Neil Oliver interview: The historian and Coast presenter reveals why he can’t stand nationalisms, short hair and Edinburgh Castle

Adam Jacques
Wednesday 02 September 2015 03:42

I don't regret shredding my first novel Most first novels tend to be too self-indulgent, particularly the unpublished ones. Mine, which I wrote many years ago, was your basic post-adolescent attempt to write a semi-autobiographical story, and it was full of existential angst. Mercifully I never published it, and about 10 years ago I thought, I'm not dragging this around on a chain like Jacob Marley: it must never surface. So I took the decision to wipe it from the face of the Earth and shredded all the copies I had.

We are still living with a clash of cultures from 1453 The fall of Constantinople was a pivotal moment in world history, when the Christian empire of Byzantium was overwhelmed by the Ottoman Turks. It was unthinkable at the time that the city could fall, as for 1,000 years it had been a permanent object. Afterwards it marked a major change in world politics and we are still living with that East-West clash of Islam and Christianity to this day. The story of that fall, after the final siege, struck me as the best film I'd never seen – which is why I made it the background to my first published novel.

People have become more engaged with landscapes closer to home When I first started filming Coast 10 years ago, people had become accustomed to the idea that everything interesting was not in Britain; if you wanted to have adventures, you had to get on a plane and travel a few thousand miles. Coast was able to remind people that Britain and Ireland have some spectacular and fascinating landscapes in their own right. I read recently that British holidays are now at an all-time high.

Stirling Castle is superior in every way to Edinburgh Castle I've lived in Stirling for four years and the castle is my favourite place there. While Edinburgh Castle has been monkeyed about with throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, Stirling has been the same since James V made it the centrepiece for his new French wife in the mid-16th century. He wanted her to feel at home, so he brought over craftsmen and built a beautiful French renaissance palace. The great hall he built was the largest in Scotland. So why does Edinburgh get all the postcards and all the fame?

I don't like nationalists So my goat has been well and truly got over the past 18 months by the independence referendum. I don't like putting new lines on maps, breaking up countries into smaller parts. And I don't like people who bang the drum of their tribe, thinking that the coincidence of where they were born confers superiority on them: it's not where you start, it's what you do with the rest of your life that's significant.

Any man who doesn't have a short back and sides singles himself out for comment It stems from the days of national service and getting your hair cut short – a crew cut was a mark of being normal, while seeing long hair as out of the ordinary is something that's never gone away, from the hippies onwards. On TV, there's only Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and me!

Watching 'Zulu' changed my life I watched it with my father when I was a boy and became a huge fan. When I was older, it led to an archaeological project in South Africa, on the battlefields of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. And that work came to the attention of the BBC [and led to the TV series Two Men in a Trench, in 2002]. Now I try to teach my two children to always be open to opportunities that come your way. 1

Neil Oliver, 48, is a Scottish archaeologist and historian who has presented TV series including 'Coast' and 'A History of Scotland'. His debut novel, 'Master of Shadows' (£14.99, Orion), is published on Thursday

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