Search that ends too soon

16th March 2001 at 00:00
In Search of Scotland Mondays BBC2 8.30pm, repeated Sundays BBC1 10.55pm, February 19 to April 29

Colin Kidd praises a critical television series on the history of Scotland, but asks why politically it peters out after 1707

How often have we seen the media reduce Scottish history to the swashbuckling canon of Wallace, Bruce, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Jacobites? These figures are not missing from BBC Scotland's new 10-part series In Search of Scotland, but they are integrated with other aspects of the nation's past which have rarely received adequate treatment at this level, such as early modern Scotland's close relations with the Netherlands and the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century.

Although the series is not explicitly directed at schools, good upper-level pupils, especially those taking the Advanced Higher options on the wars of independence and the Georgians and Jacobites, and their teachers, might benefit from certain episodes.

Produced in conjunction with Historic Scotland, the series is a visual treat, especially the early episodes which have a strongly archaeological flavour. Fiona Watson of Stirling University is a lucid and enthusiastic presenter, but even she might concede that the real star of the show is the Scottish landscape itself.

Nevertheless, as the story evolves, images of places and buildings become incapable by themselves of conveying the growing complexity of Scotland's culture and politics. In later episodes a heavier burden is placed on talking heads, mainly drawn from universities, to communicate background context, narrative and analysis with clarity and concision.

At times the sheer volume of factual material required to tell even the basics of the story overwhelms the viewer; though, occasionally, ingenious solutions emerge from the ability of commentators to paint vivid pictures in words or to link analysis to some exemplary artefact or monument. Amid a very rapid and concentrated account of the Covenanting movement, which threatens to lose all but the most expert viewers, the programme recaptures its audience by lingering for a moment on the ghoulish mask worn to hide the identity of the Covenanting field preacher, Prophet Peden. There follows another visual segment on the Bass Rock, Peden's prison, memorably described in Fiona Watson's commentary as "Scotland's Alcatraz for ministers". This particular episode, "The Making of Uion", encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of the series.

As much attention is given to the Covenanters as to the Jacobites, and Jacobitism is considered as an aspect of European power politics in a welcome departure from the romantic biographical approach to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Stuarts in exile. In addition, we are also treated to two professors of Scottish history debating the causes and consequences of the union of 1707. However, the programme crams too much into its half-hour slot: discussions of the Covenanters, the Cromwellian conquest, the Glorious Revolution, the massacre of Glencoe, the union and the Jacobite risings. This is intellectually rigorous television of the highest quality, but with heavy demands placed on the viewer.

Nor is there any dumbing down in the episode devoted to the Scottish Enlightenment, which engages directly with the geological theories of James Hutton and the chemistry of Joseph Black. The series stands at the cutting edge of scholarly inquiry and deliberately sets out to ditch familiar approaches to the Scottish past when they stand in the way of a more rounded understanding of events.

As the principal consultant to the series, Professor Christopher Smout, is an expert on environmental history, due attention is also given to the impact of man on the environment, most poignantly in a discussion of the impact of agrarian improvement on the mosslands in the Carse of Stirling. Alas, one tired assumption still survives this bonfire of received opinions: namely, the notion that Scottish politics as a distinct tradition from Westminster expired with the Jacobites.

Lacking a coherent political framework and dwelling overlong on such universal experiences as world war, women's liberation and multi-culturalism, the programmes on modern Scotland fail to explain either the history of the campaign for home rule or the substitutes for nationhood which satisfied so many Scots for so long.

In a decade or so, when BBC Scotland next commissions a major series on this scale, it seems likely that the enduring presence of a Scottish parliament - inside or outside the union - will have forced academics, teachers and students to confront more directly the fact that Scottish political history flourished not only before but also long after the parliamentary union of 1707.

Colin Kidd is a reader in history at the University of Glasgow

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