On one side there is Neil Oliver, the flamboyant presenter of the BBC’s History of Scotland series, and on the other there’s Tom Devine, the great man of Scottish history. For weeks now, they’ve slugged it out in print, taking swipes and pot-shots at each other’s intellect and appearance.

But tomorrow night they could have been on our screens to settle their scores, taking part in a classic television dust-up between two bitter rivals in a BBC St Andrew’s Day debate on Scottish history.

However, the people of Scotland will be frustratingly denied an armchair view of what could have been their final climactic duel. Tom Devine says it’s a missed opportunity for viewers and thinks a conscious decision was taken to keep him off our screens and away from Oliver. Whatever the reason, the country’s public service broadcaster will not be allowing viewers the spectacle of watching Oliver and Devine, two bitter enemies, going head to head in intellectual combat.

So the debate will explore the contemporary relevance of Scottish history while steadfastly ignoring the tartan-clad elephant in the studio: the war of words between Devine, the nation’s most eminent historian, and Oliver, the golden boy du jour of BBC Scotland. Oliver will be in the studio. Devine won’t.

Their battles illustrate perfectly just how steamed up some of us can get about our national past. Devine represents those of us who feel the Beeb is dumbing down history, and trying to turn it into celebrity-driven entertainment. Oliver stands for those of us who think a bit of a populist take on such a tricky subject as the nation’s history is no bad thing.

That Devine has been denied a place on the BBC panel, however, may come as something of a relief for Oliver. Devine didn’t spare him when it came to the historian’s earlier critique of A History of Scotland, dubbing Oliver a “hapless long-haired presenter … physically in the old visual tradition of Braveheart and the Highlander movies”, to which Oliver responded: “I could not be less interested in what a plump old man thinks about my physical appearance.”

Until then , the pair were simply verbally mauling each other in the pages of the nation’s newspapers. However, although he didn’t get his way, Devine wanted to settle the issue man to man – face-to-face in the BBC studios.

That may not have been exactly to Oliver’s taste. You only have to read the first sentence of Devine’s wikipedia entry to realise he must be a fearsome competitor with which to contend. It states: “Professor Tom Devine (Thomas Martin Devine) BA PhD D.Litt Hon D.Litt (Queen’s Belfast) Hon D.Litt (Abertay Dundee) Hon D.Univ (Strathclyde) OBE FRSE Hon MRIA FRHistS FBA (born Motherwell, Scotland, 1945) is a historian of Scotland. His main research interest is the history of the nation since c.1600 and its global connections and impact.

“He is widely acknowledged as Scotland’s leading historian.”

Oliver’s own wiki entry reads: “Neil Oliver (born Ayr, 1967) is a Scottish archaeologist, historian, author and broadcaster, known partly for his distinctive voice and long black hair. He grew up in Ayr and Dumfries before attending Glasgow University to study archaeology. He is best known as a presenter of the documentary series Coast.”

So when the Sunday Herald asked Oliver whether he was up for a public debate with his most savage critic – the kind of debate the BBC won’t be providing viewers with – it was understandable that the presenter should say that the row surrounding Scotland’s history was “a debate for all of us, not two individuals”.

Speaking to the Sunday Herald at his home in Lanarkshire ahead of tomorrow night’s programme, Devine, the head of history, classics and archaeology at Edinburgh University, said he’d been taken aback by the vitriolic nature of Oliver’s response to his criticism of the programme.

Reflecting on their fracas, Devine said he regretted the comment about Oliver’s appearance: “I am sorry that ... caused him personal offence and apologize to him for that. My intended target was the production team, so I made a mistake there.” However, he says Oliver’s comeback was totally disproportionate.

Devine is disappointed by the failure of academic historians in Scotland to join the debate over the past few weeks. The sole exception is his Edinburgh colleague, Dr Jenny Wormald, who backed him by writing a lengthy and supportive letter to The Herald.

