Passed/failed: An education in the life of Neil Oliver, archaeologist and television presenter

'My school was like Grange Hill'
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The Independent Online

Neil Oliver, 41, is the presenter of 'Coast' on BBC2. Other television series include 'Two Men in a Trench' and 'The Face of Britain'. He is currently working on a 10-part series, 'A History of Scotland'. His latest book, 'Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys', came out in May.

Playing in the garden at home, I had fun digging holes, being intent on getting into the centre of the earth. As a qualified archaeologist, it was more the digging and the burrowing that I liked rather than the academic side with its dusty documents.

Forehill Primary in Ayr was a lovely modern school but I was there for only a year, as we moved to Dumfries and I went to Noblehill Primary. I was intimidated at the start because I was going from a very modern school to a Victorian sandstone pile. It was a dilapidated building with buckets lined up in the classrooms on rainy days but I have very happy memories, often to do with the teachers.

Mr Miles was in his thirties and this was the first time I was with a male teacher. He had spent time as a teacher in Africa and was full of stories about lions and buffaloes and adventures in the bush.

At 12, you went into the first year of Dumfries High School. This looked like the school in Grange Hill and the uniforms were about the same; the series was just what I was experiencing at Dumfries High, which was a pretty tough school. There were bullies straight from central casting and you had to watch yourself. But it was a perfectly good school and I was turned on to history by Mr Slaven. Maybe it was the subject matter: life in 16th-century Scotland and also the First World War, in which both my grandfathers had served.

During the second year, everyone took exams in every subject and if you did well enough, you were given the option of going to Dumfries Academy. If you didn't, you stayed on at the High School till you were 16.

The Academy was like a grammar school, an old-fashioned Victorian building with people of a more studious bent. A lot of the teachers wore gowns and there was a very formal atmosphere and an emphasis on going to university.

It was really Ivor Waddell whom I must credit with my interest in history. He took me through my O-Grades on life in Scotland, 1760-1820. For Highers we studied the Industrial Revolution and I loved the Russian Revolution. I got seven O-Grades and five Highers – English, history, geography, biology and French.

I planned to study history but when I started going to university open days I encountered archaeology in the prospectus and found my way to the archaeology departments. I wanted to do something more ancient, to get back to before the beginning of the book. History is dependent on the written word; archaeology is all you have left from the time before there was a written word.

I absolutely loved my four-year MA at Glasgow University: four years on the greatest subject on earth. During the summer vocations, while other people were working in supermarkets, we were earning money on excavations in rural locations. My key friendship was with Tony Pollard; as fans of Zulu, we hatched a plan to excavate on the battlefields of the war that included Rorke's Drift, and 11 years later got involved in our first television project, Two Men in a Trench.

I got a 2:1 and worked as a freelance archaeologist until I realised that one day I'd die poor after a life of penury, so I trained as a journalist.