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Oliver's Travels: A History of Scotland (November 2009)

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This article was first published in the Scottish Review.

Popularising any subject is an egg-dance: history in particular. The great Thomas Carlyle – The French Revolution, Past and Present, Frederick the Great – used to distinguish between two ‘model historians’: Sauerteig (‘yeast in the dough’) and Smellfungus (‘the archive man’) and won the accolade of A J P Taylor: ‘if you want to understand the history of the French Revolution, read J M Thompson. If you want to know what living through it was like, read Carlyle’. And indeed his French Revolution (1837) has a cinematic quality, swooping in and out of parades, assembly sessions, battles, executions.

To do this requires selection, contextualisation, presentation. I have been there in my Scotland and Nationalism: ‘In the SNP headquarters, the day after the 1992 election, a mute tableau summed it all up. On a table stood an untouched bottle of champagne and an empty bottle of whisky’. A Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung review said this symbol of frustration was worth a chapter. ‘All history is intellectual history’, so the great Joseph Lee, whose Ireland, 1912-1985 (1992) really did change the history of its country.

The team of BBC One’s  A History of Scotland have got into their second tranche, and what was interesting to me is how they would tackle the twentieth century, on the whole a sombre, perhaps terminal, episode from which we’ve yet to escape. The earlier programmes had attracted the scorn of Prof Tom Devine, attacking the series’ narrator Neil Oliver and getting some wrath back, in an exchange which seemed plucked from Fraser versus Mannering in Dad’s Army.

Devine’s expertise, however, lies in the chronological frame of his Scottish Nation, from 1688 to the present. It doesn’t cover the parts of A History of Scotland that we’ve so far seen, but comes in at that depressing moment for little Johnie Lockhart, in Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather, when ‘civilisation’ started.

Neil Oliver has taken flack for looking so bardic he’s assumed to have written the lot. Not so: it has involved a team of 10 historians. Like Open University's Ian Donnachie, an advisor throughout, I taught for the OU in an earlier stage of its career – when my master, Arthur Marwick, got the Wormington Home Guard on to the first OU history programme – so I know how this sort of thing fits together. The value of film history is to propel a strong story.

Oliver does the narrative well – talking to camera and walking in a straight line over mountains and sounding convincing isn’t easy – and he’s picturesque enough-looking to be a sort of Everyscot. Historians on the mike are sparingly used, though one innovation could have been made more of: computer-generated images which reconstruct the physical past, like a medieval Scots township.

Would it have been better to have had a contested approach? This is what Harlech TV did with The Dragon has two Tongues (1985) with Gwyn Alf Williams and Wynford Vaughan Thomas. Marxist romantic and gentry patriot slugged it out over the mountains and valleys for 13 episodes. Both were historians, and hardened thesps, and the result was enchanting. Williams’ spin-off Penguin When Was Wales? remains a classic. But Wales is small, with history and genealogy in its DNA. In Everyscot-Oliver’s travels the impression is given of vast distances, a difficult country, the omnipresence of water and weather. The result is to foreground the essentially political narrative, about how this complicated place kept itself together.

This came out well in the study of the Covenanters, ‘God’s Chosen People’, with a tight treatment from Michael Lynch which made sense of pamphlets and conventicles, incorruptibility and ruthlessness, and contributed a general interpretative sense to the whole: as a Wagnerian ‘history-drama’ with recurrent landscapes, contests, and leitmotifs, something aided by Paul Leonard-Morgan’s unobtrusive, intelligent music-score.

The DVD of the final programme, from a treatment by Strathclyde’s Richard Findlay, seems pitched at just the right key, but with a different methodology. Equally effective, though since it starts in my – and Tom Devine’s – home town of Motherwell, and in a building designed by my great-uncle Robert, I may be biased …

‘Project Scotland’ uses two poets, Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir, to contextualise twentieth-century Scottish history, and Motherwell, which literally exemplified the former’s ‘fire and iron of the truth’. This is a bold step, but one that works – symbolically as well as in terms of narrative – in an otherwise packed milieu.

Motherwell in the 1920s and 1930s embodied the Clyde industries which had broken the power of the German Empire, in the munitions drive of World War I – tanks, field-guns, escort vessels, submarines, aircraft: above all high explosive shells – only to collapse on itself in 1920-21, when demand for them vanished. To Muir in his gloomy Scottish Journey of 1934 the paralysed centre of Colvilles’ steel empire, prostrated by unemployment even after the migration of many of its folk to Corby in the English East Midlands, symbolised the bankruptcy of industrial ‘civilisation’.

From this came two diagnoses: that Scotland’s way forward lay in the synergic nationalism of Scandinavia and the succession-states of the European empires, or through the instruments of social democracy which might – or might not – involve political nationalism. These responses were psychological as well as political; they were fought out intellectually between two poets whose languages were European – those of Marx, Kafka, Jung – and whose Scottishness was liminal: Muir from the Orkneys, to him Edenic, MacDiarmid from the ‘Debateable Land’ of Langholm on the English frontier.

The result is a subtle and interesting programme which ends with appropriate ambiguity, not in the parliament but in the new Caledonian Forest that was once Ravenscraig steelworks. Here I wished that Edwin Muir’s poetry had been brought in again: ‘The Horses’ his vision of the resumption into nature of a post-industrial world:

Since then they have pulled our ploughs and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

‘Project Scotland’ has given us real history, and not the dreadful Anglo-American market-driven stuff that we have had from Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson: the latter – to his shame – a Scot. Which doesn’t mean it’s nationalist: rather, that it takes the national sphere as its business, at the start of a new century which could mean pragmatic improvement or end in catastrophe.

The last image is of something edenic, but also of Clerk Maxwell’s entropy: a society which has consumed itself, is no longer able to win its way, of icons – bridges for cars without the means to be propelled, railways to carry people to airports and lives outwith the country. A new low carbon order may give us a way out, but nowhere are there young people in this programme, apart from Neil Oliver himself.

It is a series that makes me interrogate my own writing, literary and political, without sentiment and without too much optimism. To go back to another piece of Scotland past, and young trees: Germany where I taught for thirty years. In Berlin, you can turn a street corner from the bad – where Goebbels read Carlyle's Frederick the Great to Hitler in the bunker – to the good: the revolutionaries singing Burns’s ‘For a’ That!’ as they tried to storm the Royal Palace in 1848.

We have further to go, but first we must market what we have. A History of Scotland is no bad place to begin.

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