I always rejoice when someone injects a fresh phrase into the letters to the editors of the more pretentious Scottish papers. I perked up agreeably, though in disagreement, when John Home Robertson scolded those who 'wallow' in history by commemorating Flodden and, presumably, Bannockburn.
For I confess that, in a summer when I had more time for reading than I might have wished, I was wallowing in history. But I think I was wallowing to some purpose, splashing into two truths which escaped me in the distant years when I had an academic interest in history before escaping to journalism and politics. I share them with SR readers not out of vanity but because one has a bearing on arguments about Scottish studies in our schools and the other on the growing indifference which our educational system and its clients are often alleged to show towards serious study of foreign languages, modern as well as ancient. (This year has seen a massive fall in higher French in school and another fall in German.)
The first truth is that the supposed neglect of Scottish history in education is a much more complex matter than was suggested when our devolved SNP administration took credit for demanding more Scottish studies. At first sight it's hard to deny that this neglect existed. At Glasgow University, where I had an otherwise thorough and demanding grounding in history, I never encountered the professor of Scottish history except in his capacity as a kind of colonel-commandant of the university training corps. I don't think I gave a serious thought after primary school to the Scots wars of independence until the great Balliol English medievalist, Dick Southern, induced me to write an essay on whether Wallace was a freedom fighter
or a terrorist (or perhaps both).
But was Scottish history neglected? It wasn't as an integral and important part of British history over many centuries, whether in our glorious failure to impose the Solemn League and Covenant on the rest of the British Isles or our success in building and guiding the British empire. These British and imperial dimensions are ineradicable and continuing parts of Scottish history which must continue to be emphasised unless Scottish studies are to become SNP briefings. But there is much else in Scottish history that my university generation tended to pass by – not because it was neglected in school but because (like the force-feeding of Sir Walter Scott's novels at too early an age) it may have been mishandled.
I am baffled by those enthusiasts for Scottish studies who argue that they were denied Scottish history in school. All these years later the chroniclers' exaggerations about Bannockburn – 30,000 Scots thumping 100,000 English – remain graven in my heart. I do not need to consult Wikipedia to check the name of the unfortunate Sir Henry de Bohun whose head Bruce clove so neatly with an axe. And when I do check, I find that I have also correctly remembered what my textbook taught me about the skin of an unfortunate Hugh de Cressingham being used to make leather souvenirs after the English got tanned at Stirling Bridge. I can also recite from memory the varieties of violent deaths suffered by our medieval Stewart kings.
This was the milk-diet of primary school. Secondary school was more solid but, until quite far on, quite emphatically Scottish and with various unconscious biases – anti-English over the Darien scheme, anti-Highland in its account of the battle of Harlaw (an event given surprising prominence), yet tinged with a Waverley-style romanticism over the Jacobites. Was it altogether surprising that some of us, when deciding on a broader and deeper study of history, were tempted to put this kind of Scottish history away among St Paul's category of 'childish things?'
I don't suggest that Scottish history is now only taught in this way, and my fears for it are very different. One is that it may suffer from pressures for a Scottish nationalist interpretation of history; the other that history in general may be denied the place it deserves in the school curriculum and eventually in our universities.
Maybe I worry too much. In time I have come to delve into aspects of Scottish history which I ignored in a formal historical education – I have even wallowed in the Disruption – and to enjoy the medieval history which I disliked when confronted with compulsory papers. But if a historical education is to serve any purpose in later life it is surely because, in exploring the complexities of some situations and personalities of times past, it equips us with enough scepticism, realism, idealism, and anxiety to assess the problems of our own times and worry about those we are leaving behind us. It may not matter what we have studied in detail provided we have studied it deeply enough to develop these qualities.
But that reassuring conclusion confronts me with a another concern and with the perplexing consequences of the second truth about history which I claim to have discovered by having had all too much time to read and reflect last summer. The concern is about the extent to which even good degrees reflect understanding of times past and alien cultures. The 'truth' is that this understanding often demands not only gifts of imagination but supplies of mental equipment enabling us to reach beyond received opinions to original sources, and preferably sources in their original language. That is why my rather abstract concern about a texting generation's capacity to understand people who used long words and joined-up writing may matter less than a practical concern that the possible decline of historical studies may be aggravated by the undoubted decline and neglect of linguistic ones.
My generation was lucky, for the most exciting and attractive development in its time was the British discovery of American history. Many aspects of it seemed more alien than continental European history but it combined the attractions of novelty with access through the common language. I had the benefit of such scholarly and able enthusiasts as Esmond Wright and Max Beloff but only now do I realise that what enabled many of us to respond to
their lead was our ability to go to the sources without loss or distortion in translation. We could discover for ourselves whether Jefferson was just an eloquent charlatan, how Lincoln had greatness thrust upon him, or how nobility, idealism, obstinacy, and naivety were mixed in Woodrow Wilson.
Only now do I realise how much more superficial were our interpretations of French or German or Russian history, where we recycled opinions at second hand or, more rarely, rejected some message from history because we resented the messenger. For example, when I dissented from the view of Bismarck handed down by A J P Taylor it was not because I understood the unexpected complexity of the Iron Chancellor but because I disliked Taylor.
But last summer, when I had enforced leisure to wallow in Bismarck and persevere with the long sentences of German historians of various ideological persuasions, I discovered how little I really grasped in the days when I offered rather glib opinions to examiners. Much of what I found was very different from the allegedly unscrupulous reactionary believer in 'blood and iron'.
Instead there was a German with a sense of humour and power of wit, whose style was sharper and sentences shorter than those who later wrote about him. A rather conservative traditionalist Christian with an capacity to accept inevitable changes and adapt to them. An enthusiastic anglophile whose low opinion of British politicians went with an eagerness to thrust Shakespearean quotations (and especially parts of 'Henry IV') at his German political opponents – and whose knowledge of British culture extended northwards from the Avon to the banks and braes and braes of bonnie Doon.
One of the minor delights of my tedious summer was settling in my mind that an ironic Bismarckian comment on relations between Prussia and South Germany (in face of Napoleon III) was not as I at first thought an allusion to the Scots song 'Come under my plaidie' but a clear quotation-in-translation from Burns's 'O wert thou in the cauld blast.'
Of course I don't expect higher history candidates or undergraduate history students to have time to wallow in this way, even if they have some German, or to face up to another of my wearing but revealing summer tasks, the discovery from the memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir just how alien French politics, universities, and ways of thought are from British ones. But I worry when I hear of gifted Scottish undergraduates being introduced to Brazilian
history without some initiation into Portuguese or being encouraged to pronounce on the Spanish civil war with not the least smattering of the noble language in which its mean and murderous hatreds were expressed.
It's obviously impossible for historians to have even an elementary grasp of all the languages relevant to their fields of study, especially when they can no longer have either a eurocentric or Anglo-American view of the world. In the same way it's impossible for Scottish schools to cover, even a fairly basic level, all the languages that may be useful to our export trade, tourist prospects, and cultural exchanges.
But a grasp of even one foreign language, with some ability to trace the ways of thought expressed in it, is not only an asset in itself but a great and sometimes cautionary help in our understanding of the rest of the world. It warns us how much we'd still have to learn about other peoples even if it were true (which it isn't) that 'they all speak English now.'
That's a necessary warning in our contemporary contacts with other peoples, within the European Union as well as far beyond it. It's even more necessary if those who enjoy wallowing in history – in school, university, or even old age – are to get both the full benefit and greatest pleasure from their immersion.
This article was first published in SR in 2013