A recent survey by the Edinburgh Dungeon revealed that our nation has a pretty fuzzy sense of its own history. The poll of 1,000 skilful piece of PR by the underground tourist attraction but it did reveal some serious gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the past. Half of all 16-year-olds apparently are in the dark about the Wars of Independence, while one in six of Scots of all ages say they were taught nothing at school about our nation’s history.
Does this matter? The modern independence movement, after all, is forward-looking and multi-cultural. It wasn’t the Yes side but the No side which banged on constantly about Braveheart and Bannockburn. Rightly, we focused on the future rather than the past and refused to be drawn into a narrow, ethnic definition of what it means to be a Scot.
But history is not something we can just erase from our collective memory. All of us, as individuals, are products of our own past – and that of our parents, grandparents and even more distant ancestors. Anyone who doubts that should ponder the fact that many thousands of square kilometres of our land are still owned to this day by the descendants of medieval robber barons. Some of the biggest include Duke of Buccleuch, the Duke of Roxburghe, the Duke of Atholl, the Earl of Seafield, The Duke of Westminster, the Earl of Cawdor, the Duke of Argyll, Baron Margadale, the chiefs of the clans Cameron, MacLeod and MacDonald. Among them, they own over a million acres of our land.
On the other hand, the descendants of the Highland Clearances, the Irish famine or Lowland serfdom are more likely to be at the poorer end of the social spectrum. For good or ill we are all at least partly products of our family history. And the same applies to continents, nations, regions, towns and cities
That is understood in other parts of Europe. In the Republic of Ireland, the nation’s history is one of four core subjects of the school curriculum, along with English, Irish and Maths. When the right wing Irish Government last year announced plans to reduce its importance, it provoked a storm of protest – including from the county’s left wing president Michael D Higgins who said that a knowledge of history is “intrinsic to our shared citizenship, to be without such knowledge is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom”. The Fine Gael government’s plans to remove history as a compulsory subject were finally abandoned earlier this year.
Some might argue that Ireland is over-obsessed with history. I would suggest that the continued blight of sectarianism in that part of the country ruled by the UK is due to historical ignorance rather than to a surfeit of insight.
In Scotland, I fear we are overly defensive and uncomfortable about our past. We rush, quite rightly, to accept our share of responsibility for slavery, or to acknowledge the role of Scots in building the British empire. But we are more diffident about spelling out that these inglorious episodes were direct products of the Act of Union. Or that the men who benefitted from slavery in the American colonies were hard-line unionist to the core. Or that the vast mass of wealth plundered from the colonies flowed into a handful of giant joint-stock companies all located within the square mile of the City of London, including such famous names as the Hudson Company and the Royal India Company.
Because Scotland was a highly literate country from the sixteenth century onwards, it provided the British empire with more than its share of managers, bookkeepers, doctors, teachers and missionaries, but its role in the empire was always subsidiary rather than primary.
All history is contested. The bare facts are sacrosanct but as Professor Tom Devine explained in a recent book review in the Herald, facts alone are not enough. “The force of historical writing lies at root in interpretation, argument and vigorous analysis.”
While academic history is vital, it can suffocate interpretation, argument and analysis. And that is a serious problem with Scottish history, which has struggled to free itself from the straitjacket imposed by earlier generations of academics who started from a default position of unionism.
Back in the post-war decades, the idea that “bigger is better” was unassailable. Businesses were merging, trade unions were amalgamating and institutions like the BBC were emerging to create a standardised British culture. The welfare state, the NHS, and the newly nationalised centralised rail, coal and steel industries all seemed to reinforce the power of large-scale state planning. Academic historians of the left were further influenced by the apparent success of the Soviet Union with its economies of scale, were hostile to any sense that small nations could be autonomous or independent.
In that climate, several generations of academics interpreted Scotland’s history through a unionist prism. Anything that undermined British centralism was deemed dangerous. So, it was left to writers such as John Prebble to bring events like the destruction of the Gàidhealtachd, the Highland Clearances and the Glencoe massacre out into the daylight.
Of course, right now we need to focus on the great events raging around us today and the mighty challenges we will face tomorrow. But anyone interested in reading a grippingly written alternative version of Scottish history that challenges the orthodox unionist narrative and sides with the common people against the rich and powerful might want to get themselves a copy of Restless Land: A Radical Journey Through Scotland’s History, 500 AD to 1914.
In the interests of disclosure, I should explain it was co-written by my partner Alan McCombes and my friend Roz Paterson, whose moving funeral I recently attended. You can get it on Kindle – or if you move fast you can buy one of the last remaining printed special edition copies signed by both authors with all proceeds going to help Roz’s bereaved family.