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A historic step with knighting of Devine

The knighthood newly bestowed on Professor Tom Devine marked a historic step for the honours list.

That Devine is the first Scottish historian to be thus anointed is doubly significant. It not only acknowledges him as one of the finest historians of his generation but recognises the importance of Scottish history and its place in the pantheon of intellectual enquiry. That no-one in this field has previously been distinguished in this way is no reflection on the calibre of his predecessors - who, for instance, could be more deserving of tribute than TC Smout? It does, however, suggest a belated but welcome awareness of the value of work in this area.

Devine has many strengths as a historian, but while his greatest achievement is not that he has been a tireless public promoter of his subject he nevertheless outshines most others in that respect. Few in his discipline have been such avid proselytisers. You couldn't call Devine a populariser, but it is hard to think of another who has so willingly stepped onto stage, airwaves or newspaper pages to add his tuppenceworth on subjects that touch on his specialty. Public discourse goes up a gear when academics of his ilk are involved, bringing as they do a depth of knowledge and thoughtful long view to any discussion, and hosing facts onto what often looks like nothing more than a pyre of pure emotion.

Coincidentally, David Cameron has just announced he wants Magna Carta to be studied by all school pupils, so they understand this essential building block of British democracy. To that should be added the Declaration of Arbroath, signed a century or more later, in which Scotland's elite outlined the ideals of kingship and the limits the people could impose on a ruler's behaviour.

It does not need a prime minister's endorsement to realise that history matters, but it might just help. Countless sceptics question the point of studying the past, particularly at a time when all eyes are facing forward. They seem to think a curtain should be drawn over old events or unsavoury acts committed in less enlightened times, as if they could in some way still contaminate us. Some point to the bloodiness and misery of Scotland's past, as if this were a reason for shame, rather than inquiry. One sympathises with their revulsion and rage, but in order to make sense of Scotland as it is today, brushing the cruelties and injustices of our forebears out of sight is neither helpful nor healthy.

Lessons from history, of course, are rarely learned. When world conflicts and wars continue to flare, as do prejudice and intolerance even in so-called civilised countries, one wishes that learning about the past safeguarded against making mistakes in the future. Sadly, there is little sign that it offers a cure-all for modern woes. As yet, though, it is too early to assess the impact of a culture in which Scottish history has played a major part. When Devine was at school the teaching of history was so dull he took geography instead. Indeed, in classrooms and in universities there was shockingly little Scottish history. Not until the late 1970s and 1980s did this begin to change, thanks to the likes of Smout and Devine, Jenny Wormald, Bruce Lenman, Norman Macdougall and their indefatigable colleagues and proteges across the country.

Following Devine's elevation, Scottish history's vital role as the scaffold on which to build people's understanding of the country seems to have been officially endorsed. Henceforth it may even become generally accepted that this subject is not an optional extra, not a mere garnish to the main course or a minority left-field interest. Equally, of course, one hopes the use of self-serving sentimental myths more suitable to fiction than history books will be consigned to oblivion, where they truly belong.

The annals are filled with optimistic Scots, and history lovers now have reason to join them. All omens point to a future in which Scottish history could soon be acclaimed for what it is: an essential treasure house of verifiable fact and rigorous analysis, a matter of record and insightful interpretation rather than fantasy or wishful thinking. And why do we need this? Because without properly researched history the face of the country's past looks more like a child's drawing book than a gallery of Raeburn portraits.

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