Scottish history, made in Taiwan

8th February 2008 at 00:00
I'm sure it has happened to most of us, the moment when a visitor from that supposed country of ignorant people that is the United States of America is able to say more about a Scottish historical episode than we can.

The confirmation, then, that Scottish history is to be given greater prominence in schools is one I generally welcome. But it simply takes us on to the next question: what kind of Scottish history is to be delivered?

Will pupils, hungry for knowledge that is exciting and fantastical, be fed a diet from the "wha's like us? gey few, an' they're a' deid!" school that is fit only for tea towels - or will they explore and question, as they discover how to acquire knowledge?

The treatment of the Highland clearances is not encouraging. When Michael Fry's book Wild Scots was published, the Pavlovian wails of anguish from the keepers of the torch of eternal persecution could be heard in Nova Scotia.

Just as well, for those descendents of the Gaels seemed to agree with Fry's conclusions that the emigration was essentially voluntary and undertaken out of economic necessity, despite the dreadful conditions of the journey. The facts that suggest the Duke of Sutherland was, in fact, a benevolent patrician full of good intentions are not often presented in Scottish history.

How then will Culloden be treated? Will lessons explain that there were at least as many Scots fighting for the German Londoner "Butcher" Cumberland than the half-Polish Italian "Bonnie Prince" Charlie? Will pupils suffer the Mel Gibson view of history that makes Braveheart as historically accurate - and irrelevant - as Macbeth?

What other myths are waiting to be maintained or exploded? Will anyone explore the dynastic wars of independence and recognise that Robert de Brus and other Norman barons were playing out a power struggle as much as carving out a distinct country within the British Isles?

What of the British Empire, or should we say Scottish Empire? Was Scotland's disproportionately large military role because our forebears were expendable, or simply more willing to cut the throats of people they thought of as savages? The failure in Scotland, on the bi-centenary of Trafalgar, to recognise the key role of Scots who provided and then manned Nelson's ships does not augur well for the understanding of Scotland's place in history.

What then of other myths? John MacLean and the Red Clydesiders - or the more recent confection, that Scotland suffered disproportionately under Margaret Thatcher.

Maybe these blemishes could be turned on their heads and put to good use with students, explaining how many inaccuracies there are and why the writers rewrote the truth.

If Scottish history is to find a space in the school curriculum, Scotland's historical and cultural journey will have to permeate lessons across subjects. But most of all, it needs to enquire and challenge the notions of what are so glibly presented as facts.

Brian Monteith buys his tea towels at IKEA (made in China).

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