What do you know about Scotland, Miss?

1st January 1999 at 00:00
There should be a spirit of hope and elation abroad in Scotland on the eve of her coming of age. At last we have been given the key to the door and can make our own decisions - at least about some things - and pick our own friends.

There is, however, an uncertainty in our anticipation of the new life of freedom ahead of us. When it comes down to it, most people are not quite sure about the contents of the brightly packaged present we have been given. It's a bit like being allowed to play with the toys belonging to the children next door. We can play, but we mustn't take them apart to see how they work.

What do we know about this present we have been given, or prize we have won (depending on your political persuasion)? Precious little, as far as Scottish pupils and their teachers are concerned.

Take Scottish literature to start with. Apparently the situation is improving regarding the teaching of Scottish literature in schools and colleges, but is it improving enough to make it more than an esoteric interest which students may or may not choose as an option? Unless we do something drastic, pupils will continue to believe that we have only one poet in Scotland - Robert Burns; or, if their teacher was interested in promoting others, Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig. Their work was included in the set texts for the now almost defunct revised Higher.

Many, probably the majority of teachers of English, know only a smidgin of the literature of Scotland. They know that Scott wrote Ivanhoe and Stevenson wrote Kidnapped, but have they read any Scott? Do they know any of the poetry of these two writers?

I would hate to go back to the days when children of 12 were force-fed at least one Scott novel as their "home reader" and put off reading anything Scottish for life, apart from Oor Wullie and The Broons. Nevertheless Scott and other greats like MacDiarmid, Linklater and Gunn should be on the compulsory reading list for all students intending to teach literature in Scottish schools.

I hasten to say that I am not a Scottish Nationalist. Nor do I have anything against teaching English literature. I do feel that a goodly proportion of the English literature that is taught should be written by Scots writers - not because they are better or worse, but because they are part of Scots culture which has for too long been ignored or kept for the "specialists" at one end of the scale and the Oor Wullies at the other, who reel off "The Sair Finger" at every social gathering under the impression that they are reciting Scots poetry .

The growing feeling of carping resentment against the English should and could be replaced by a genuine pride in Scottish achievement and contribution to international culture - if there is a drastic rethink on the position of Scottish studies in our education system, from infants, throughout school and into the universities and the media. Only through a revolutionary overhaul of the system and content of language courses, will we convince ourselves and the wider world that Scotland is a nation, with a separate and worthwhile culture.

The title of this article is taken from a quiz game I used to play with classes as the end of term approached, when I was an English teacher. The idea was to have a list of topics and ask: "What do you know about. . .?" The section on Scotland provided the toughest challenge for most pupils, unless the questions were on Scottish football. My favourite questions were:

1 Who was Scotland's most famous patriot, who was never crowned King of Scotland?

2 What is the most sung song in the world and who wrote it?

Only once did I get the correct answer for the first, and never for the second. Ask now and you may find that the answer to the first would be Mel Gibson. The really sad thing is that the pupils' knowledge is not much less than many of their teachers. Of course no teacher can be expected to know every writer or poet of importance, but they should be given a solid base to build on. They should know the chronology of Scottish literature and where it fits in internationally.

3 Who were the contemporaries of Burns and Scott in the artistic circles of their time?

4 Why is MacDiarmid more respected internationally than he is in Scotland?

5 What influence did Dunbar and Soutar have in the development of Scots language and poetry?

6 What is the importance of the Orkney writers to the portrayal of Scottish culture?

7 Do the new writers - Irvine Welsh, Liz Lochhead, Iain Banks - have a logical place in the development of the body of Scots literature?

The questions are too numerous to ask in this article, but they must be addressed in the context of ensuring that teachers are equipped to teach their subject, in this case literature, as relevantly as possible to their pupils in Scotland.

In a recent television programme, made by young children, they asked tourists in Edinburgh two questions, to find out what they knew about Scotland: What's this? (showing them a haggis) and who was the main character in Braveheart?

Few knew what the strange round "fruit" was and most answered that Mel Gibson was the main character. What worried me more than the lack of knowledge shown, was the choice of questions. Who decided that knowledge of a kind of mealy pudding or the cast of a much hyped film was any sort of criterion for judging knowledge of Scottish culture?

Many Americans know more about our history and literature than we do. While we are on the subject of Braveheart, why did it take an Australian to make a film about Wallace?

Scottish history did not begin and end with William Wallace. Most Scots could tell you more about the serial wife-killer, Henry VIII, than they could about Kenneth MacAlpin or Malcolm Canmore. When a nation loses touch with its own history, it should not be surprised if its people are unsure of their own identity.

Even more recent history is a closed book to anyone born after 1980.

For example, who were - 8 the Red Clydesiders?

9 John Maclean?

10 Keir Hardie?

11 Ramsay MacDonald?

I have lost count of the number of models of Roman settlements and Norman forts I have seen in primary classrooms, but never a Pictish village.

I believe we are arguing for all the wrong things as we move towards our regained status as a self-determining nation. Instead of chunnering on about "our own" news programme, which makes us sound like petty children who don't want to play with the neighbours, we should be addressing the problem of our ignorance of the literature, history and even geography of our country, which is rife in all walks of life.

We must silence the resentful rantings of some of our media against the English, stop whingeing that our culture is not represented in the media and work on defining that culture - through education at all levels. Let's know and respect Scotland's past, but live in the present and look to the future, not in "borrowed robes" but proudly, clothed in our own identity.

Jean Anderson is a retired teacher


1 William Wallace

2 Auld Lang Syne

3 William Blake, Samuel Coleridge and the Romantics; Jane Austen and Charles Dickens

4 Some of his most important work focused on world political figures rather than local Scottish issues

5 They raised what was considered a Scottish dialect to the standing of a language

6 Writers such as George Mackay Brown and Eric Linklater helped raise awareness of a Scottish mythology

7 They counteract the heather and hill image and portray modern images of Scotland

8 John Maclean and his contemporaries, who planted the roots of socialism in Scotland and were renowned for their militance

9 Scottish Socialist politician 1879-1923, who set up the Scottish Workers' Party

10 Scottish Labour leader and politician 1856-1915

11 Scottish Labour statesman 1866-1937, Prime Minister in 19

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