Tom Devine

8th July 2011 at 01:00
As one of the nation's most prominent historians, Professor Tom Devine has helped Scottish history to gain a new place in the sun. On the eve of his retirement from academic life, he tells us that the subject's renaissance is tied up with Scottish identity

Was your experience of school positive?

I was educated at Our Lady's High School in Motherwell. There were 600 pupils drawn, as a consequence of the 11-plus, from the outskirts of Glasgow - the furthest from Baillieston and at the other extreme, Shotts. Because of the nature of the school it was intensively academic and quite enjoyable and competitive in that way, although some of its products ended up playing football rather than in academic life.

Was there a subject or teacher you particularly liked?

In Year 6, I took Higher geography and the teacher had recently arrived in the school; a man called Keown. It was a very small class and we almost felt like we were pioneers. At that time - the early 1960s - geography, particularly physical geography, was probably a more stimulating subject for kids of that age than history was. I have always found a perspective with a geographical slant to be very important for historical analysis.

But your interest later switched from geography to history?

In my school, history was badly taught and I know a lot of people from that generation who thought the same. But my historical interest was always there. Throughout the whole of secondary, I developed a major interest in military history. I remember at the age of 13 asking for the memoirs of Field Marshall Lord Montgomery of Alamein for Christmas, which is bizarre.

Is there anything you would want to see change in the way history is taught in schools now?

I have been involved in a Scottish Government group on the teaching of history in schools, so I have learned a bit about what is going on there. One of the difficulties in primary school history is dipping in and out of themes - Egypt one day, the Highland Clearances the next, which don't communicate any sense of real understanding to the pupils. You need coherence and you do need to project a sense of change over time. But to do that effectively, there has to be more time in the curriculum, and it is already packed. It is not easy because you could argue that if history wins, other worthwhile disciplines might lose.

What is your view on entitlement to free higher education in Scotland?

Ideally, one would like to see free higher education of the type I and my generation received. But when I went to university about 4 to 5 per cent of the cohort went; now it is probably closer to 40 or 50 per cent. That has got to be paid for. Our universities are among the few jewels in the Scottish crown. Their excellence has to be conserved. How you do that when in the next few years the financial tsunami is coming might require a finance minister with magical powers.

Why do you think Scots history currently has such a high profile and attracts so much interest?

It is bound up with the development of a greater sense of Scottish identity. It has been the most creative period of history and of Scottish history in the Scottish universities since the 18th-century Enlightenment and it has been an extraordinary experience to be part of it. There was a period when it was of minimal interest; amazingly, in the 1950s there were only eight practitioners of Scottish history in the Scottish universities, and most of them were mediaevalists. But my discipline teaches you that you get ebbs and flows. Fukuyama's view in the late 20th century was that history was dead. Well, it has come alive and we don't know what the future will be.

Is Scotland's switch from what you have described as "victim" to "victor" status manifesting itself in education?

To some extent, a term like Curriculum for Excellence is an expression of recent Scottish politics - and one reason for the victory of the SNP is its aspirational tendency. If there is a new icon, the Clearances have been usurped by the Scottish Enlightenment. Both aspects are quite mythical, but that change in emphasis has filtered into the speeches of our political masters. The Curriculum for Excellence is a hostage to fortune, because if it doesn't turn out to be excellent - as some of my more sceptical colleagues in the School of Education suggest - then it could be a contradiction in terms. A phrase less from the alphabet of boosterism might be more appropriate.

What are your interests outside work?

I absolutely love the western Highlands and Islands and especially the Hebrides. I have six delightful grandchildren, whom I often find more stimulating than my colleagues to listen to. I have got more involved in recent years with the media, and I find that engaging. I feel that if you are paid as a public servant, as we are, there is a need to contribute to public discussion.

What would you still like to achieve in your career?

My career is almost finished. I retire from the Sir William Fraser Chair at the end of July. My book, To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland's Global Diaspora, which is being launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, completes an unintended trilogy. So I'm beginning to think it is time for others to say fresh things. But whether I retire to indolence or to some kind of continued effort is undecided.

Personal profile

Born: Motherwell, 1946

Education: Our Lady's RC High, Motherwell; Strathclyde University

Career: Strathclyde University 1969-98 - positions included deputy principal, professor of Scottish history and Director of Research Centre in Scottish History; Aberdeen University 1998-2003, director, AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies 2001-05; Edinburgh University, Sir William Fraser professor of Scottish history and palaeography 2006-2011.

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