It is a "scandal" Scots grow up with so little knowledge about their history and culture, Patrick Tobin, principal of Stewart's Melville College and Mary Erskine's School, told the conference. Even in the independent sector, many of the most able pupils left with little understanding of Scottish history.
Mr Tobin, chairman-elect of the Head Masters' Conference, the United Kingdom grouping of independent heads, said: "The position is indeed dark."
Only a third of state pupils took Standard grade history and 8 per cent Higher. In his own school, where modern studies and economics were not taught until fifth year, 40 per cent of pupils took Higher history. Mr Tobin advocated a slimmer curriculum as the best means of ensuring greater numbers.
He said: "How can anyone pretend to be properly educated without a knowledge of our own terrible century? If young people do not know their history, they, God forbid, may be doomed to repeat it. How can they be educated in moral values if not through history?" A critic of recent methods, Mr Tobin said too much history teaching was "a context-free, disembodied study of themes, skills or empathy". He backed more prescription in primary to ensure pupils knew more about Scottish history.
Chris Whatley, professor of modern history at Dundee University and chairman of the curriculum council's history review group, insisted pupils had a right to "a decent induction". He estimated that 70 per cent of his intake at Dundee had little grounding in Scottish history.
Professor Whatley said: "History has had raw deal in the school sector in recent years. It is a core subject, just as literacy and numeracy skills should be considered core skills. The tide of 1960s liberalism and postmodernism which lumped history alongside any number of other subjects, some of which did not exist 20 years ago, needs to be checked and turned back."
History had to reassert its curriculum status and Scottish history had a legitimate place. It was not a "clone" of English history. Since the early 1970s, Scottish history had been transformed.
Professor Whatley said: "One of the points which is occasionally put to me is that Scottish history is dull, not as sexy as Stalin, that it doesn't grab pupils' imagination the way that, say, Chartism does, or the First World War. Others say that to teach Scottish history is to inculcate parochialism or a wha's like us attitude, that Scottish history just isn't important. I think these perceptions are either downright wrong or seriously mistaken."