“There has been an incredible silence in the Scottish academy. Why have none of them put their heads above the parapet apart from Jenny?” asks Devine.

It may have taken a little time but another academic historian has finally entered the fray. However, it will be much to Prof Devine’s chagrin to learn that his fellow historian is leaping not to his defence but to Oliver’s.

Professor Christopher Harvie, who became an SNP MSP at the last Holyrood election, told the Sunday Herald: “Oliver does the narrative well – talking to camera and walking in a straight line over mountains and sounding convincing isn’t easy – and he’s picturesque enough to be a sort of Everyscot.”

More provocatively, Harvie questions Devine’s credentials for critiquing the series. “Devine’s expertise lies in the chronological frame of his book, The Scottish Nation, from 1688 to the present. It doesn’t cover the parts of A History of Scotland that we’ve so far seen,” he said.

Harvie’s comments have compelled the professor to draw his dagger once more. “He’s absolutely right about the pre-1600 period,” says Devine. “I claim no expertise in that area. But this series is about the post-1600 period, about which I have written 27 books and more than 100 academic articles covering the whole gamut of Scottish history. So it’s extremely sad that Chris is questioning my credentials. Very sad and very Scottish.”

Based for much of his academic career at the University of Tubingen in Germany, Harvie tried for several decades to vie with Devine for the status of Scotland’s pre-eminent modern historian. Although his various works are peppered with sharp insights and waspishly witty observations, none of them have come anywhere close to being a best-seller like Devine’s Scottish Nation, which was released with perfect timing at the restoration of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and glowingly endorsed by the Scots-born media don and Harvard history professor, Niall Ferguson.

“Scottish history is a snake-pit,” says Devine. “The academic community is relatively small and people here in general are passionate about history. But there are a lot of Scots in their forties, fifties and sixties who are historically illiterate. It’s not their fault but down to the failings of our school system. What angers me is that the BBC had a golden opportunity to address that educational deficit in a proper way. Why do they dumb down these things? Why can’t they have heavyweights discussing heavyweight issues?”

Neil McDonald, the executive producer of A History of Scotland, and the man who hired Oliver, responds: “It is the television audience who ultimately decides what works on screen for them – and their response to Neil Oliver has been overwhelmingly positive. It takes a rare combination of intellect, charisma and storytelling ability to hold down a 10-hour landmark series, but Neil has proved to be extremely successful.

“It is not just a question of the high audience figures which the series has enjoyed, but also the assessment of the audience.

“Neil is not an academic historian but, as an archaeologist, has spent many years literally up to his knees in history and is passionate about it and the part it plays in understanding Scotland today. He has been very ably backed by both programme teams and a wide range of consultants who are among the leading historians working in Scottish universities today. These talents combine to tell an amazing story and, in the hands of Neil Oliver, they can rely on one of Britain’s master storytellers.”

English historian Tristram Hunt has no truck with fellow academics who contend that TV diminishes their discipline. He wants his contemporaries to get out of their ivory towers more often, going forth from the academic world into the wider world, to share the fruits of their labours. “For progressives, the capacity of television history to broaden learning, democratise knowledge and generate public discourse has to be regarded as a laudatory quality,” he argues.

While tacitly acknowledging the shortcomings of his own series, Civil War, Hunt insists it was worthwhile. After it was broadcast, he points out, “the Open University received an unprecedented number of enquiries and then take-up of courses on the history of the 17th century”.

Scottish medieval history departments experienced a similar surge in demand after the screening of Mel Gibson’s blockbuster Braveheart, although some earnest academics were soon lamenting the motivations of their new recruits.

Britain’s foremost TV historian, Simon Schama, says academics may shudder but history on the small screen works – when it finds the right visual language and the best way of the telling the story. “Producers shouldn’t flinch from delivering a challenging, impassioned view of the past,” he says. “And print historians should be willing to unlearn and relearn their techniques of communication, discover the techniques of debating with images, to become as familiar with the cutting room as the seminar room.”