The state of Scottish history

Friday 16 August 2002

A leading Scottish historian has warned that future generations will be oblivious to the life and times of their ancestors unless schools inject more excitement into the subject.

Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival today (Saturday 17 August 2002), Professor Rab Houston of the University of St Andrews spoke of the importance and growing interest in Scottish history, but warned that schools must do more to ensure that younger generations continue the trend.

Professor Houston, co-editor of The New Penguin History of Scotland (together with the University’s Dr William Knox) pointed out that, across Scotland’s Universities, those who study for degrees in Scottish History are disproportionately mature students. Further, the numbers of those doing degrees in Scottish History is quite small. He argues that more should be done to ensure that school children become immersed in the lives of their ancestors.

Professor Houston said, “The older we get, the more we develop a sense of our place in history and want to understand where we fit, but we must ensure that Scottish history is also viewed as relevant and exciting by school children. Men, women and children are taking an active rather than passive role in history, experiencing for themselves the thrill of discovery in archaeology and archives. Just as we are demanding different things from holidays, so too are we seeking more activity in our other leisure time and the more successful museums should be commended for promoting this lively engagement. However, history has been pared down in schools and this needs to be halted. The history curriculum in schools is worthy but rather episodic and not exactly fascinating. It badly needs an injection of some of the livelier strains of social and cultural history writing from recent years.”

Referring to historians as “the new TV chefs of the media age”, Professor Houston spoke of the growing interest in the subject across all spectrums of society – “On one side, there is the emergence of a substantial body of people interested in history because they seek its simplicities. They look for individuals or groups to like or dislike, praise or, more likely, blame, idolise or vilify. This set focuses on romantic failures like Bonnie Prince Charlie and Mary Queen of Scots or on fabrications like the Holywood ‘Braveheart’, or on a partial understanding of the Clearances as mere victimisation. More welcome for academics, if smaller, is the group that seeks out history’s complexities. These buy more specialist books, subscribe to ‘serious’ historical magazines and perhaps belong to local history societies. Both groups take different routes to the same goal: understanding themselves in time, in reaction to living in a complex, increasingly fragmented and demanding age when identities and wider associations can be hard to form. In a post- political age, people are taking new paths to creating their own destinies.”

Professor Houston also spoke of the profound influence of politics on historical writing and of the positive role which devolution has played in arousing interest in the subject outside academia. He added, “Writing about Scotland’s past flourished in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s – before devolution was a realistic prospect. That writing helped Scots to gain knowledge and confidence about their historic past and therefore to embrace devolution with ease and assurance.”

Professor Houston also spoke of the major research projects being undertaken throughout Scotland including the University of St Andrews’ Scottish Parliament Project which has attracted substantial funding and involves a number of scholars around Scotland. He also praised the Centre for Environmental History and Policy, a joint initiative between the Universities of St Andrews and Stirling, where environmental historians were recently awarded just under £1 million by the AHRB (Arts and Humanities Research Board) to examine various historical themes surrounding environmental waste.

Professor Houston continued, “Equally interesting is the theme of Scotland and the North Sea being pursued by Aberdeen historians and those in Scandinavia and continental Europe, part of the Northern European Historical Research Network. There are other links between Universities in Scotland and between these and institutions in Ireland. Medievalists in particular have benefited from close ties with Ireland because they use similar sources and methodological problems and because of the pan-Insular heritage of both Scotland and Ireland. Perhaps unexpectedly, these historians tend to reject a nationalist paradigm in favour of an understanding of interchanges between the north of England, Ireland and Scotland. A lot of good interdisciplinary work is going on, notably between archaeologists, ethnologists and historians in the early periods, and between linguists, literary scholars and historians concerned with the fate not only of Gaelic, but also Scots. Across Scotland’s universities there is a lot of good work on the history of medicine, especially for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with concentrations of excellence in Glasgow and Aberdeen. Finally, there is a large and interesting Edinburgh- based study of witchcraft underway.”


NOTE TO EDITORS – Professor Houston’s talk will take place at the Screenbase Theatre, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh at midday on Saturday 17 August 2002.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email [email protected] Ref: rabstalk/standrews/chg/16august2002

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