One of the most ambitious historical television series ever created, A History of Scotland – two years in the making and costing more than £2m – airs tonight. But while glasses of malt whisky are clinking as the makers congratulate each other, elsewhere tempers are fraying faster than the hem of well-worn kilt.
The BBC spectacular has driven a wedge right into the middle of civic Scotland and its academic elite. On one side are those who claim the series finally offers a genuine – and visually stunning – perspective on the nation's past. On the other, a group of senior historians who claim it commits the ultimate sin: that of pandering to English perspectives.
Fronted by the hirsute archaeologist Neil Oliver, who found fame as the presenter of Coast, A History of Scotland hits screens north of the border tonight and across the UK at a later date. Yet the content, and even the choice of Oliver, has sparked a war of words almost as intense as the Battle of Culloden itself.
First, the 10-part series comes under fire over claims that it is too "anglocentric". The failure to front it with a historian has been attacked. Academic advisers stormed out before programmes were completed.
Professor Allan Macinnes of the University of Strathclyde resigned from the series' advisory board after its first meeting. "I thought the whole production was dreadful," he said. "The first script I got was so anglocentric I couldn't believe it. It was written on the basis as if Scotland was a divided country until the Union came along and civilised it. At the time, England was divided, France was divided, Germany didn't even exist. I would like to see a wider European context."
The first of five parts ends with the Act of Union in 1707. A further five episodes will be aired later next year. Along with the series, BBC Scotland is planning a range of radio programmes, a new website, an interactive game, audio walks and concerts.
Another renowned Scottish historian, Professor Tom Devine from the University of Edinburgh, has revealed he turned down the offer of a place on the board for the programme and took umbrage over the choice of presenter. "I thought it was unfortunate that they had invited an archaeologist, albeit a practised media person, to present the programme," he said. "I think it's rather odd, especially with the success of people like Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, who are historians. Although a lot of the commentary will come from interviewing historians, the authority of the presenter is very important."
BBC Scotland defended the programme. "The whole point of the advisory group is to look at the bigger picture, and we have been very much working with them and taking on board their suggestions," a spokesman said.
"We are one of the oldest countries in the world and have a rich and eventful history to back that up. It is also liberally doused with mythology we tend to hold on to but which doesn't reflect more current academic thinking over the past 10-15 years."Reuse content