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Delving into lives of the rich and famous

With the debate about Scottish history in the curriculum still rife, Allison Hillis and Jim McGonigle look at some books that offer teachers a lifeline

MARY STUART By John Hunter MONTROSE - COVENANTER, ROYALIST AND MAN OF PRINCIPLE\ By Ruth Blackie JAMES IV - A RENAISSANCE KING By Ruth Blackie, Graham Donaldson, Douglas McKenzie SCOTLAND IN THE TIME OF BURNS By Iain Rose, Donald Gunn MerlinCanongate Pounds 8.99 each This collection of books provides an insight into significant periods and events in Scottish history.

Pupils find history more meaningful when it has relevance to their own lives and they have the opportunity to relate to past lives and circumstances. They also find a strong appeal in the "paparazzi" approach of delving into the lives of the powerful, rich and famous.

Each book stands alone but, as a set, they provide a chronological and understandable insight into Scottish history. The use of family trees and chronologies in these biographies successfully provides opportunities for studying relationships and genealogy in an easily understood form.

The books have appropriate illustrations and diagrams, and the narrative style has appeal for both adults and children.

The content relates well to 5-14 guidelines on People in the Past, particularly with regard to the strands and key features, and the photographs of artefacts, documents, engravings and portraits are excellent.

Scotland in the Time of Burns, for example, deals in part with the life of the poet, but provides a context for his writing as a man of the 18th century - ranging from literature to farming. The book is well written, informative and provides illustrations linked to the text.

The interspersing of the pages with quotes and snippets of Burns's work, with accompanying glossary, is particularly appealing. It also has a glossary as an appendix when dealing with concepts which may be new or difficult to understand.

The contents page enables the book to be used as a source for many projects, investigations or areas of study, as it is possible to "dip in" to areas relevant to different topics (industry, Highland life, Edinburgh, agricultural revolution, politics, famous people, discoveries etc). There is a useful section on further reading.

All four books offer a means of studying a single aspect or individual in Scottish history and provide facts in a palatable and intelligible form. But the best judges are the potential consumers and, with this in mind, the reviewer asked the opinions of four pupils of varied abilities and interests.

They particularly liked the variety of illustrations - "just looking at the pictures is interesting and they tell you a lot even before you read" - and they felt the chapters made the books less daunting.

The flow of the book was also praised - "it tells the story from when he was born till he dies. It doesn't jump about like some books". In fact, they asked if the books would be bought for the school and when they could have the "first read". Lucy, Lynsey, Graeme and Louise were im-pressed with the books and felt they could be used for upper primary and early secondary but not, as Graeme put it, "for Primary 4 and 5. There's a lot of words".

Given the debate which is now developing after publication of the report on "Scottish History in the Curriculum", these volumes could offer a lifeline to hard-pressed teachers. Merlin Books is to be commended for producing volumes of such quality for a small market.

Jim McGonigle is principal teacher of history at Hermitage Academy, Helensburgh

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