and played. Eager to avoid sentimentality, he portrayed a country rich in natural and human resources but wanting in its determination to improve the lot of its citizenry. Smout’s books also indicated just how much work remained to be done by historians from whose point of view Scotland was virtually terra incognita.
As Devine indicates in Independence or Union this is no longer the case. In that regard at least the country has matured. There is now no excuse for not knowing who we are and from whence we came. Many, if far from all, of the blanks have been filled in. We know how the Union of 1707 came about and have a fair idea how it began to unravel. We know, too, about our role – glorious, vainglorious and inglorious – in the forging of the Empire. We have made our mark in places of which we are proud and in others, such as the enslaved Caribbean, that we would rather forget. The joy of the best history is that it demands we take a good, hard-headed look at ourselves.