Carolyn Leckie on Scottish history

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.

Roz and family

Remembering Roz Paterson

Sadly, Roz Paterson, one of the co-authors of Restless Land died on the morning on Monday May 6 after a brave and inspirational battle against cancer. We carry below a tribute from Alan McCombes, which was published in the Sunday National newspaper on May 12.

ROZ SHOWED US A GLIMPSE OF A BETTER FUTURE

A bright light has gone out in the lives of many people across Scotland and beyond this week. Cruelly struck down by illness in her prime, Roz fought back with all her strength. She was desperate to see her beloved children grow up and to spend the rest her life with her soul-mate Malcolm.

I had the great privilege of being a colleague then a friend of Roz for the best part of two decades. Before I met her, I was already familiar with her byline and had read many of her exquistely crafted feature articles in various newspapers she had worked for. When she agreed to join the small editorial team of the Scottish Socialist Voice, we knew we had brought something special to the publication. Roz had flair, wit and style in abundance. Her natural eloquence flowed though every paragraph she wrote. Her humour sparkled like sunshine on snow. Her humanity touched people’s hearts. And she was a superb editor, able to infuse even the dullest political manifesto with a touch of poetry.

More than that, she was a great human being. Calm, unassuming, warm, conscientious and professional. Everyone loved and respected Roz. Years before the quote was engraved on the wall of the Scottish Parliament, the words of Alistair Gray – ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ – were displayed on a poster above her desk.

Her political outlook might best be summed up as green socialist. She was a strong supporter of independence for Scotland, which he saw as a route toa better country and ultimately a  better world and campaigned hard for a Yes vote in the 2014 referendum. She detested injustice and inequality and yearned for a better society free of greed and exploitation.

She also understood better than most the intricate planetary ecosystem with its  trillion species and complex web of interconections upon which all life depends. She brought into the Scottish socialist movement a much deeper understanding of the natural world and the destructive power of consumer-driven capitalism. And she lived her life in line with her principles: ethical, compassionate and caring.

In her characteristic low-key fashion, Roz played a crucial role in one of the great breakthroughs for the Scottish left: the 2003 Scottish Parliament election, in which six Scottish Socialist MSPs were elected alongside seven Greens. Behind the scenes she wrote media releases, organised press conferences and was part of a small team that produced leaflets, election addresses and newsletters –distributed  in their millions on the streets and to households across the land – which won admiration even from political opponents for their humour and imagination.

And later, during the dark days of 2004 to 2010 when every SSP activist was forced to choose sides between truth and fraud, there was never any doubt which side Roz would take. In the sometimes murky world of politics she never wavered in her honesty, integrity and courage.

I later worked with Roz on the book Restless Land: A Radical Journey Through Scotland’s History. As always, she was a joy to work with, even at a geographical distance of over a  hundred miles. The book was praised for its style, wit and clarity – a testimony to Roz’s expert editorial eye and beautiful turn of phrase.  oz was devoid of ego and conceit and shunned the limelight. When the book was launched, she preferred to stay in the background and send a written statement down from the Highlands rather appear at public events in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

That was typical – yet in her final months, she was reluctantly forced into become something of a public figure. To raise what she called the “telethonic sum of money” needed to treat her otherwise incurable illness, she had to make aan audacious appeal. It was against her nature, but she did it with style and sensational success, and in a matter of weeks was well on course to raise half a million pounds. When NHS Scotland steeped in to fund the pioneering newe treatment in Londod, she insisted that every penny that could be returned was resturned donated to four cancer charities.

The mass upsurge in generosity had crossed political boundaries, with thousands of people in Beauly, the Highlands and beyond rushing to her aid. It was a tribute to her inspirational personality – and it also, albeit in desperately tragic circumstances, validated her own deep belief in the fundamental decency of the human spirit.

