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Benedetti: our children must learn about UK's empire past

IN a week of packed concerts, lessons, recitals in schools and foundations in India, Nicola Benedetti, the leading Scottish violinist, has played before 10,000 children.

VISIT: Nicola Benedetti and students from the RCS at the school visit.
VISIT: Nicola Benedetti and students from the RCS at the school visit.

But her experiences in India, where the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO) has been on its first tour of the subcontinent, have led her to speak out on what she believes is the lack of education about the history of the British Empire back home.

She said the lack of education in the UK about the British Empire was ridiculous and it was "appalling how little we all know" about the UK's imperial past.

Last night Benedetti and the BBC SSO, and students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), conducted by the leading Scottish composer James MacMillan, concluded their first tour of India with a concert at Mumbai's National Centre for the Performing Arts.

The violinist, who with the orchestra has also performed to packed audiences in Chennai and Delhi and taken part in a series of educational events and concerts, said she had fallen "properly in love" with the country. "I think I am going to cry the day I have to leave," she added.

However, Benedetti said her experiences in India had reinforced her belief that children in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK should have the Empire and its legacy as a key part of their education.

The London-based violinist, originally from West Kilbride, North Ayrshire, said: "I have a thing about the lack of articulation about, and vocalisation of, Empire history back at home. I look back at the history lessons I had at school, and I remember going over and again the details of the First World War, but did I spend more than a few hours on the British Empire? How are we meant to understand the make-up of our British society now, without having a significant focus on that."

Benedetti went to school in Ayr, South Ayrshire, until the age of 10, and then was educated at the Yehudi Menuhin School for young musicians in Surrey.

She added: "People could say, 'Oh well we are embarrassed about it'. Well, that's even more reason to face it. The fact is our country now is multicultural and that's for a number of reasons but our own history is a significant reason. If we're not taught to connect with that, what hope have we got. It's ridiculous and all of it makes my skin crawl.

"The coating of the Commonwealth gives me a slightly more positive outlook, but I still basically find it appalling how little we all know and even have in our consciousness. And the Scots were involved, it is not like we can say: 'that was your business' (to England)."

Benedetti has taken part in a series of educational concerts and family concerts. In Mumbai, The Herald accompanied her to a school for under privileged children in the Bandra area of the city of 20 million inhabitants.

There, in sweltering heat, she played to four classes of 50 children with RCS students - Alice Allen, Sam Watkin, Wen Nang and Gongbo Jiang - before taking part in an evening masterclass.

Meanwhile the SSO, the 80-strong orchestra based in Glasgow, joined by 13 students from the RCS, has been performing concerts and educational gigs to children in each city. MacMillan has been conducting the concerts and is involved in musical education for children, as well as compositional masterclasses in Chennai.

The concerts include classical standards as well as Scots reels, Stomp by MacMillan, and an orchestral version of Robert Burns's My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose. The final concert last night was broadcast live by BBC Radio 3.

Gavin Reid, director of the BBC SSO, said: "Nicola is extraordinary. She lives and breathes the kind of interaction with children we have had here. Whether that is in Stirling, London, Glasgow or Chennai. She loves it, she has been working very long days.

"I watched her session last night at the Mehli Mehta Foundation [in Mumbai] and her eyes light up every time she gets to share with children her love of music and I know that everything about her is genuine. She is a joy to watch. And when she is playing in the [adult] concerts, the audiences are lapping it up."

Last week Benedetti said she would not take a public view on the independence referendum in Scotland, and last night in India she added: "Maybe in four months time I will change my mind and decide to come out with a definitive answer. Maybe someone will say something that makes me feel sure. Travelling around affects the way I think. I speak to a lot of people, and I speak to people from enormous nations like this and to small ones like Norway. It is interesting to get their perspective."

The full report on The BBC SSO tour to India with Nicola Benedetti and James MacMillan will be in this Saturday's Herald Magazine.

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