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Time flies as history is brought up to speed

One of the cliches of our times is to hear a journalist reporting from a war zone, or a scientist's lab, or an economic summit, solemnly informing us we are witnessing a historic moment.

Almost every week we're told of a life-changing breakthrough, be it the cure for a disease, or a peace treaty, or the bailout of a bankrupt nation.

Though history is sometimes invoked merely for dramatic effect, usually these commentators really believe they are standing at a watershed. With hindsight, of course, most such statements are proved false or naive. Like the law, the wheels of history turn slowly, too gradually for the human eye to observe.

Yet occasionally we see history happen, and when we do, we never forget it. No-one who watched the planes flying into the Twin Towers doubted this would change the world. Likewise, within hours of the Lockerbie disaster, it was clear we were following an event that not only had destroyed and ruined countless lives, but would cause political mayhem for years to come. And when Andy Murray sank to his knees at Wimbledon last summer, there was no arguing history of an entirely different sort had been made.

There's a danger, of course, that the h-word is invoked so lightly it will soon become meaningless. Yet I sympathise with the urge to claim an act or occasion for the history books. Never more than today, with social media alerting us almost instantly of uprisings, calamities and discoveries, the public's finger is on the world's pulse, the merest blip pounced upon and relayed across the globe.

As a result, it feels as if history is happening faster than ever before. In part this is because far more is reported, but as populations grow, and technology allows the lightning transfer of information, ideas, and ideologies, it does seem the rate of profound change is escalating.

Five hundred years ago, an English survivor of the Battle of Flodden galloped back to London where, at breakneck speed, a pamphlet was published within the week recounting the battle. For centuries, until the advent of trains and telegrams, that pace of recording scarcely changed. Whereas now, a secret meeting between political rivals, or celebrity lovers witnessed in a ScotRail First Class carriage is all over the twittersphere and airwaves before the train has even reached its destination.

I've been contemplating how fast history is made because I have been working on a new edition of my book, Scotland: The Autobiography. First published seven years ago, this is a collection of eyewitness accounts of some of the most pivotal and fascinating events of the past 2000 years.

Ahead of the referendum, it made sense to bring the story right up to date. But as I looked back at recent years I was astonished at how much, in even that short space of time, has altered. Scotland in 2014 is decidedly different from the way it was in 2007 - largely, but not entirely, for the better.

The most obvious change is in the political climate, with a majority SNP government, and the chance to vote for independence overshadowing everything else we presently think and do. That aside, however, there are other equally significant changes. Whether it's gradually relaxing attitudes towards gay marriage and the ordaining of gay clergy, the spread of community land ownership, or loss of trust in banks and financial institutions, the country today, as it stands on the cusp of a crucial decision, feels older, and perhaps a little wiser.

You can't help asking if there was ever a decade in earlier times when our affairs were as lively and fast-moving as now. The answer is yes, and probably more so. Slice Scotland through the heart at almost any point in the far past and you will find radical changes in the law, political skulduggery to make Watergate look like the work of amateurs, and crimes so awful one's stomach churns to think of them.

What will be remembered of today's seemingly momentous affairs remains to be seen. Like the plug of a volcano, only the most influential events will survive. For me, it has been enough to highlight the country's recent record and let others reflect on what makes history, and why.

l The new edition of Scotland: The Autobiography is published this week by Penguin, £12.99.

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