Why a Journey through Our Past Should Not Be Made Easy for the Scholars Ofthe Future; a Leading Writer Examines the Value of Giving Schoolchildren the Opportunity to Sit Standard Garde Exams in Scottish History

Daily Mail (London), January 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

Why a Journey through Our Past Should Not Be Made Easy for the Scholars Ofthe Future; a Leading Writer Examines the Value of Giving Schoolchildren the Opportunity to Sit Standard Garde Exams in Scottish History


Byline: Allan Massie

SCOTLAND, it has often been remarked, is the only country which doesn't teach its own history in its schools.

Like many common observations this is not quite true. There has probably been always some Scottish history taught in primary schools, and more recent Scottish history taught as part of British history.

It would be equally true to say that no specifically post-1707 English history is taught in England.

Nevertheless, there is enough truth in the charge to be disquieting and to make Michael Forsyth's recommendation that a paper on Scottish history be set at Standard Grade welcome.

It should be said too, that for the omission Scots have nobody to blame but themselves.

Scottish education has always been distinct from education in England and Wales. There was a Scottish Board of Education before there was a Scottish Office. And the curriculum has been determined for a very long time now by the Scottish Education Department.

Any deficiency in the study of Scottish history and - one might add - Scottish literature and culture is the responsibility of Scottish administration.

Moreover, it is not so long since no Scottish university had a Chair of Scottish history, and even more recently it was impossible to study Scottish literature at any university in Scotland. Again, if these are things to be ashamed of - and I think they are - we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Obviously there are difficulties in the study of Scottish history, and they are greater in the study of political, rather than economic and social, history.

The principal one is that there is very little in the way of distinct Scottish political history since the Treaty of Union in 1707. That this is true also of distinct English history is something that the English, for obvious reasons, find it easier to ignore, so they can ignorantly equate English history with British.

It is true also that British Constitutional history grows naturally out of pre-1707 English constitutional history as it does not out of Scottish.

That there are difficulties in teaching Scottish history is certain. If it is to be taught with a nationalist bias, then the temptation to concentrate on pre-1707 history is strong.

Nevertheless, there would be something unsatisfactory about a syllabus which put the 13th and 14th century Wars of Independence at its heart. It would be like the French putting Joan of Arc at the centre of their historical teaching.

Of course Scottish schoolchildren should learn about Wallace and Bruce, just as English ones should learn about Edward I and about Edward III's wars with France. It may be argued too that Wallace and Bruce are more important in the history of Scotland, since their wars defined the nation, than any mediaeval figures are in the history of England.

They are indeed probably as important as Henry VIII in English history, since his break with Rome helped shape the idea of England as a nation-state.

The Reformation was every bit as important in Scotland as it was in England, but its consequences were very different; and this is a difficult thing for teachers to get across.

On the one hand, the Reformation, being established with the help of English money and armies, brought our mediaeval alliance with France to an end. …

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