Culloden revisited: A sassenach view of Scotland?

History is the most delicate of issues north of the border, as the makers of a new BBC series have discovered. By Cahal Milmo
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The Independent Online

At a time of heightened debate about Scotland's place in the United Kingdom, there could surely be nothing better than a £3m television series – sweeping from the prehistoric glens to New Labour's devolution project – to colour and deepen the raging arguments about independence.

That, at least, was the thinking of commissioning editors at BBC Scotland last week when they unveiled a 10-part television series – shot in high definition format – designed to, "capture the best of Scotland's varied and breathtaking landscape, iconic landmarks... picking up on the richness of the country's heritage as well as its major characters and influences".

Unfortunately, it seems that A History of Scotland has not quite galvanised historians north of the border in the manner that the corporation would have hoped. Amid grumblings about the worth of "popular" history programmes, two of Scotland's foremost historians have expressed concern at the "patronising" and "old-fashioned" tone of the series and its alleged "Anglocentric" focus.

The documentary series, which will be backed by an array of accompanying radio programmes, a multimedia website and allied events, will be broadcast in two tranches between November and late next year. They will cover the origins of Scotland to the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English crown in 1603 and then from the mid-17th century and union with England to devolution under Tony Blair. After being shown in Scotland there are plans to broadcast the series south of the border on BBC2.

Allan Macinnes, one of the leading experts on the history of the Highlands and professor of early modern history at Strathclyde University, revealed yesterday that he had resigned from the committee of historians and educationalists set up to advise the BBC on the programme because he thought the series was being written through the prism of English history.

He said: "I thought the whole production was dreadful. The first provisional script I got was so Anglocentric. It was written on the basis as if Scotland was a divided country until the union with England came along and civilised it.

"It was just nonsense. At the time, England was divided, France was divided, Germany didn't even exist. You don't need to look at England all the time."

Professor Macinnes' remarks followed a complaint from Professor Tom Devine, a leading University of Edinburgh academic and the author of a best-selling history of Scotland's role in the formation and expansion of the British Empire, that the series was being presented by an archaeologist rather than a historian and its emphasis on "exploding the myths" of Scottish history had been already overtaken by recent academic work.

The programmes will be fronted by Neil Oliver, a journalist turned archaeologist and broadcaster who presented the BBC's Coast series.

Professor Devine, who stressed his general support for the history series and the BBC's efforts to reach as wide an audience as possible, told The Scotsman newspaper: "Why are they using an archaeologist as a presenter? There surely is an army out there of young telegenic historians?"

Professor Devine, who turned down a position on the advisory committee, said he was heartened by plans to screen A History of Scotland across Britain because, "at this time the English need a thorough education on the history of Scotland" but said the apparent emphasis on the romantic aspects of the country's past was, "not only patronising, it's a bit old fashioned".

With the Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh laying the groundwork for a likely independence vote within the next decade, the history of the Scots and the notion of 300 years of "victimhood" under English rule have been revised and re-examined by a new generation of historians.

The Battle of Culloden, widely considered the final defeat of a free Scotland by the massed ranks of "Perfidious Albion", is now more accurately portrayed as a clash that saw large numbers of Scots fight on both sides.

Other figures, from Mary Queen of Scots to Robert the Bruce, have also been reclassified, with Mary's importance as an icon of thwarted statehood now scaled down and Robert I's exploits increasingly held as a military success that was wrongly overshadowed by his eventual accommodation with King Edward of England.

But the makers of the programme insisted it would be more than a "kings and queens" overview of Scotland's past accompanied by sweeping shots of castles and Highland lochs. Mr Oliver, who was born in Ayr and lives in Glasgow, said: "What better time could there be to look again at Scotland's past, with people openly questioning the future of the Union and Britain?

"It is a great time for debate about Scotland's identity and I passionately believe if you care about Scotland's future you have to understand its past.

"I've often thought that Scotland's popular history is just like her landscape. Impossibly romantic, obscured by mist and myth and always changing. Over the centuries, the romantic version has been of a 'lost cause' – the tragic victim – but this isn't history, it's Scottish mythology and this series is looking to explode the myths."

The BBC said it was taking on board the views of its advisory panel to ensure that the series gives as broad a view as possible of Scotland's place in the world.

A BBC Scotland spokeswoman said: "The whole point of the advisory group is to look at the bigger picture. No scripts as such have been issued.

"Early drafts are always open to discussion and differing interpretations."

Richard Downes, the producer of the series, added: "There has been a renaissance of interest in Scottish history in the last 15 to 20 years amongst academics and we are aiming to bring that to a wider audience. We are looking to get an honest portrayal of the history of Scotland rather than its perceived history; its position not only in terms of the situation here but Scotland's wider influence."

It is nonetheless likely that the programme will cause further friction as its makers seek to steer a course between historical probity and popular demand for a more self-confident account of the nation's past.

In 2006, the corporation drew up a list of the 10 most significant factors in Scottish history according to a panel of experts and a vote by viewers. The top three choices of the experts were the role of the city, the First World War and unification with England. The viewers chose the Wars of Independence with England, the Declaration of Arbroath (an early expression of Scottish nationhood) and medicine.

Additional reporting by Susannah Peter

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