Saturday, 22 November 2014

Of English students and Scottish history...

This past week I was invited by my previous university (Sheffield Hallam) to meet with some colleagues in Edinburgh and there give a lecture to their second-year undergraduate students. (They had secured funding for a sociological field trip and picked Edinburgh as a good place to go to.) So I took up their offer.  They had a room booked in the top of the Museum of Scotland, and I had two hours to give the students some sense of ‘Scottishness’, the Scottish Diaspora and so forth.

So, I used a good part of the time in an attempt to give them some sense of Scotland’s history, that it wasn’t all ‘tartan’ and that we had culture, heritage, civilisation, and some moves towards ‘equality’ before that last became fashionable elsewhere.

I think my task was made very much easier by the tour of the National Portrait Gallery that students were given in the morning, before my talk. I caught up with them there and heard part of what they were given by Gallery staff – being shown portraits of men and women of the mediaeval and early modern periods, and the ‘age of progress’, with only a small group of tartan-clad chiefs and a discussion of Walter Scott’s organisation of Georgy-Porgy’s visit in his very expensive ‘highland dress’. Hooray for the tour guide I heard! She saved me at least ten minutes of a talk that was otherwise going to be too long… (and still was too long – I needed to skip over some of the sociological content of what ‘diaspora Scots’ had said to me about what this land means to them, but the students will now have the slides which have quotations in and I hope will now read these).

But the ‘Highlandism’ which is the commonest set of ideas about Scotland is still very entrenched, among much of the diaspora and among not only English students, but many Scots. And it has several sides. On the one hand is the romanticism of misty isles, rocky glens and heroic chief and warriors; on another, though, the view of such as ‘barbarous’ and so discountable. Well, I did give the students one ‘Highlander’ from history, whom they may have seen also in the Portrait Gallery, not dressed in tartan and certainly not waving a claymore; Adhamh MacFhearghais or Ferguson of Raith, born at Logierait in 1723, first a pupil in the local parish school, eventually Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, past chaplain to the Black Watch, writer who, while himself Christian, worked to develop a science of humanity… you’ll know him better as Adam Ferguson, the ‘father of sociology’.

I do hope the students enjoyed their trip, and that they will now have a sense of Scotland as a complex country which is different from their own, but not so different as to be beyond their comprehension. One of my colleagues, in the short question session at the end of my talk, gave me a lovely opportunity to say what kind of political situation I’d like to see post-referendum… but that’s for discussion now another day.

1 comment:

  1. A Facebook friend challenged me on the above post, saying quite rightly that every place has its own history and questioning 'Scotland' and 'England'. My responses are repeated below...

    (JB) Yes indeed, xxx, every place has its history, all different and all shaping what they are today. However the histories of 'England' and 'Scotland' are as distinct as the histories of 'France' and 'Spain' - with each of these contested - whereas the histories of, say, 'Angus' and Fife' each refer back to a distinctly Scottish context (while contesting and challenging that) whereas the histories of 'Yorkshire' and 'Lancashire' (challenging each other and their English context) do not refer back to a Scottish context other than peripherally. Do you see what I'm meaning here?

    Put another way, and thinking about my 'native town' and that of my parents - Dundee and Glasgow have different trajectories through Scotland's history, but they are both very certainly Scottish cities - and each with different relationships to their overseas trading connections over long centuries. But they are both decidedly 'Scottish' and understandable each to the other, although the accents and indeed dialects differ.