We have long been told there is no point in trying to build a better world, because people are inherently selfish and incapable of rising above ruthless rivalry. Roz Paterson proved otherwise. Her simple story of a woman fighting for life so she could see her children reach adulthood touched something deep in the heart of humanity. People in the local community, irrespective of whether they were Yes or No, Brexit or Leave, left or right, rallied round in a great outpouring of kindness. And strangers from across the land who had never met Roz or her family contributed generously to suppprt her. Not in a philosophy tutorial, but in the real world, she demonstrated that when the chips are down, there are many, many people whose natural impulse is to do whatever they can to help.

Roz died far too young, far too soon. But she left a mark on all who knew her and many who didn’t. She lived her life as shining example of all that is best in humanity. In her own quiet, humble way she was truly inspirational. And even in the face of death, she gave us hope for the future by bringing out the best side of human nature and showing us a glimpse of the kind of society that we could build in the future.

Alan McCombes

Book cover

Signed copies of Restless Land

A small number of limted edition double-signed copies of Restless Land: A Radical Journey Through Scotland’s History – co-written by Roz Paterson and Alan McCombes –­ are still available.

For a donation of £25, including post and packing, you will receive a signed copy printed and bound in high-quality gloss paper designed to endure. All proceeds will be donated to support Roz’s young family.


‘Riveting and expertly written work of popular history’

It covers a huge amount of ground with style, wit and limpid clarity that sets it apart from the dry tomes that put many people off history before they are out of school.

Restless Land is a riveting, expertly written work of popular history that deserves a very wide readership.

Alex Miller, Professor of Philosophy, History and Politics at the University of Otago, New Zealand

‘Incredibly readable book that will grab you from the start’

This is a history book like none that I’ve read before. It is an incredibly readable book which will grab you from the opening pages. Half-remembered stories and vague Scottish heroes leap to life, and the book resonates with excitement.

Reading Restless Land was like having lots of little lights come on in my head. Finally, a book which could tell me the meaning of many of the songs and poems I’ve heard, of the half-remembered stories, of the slogans and names which have drifted down through the generations.

Pam Currie  President of the EIS Further Education Lecturers Association

‘A substantive book that makes you want to find out more’

Restless Land is a substantive book by any description. It tells you things that you’ve never been told before in school, in the media, or anywhere else.

“We should thank Alan and Roz for writing a book that’s easy to read, that’s interesting page by page, and makes you want to find out more. It’s an important book that articulates a fascinating history – the history of those on whose shoulders we stand.”

Jeanne Freeman Scottish Government Minister

Restless Land: review by Pam Currie

The Scottish Socialist Voice has just carried Pam Currie’s review of Restless Land. Pam is a long-standing campaigner for independence and women’s rights, whose first political action was to join the Vigil for a Scottish Parliament at Calton Hill in 1992.

Well, I thought when I agreed to write this review that I’d be starting with an apology. I got my hands on a copy at the Glasgow launch in late July, but in full indyref campaign mode, and returning to work as a lecturer in a chaotic post-merger college, I was quite sure I would never read the whole book in time to write a review.

Continue reading

Download free sample chapters

We’ve made available for download the contents, foreword and first two chapters of Restless Land. They begin with what little we know of the Picts, where recent excavations have shown ‘evidence of a highly sophisticated culture, capable of producing magnificent art and extraordinary architecture’ and end with the Declaration of Arbroath where ‘one passage stands out, not only for its defiant assertion of national sovereignty, but also, almost half a millennium before the French Revolution, its renunciation of the divine right of kings.’

Download the sample chapters now (PDF 3MB)

Author interview: Alan McCombes

Alan McCombes reveals all in an interview we’ve just posted on this website where he explains why he and Roz wrote the book and why everyone should read it. “We’re living right now in the midst of one of the most momentous periods in Scotland’s history, a potential turning point as dramatic as 1314 or 1707, yet there has been a strange dearth of discussion over the past,” he says. “…All of us, individually, are products of all the accumulated experiences and influences we have been exposed to from the day of our birth onwards. Societies and nations are also shaped by the years, decades and centuries that have come before.” Read the full interview