The Oxymoron Where I Live

Reading “The Fanatic” recently caused me to reflect on the following question. How much Scottish history was I exposed to at school?

Answer?
Apart from the brochs at Skara Brae in Shetland, which were suitably far off in time as to be uncontentious, absolutely none. Rien. Nada. Zilch.

This is notwithstanding what Ronnie Ancona said on the TV programme, QI, about her experiences in a Scottish school which were apparently somewhat different from mine.

Instead of Scottish history I was taught European history from the Partitions of Poland* onwards through the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna etc and – nearer home – the Chartists, the Reform Acts, Disraeli and Gladstone; all good and worthwhile (shared) British history certainly, but a bit, distanced, shall we say.

This meant that all that Wars Of Independence/Bannockburn/Flodden/Civil Wars/Covenanting/Darien Disaster/Act of Union/Jacobite Rebellions stuff had to be picked up by osmosis from the surrounding culture, or by myself. There was really a kind of black hole where historical knowledge should have been.

I tried to fill in some of the gaps in my early twenties, sugaring the pill by reading the historical novels of Nigel Tranter (I know, I know, but he spun a good yarn while he was at it.)

I always put the original omission down to the fact that Scottishness was in some way considered second class or else had to be kept down by the establishment (it had not been long before this that pupils in Scotland were physically punished for speaking Scots or using Scots words after all.) That it was feared in some way.

But perhaps it was that I had “passed” my qualie (≡ “qualifying” exam; eleven plus) and so went to a Senior Secondary (≡ Grammar School) which was converted to a comprehensive in my last year there, and we were still somehow being trained for Empire – despite the winds of change.

Or maybe it was just the cultural cringe writ small.

Whatever; it didn’t work.

Growing up in a Scotland where the vast majority of broadcast media output was geared to the English audience it was just about impossible to be unaware of England and Englishness. But it was not impossible to feel somehow disregarded as a result of this.

Remember there were only 3 UK radio stations till ca 1967 when it became 4 – though there was also a BBC Scottish service (but I don’t think it was called Radio Scotland at that time.) The pirate stations were never UK-wide. TV had just the 3 channels – only 2 up until about 1962! – which had the occasional “regional” opt-outs.

My sense of Scottishness was only reinforced when visiting cousins on England’s south coast and also, after University, by working for two years in Hertford. My home then was in Essex and involved a long commute – by bus; those were different times.

I discovered then that the vast majority of English people knew nothing of Scotland – and cared less.

I came to the conclusion that for most of my life I had lived in an oxymoron – in a state called the United Kingdom that was neither united nor a kingdom.

It’s actually two kingdoms, England and Scotland; a principality, Wales; and a province, Northern Ireland. And that does not include those anomalies, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which recognise the monarch as head of state but are not part of the United Kingdom proper as they don’t elect MPs to Westminster. A citizen (sorry, subject of the crown) could be forgiven for being confused.

Maybe that original omission to teach me Scottish history was simply the result of a curriculum choice by the History Dept at the school and pupils elsewhere did receive a grounding in Scottish History as Ronnie Ancona claimed she did; but it still seems bizarre even after all these years.

Was anyone else’s experience like this? Or was theirs more like Ronnie Ancona’s?

*My teacher – nicknamed Greensleeves (that may be another post) – wrote this on the board as the Partions of Poland. To much bewilderment at first, quickly followed by derision.

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  1. Bigrab

    In first and second year we got plenty Scots history. A very large part of our third year history centred on the Darien scheme and the subsequent act of Union. Fourth year was the Russian Revolution and WW1 and fifth year was WW2.
    I commuted from Essex to London, albeit for a brief period, too Jack.

    Will you be at Montrose tomorrow btw?

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