Open Eye: A modern look at Scottish history

Yvonne Cook on a course that's attracting international interest
Scotland is riding high. In May next year Scots go to the polls to elect their first independent Parliament for nearly 300 years. A new confidence is in the air. There's a revival of interest in Scottish culture and Scottish identity, reflected in an artistic flowering - films like Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Rob Roy and Braveheart being the best known examples.

And in February this year the first distance education university course in modern Scottish history was launched jointly by the Open University and the University of Dundee.

As the first intake of 115 students anxiously await the results of their final exam, several Scottish academics who have spent years pushing for such a course, are feeling more than vindicated.

"I'm very pleased," Tony Cooke, Dundee University senior lecturer in continuing education told Open Eye. "We originally only planned for 100 students. And we already have 130 signed up for next year."

The course, Developing Modern Scottish History has been a major project, he said. Contributions to the course have come from 26 leading authorities in 14 institutions in Scotland, England and Germany, and it has won pounds 100,000 funding over two years from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council through its Flexibility in Teaching and Learning initiative.

Although Scottish history courses are offered by many universities north of the border, this is the first distance one which means it can be studied literally anywhere in the world. One quarter of this year's student intake is resident in England, with 18 students in the south east. And there are others scattered around the world, including New York, Paris, Austria, a Catalan in Barcelona and a Geordie working in Korea.

Among the students are teachers and employees in the Scottish tourist industry, clearly hoping to put the course to use in their work. But many are studying merely out of general interest. Scottish history has an appeal beyond Scotland.

"Devolution has raised the profile of Scotland across the UK," says Tony. "And I believe Scots are becoming more interested in their own history. In the past, you could go through the whole Scottish school system and not learn a lot about Scottish history, particularly for the 19th and 20th centuries. What you learned was quite a lot of English history."

But if the words `Scottish history' conjure up an image of tartan, misty glens and bagpipes, forget it, says Dr Ian Donnachie, OU senior lecturer in history. "Scottish history - like a lot of history generally - is dominated by mythology and story-telling. Some of the accounts of major figures like Bonnie Prince Charlie are, frankly, hagiography. The truth is more complex.

"For example, people think of Bonnie Prince Charlie as very popular - in fact, the great majority of Scots were against him. Scottish education has been perceived as democratic and open - but a lot of the evidence suggests it was designed to suit the needs of the middle classes and was only democratic so far as it did that."

So much for romantic legend. "Our aim was to develop an OU level Three course that is challenging and demanding. It approaches the subject in a thematic way, looking at the big questions and debates. Why was religion so important in Scottish society? How was Scottish industrial development different? It's also very strong in comparing and contrasting developments in Scotland with those in other societies."

The course covers Scotland's history from 1707, when the country was united with England and ceased to have its own Parliament, to the present day. It's a period of massive change which saw the transformation of Scotland from a comparatively poor agricultural society into a leading industrial one, followed by the dramatic economic changes of the twentieth century.

Any study of Scotland's recent past is fraught with controversy - issues like the Jacobite movement, or the Highland clearances, are still capable of arousing strong emotions today. As an advanced-level academic course, Modern Scottish History aims to avoid a partisan approach. As Tony Cooke says: "We try to be balanced and give both sides."

Demanding it may be, but Ian is delighted by students' reaction in its first year: "The feedback on the materials has been excellent. The standard of students' work has been very high, thoughtful and intelligent."

Dr Donnachie also operates the Centre for Scottish Studies at the OU's Edinburgh office. The Centre produces a OU pack on studying Scottish history, literature and culture .

Modern Scottish History is a Level Three, 60-point course which can be studied as a one-off or part of an OU degree.

More details: Johanne Phillips, Institute for Education and Lifelong Learning, University of Dundee. 01382 345149.