THE Sir William Kerr Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh, to give Tom Devine full due, arrives two hours later than planned for our rendezvous, which allows me to study the new edition of his "number one Scottish bestseller", The Scottish Nation. "A formidable work," remarked the late Donald Dewar, "a serious attempt to describe within one set of covers the complex and troubled history of modern Scotland."

"One of the books," said the Rt Hon Gordon Brown. Other similarly effusive quotes have been garnered from across the political spectrum and, perhaps more surprisingly, from Devine's historiographic rivals, such as Niall Ferguson and Michael Fry. "If you are after answers to the big questions of Scottish history," said Ferguson, "Devine is your man."

And indeed, right on cue, here he comes, stepping out of a dreich Edinburgh night into the warm embrace of a legendary howff. Now in his early 60s, Devine has the pouchy coupon of a Walter Matthau. When he laughs, which he does often and incontinently, it is in the manner of Basil Brush, his shoulders shaking with mirth. He even does it when he lectures, chortling at his own jokes as if he's never heard them before. He is, of course, a marvellous, compulsive public speaker, addressing spell-bound audiences with just a few notes, his hands often entrenched in his pockets.

In that regard, he is of the ilk of AJP Taylor, one of the great historical communicators. To have Devine as your professor must make studying an inspirational experience. He is, he says, uninterested in telling the story of what the past was like. "You've got to have questions, you've got to have puzzles, you've got to have conundrums." History, as he describes it, is a quest and the historian is like a detective pursuing that most elusive of quarries, the truth. In Devine's view, history is the principle academic discipline which informs all others. Without it we are lost and left to flounder in limbo. It is the context in which we exist.

It is interesting, therefore, to note that at school, Our Lady's High in Motherwell, Devine did not take history beyond his second year because it was "endlessly boring". He recollects his teacher telling the class to take out their books, turn to page X, read up on the Plantagenets or whatever, and take notes. "I'll be back in 20 minutes," he'd say. It was, says Devine, dreadful. Instead, he opted for geography, which "was a better preparation for being a historian than school history. It was intellectually very useful when it came to university, because it was more analytical and conceptual". History, rather, was about cramming in dates and names. Have things improved? "There's no doubt about it," he says. "The pedagogy of history has been transformed in Scottish schools since then."

Lest anyone think, however, that all in the garden is rosy, Devine says that he is talking specifically about methodology, not the areas that are covered. As far as the latter is concerned there is much yet to be done. You could still emerge from your schooling with only the sketchiest picture of Scotland's history. But there is hope, he says. The Scottish Association of Teachers of History, SATH, has produced a curriculum for four to 14-year-olds which combines the detailed study of serious and important developments in Scotland with European and world history. That's the good news. The bad is that it has a long way to go before it is accepted by teachers and adopted by schools. The problem, says Devine, is that history needs to be taught sequentially. "You can't just move in and out of it." At the moment, though, the trend is towards "pop-up" history, so that in primary school pupils may learn a bit about the Vikings or the Clearances or ancient Egypt. But they will not place such subjects in context. "It's chronological anarchy," says Devine.

What is needed, he adds, is for the way history is taught to be prescribed. But that is not going to happen in the foreseeable future because "the educational establishment in Scotland is totally opposed to prescription. They're totally opposed to imposing a curriculum from the centre. Each school is left more or less to do what it wants. The only guidelines are for the examinations. Legally, I believe, the only subject area that's required to be taught in Scottish schools is religious education.

"I detect, still, niche areas of conservatism in the school teaching profession. They know what sells. They know they will attract pupils with Hitlerism and aspects of 20th century history. The Great War and the second world war. I was asked at a history teachers' conference - when I was going on about this - do you honestly think you would get the same response to the second world war as you might get to the story of the agricultural revolution in Scotland?' My father taught all his life in a junior secondary in Lanarkshire. He once told me, A good teacher can teach anything'."

At which Devine dissolves into a paroxysm of laughter. There are, it seems, some subjects which just can't be sexed up and which will in the current climate find difficulty in attracting acolytes. The irony is that while generations of Scottish children left school without ever having heard of the Disruption or the Reformation or the Enlightenment, they have grown into adults desperate to remedy their ignorance, whether as mature students, regulars at public lectures, buyers of books or viewers of such series as the BBC's current search to decide which are the top 10 events in Scotland's history.

At the end of this month, Devine will chair the panel which makes the final judgement on the last-mentioned. At first, he says, he was hesitant about getting involved because it could be interpreted as another instance of dumbing down, but his wife Catherine convinced him that it was a bit of fun and potentially educational. "There will," he vows, "be robust academic debate."

That, in essence, is Devine's forte. For the updated edition of The Scottish Nation he has written three new chapters, dealing with different aspects of Scottish life since devolution. Writing about contemporary times, he concedes, has its perils. For example, he is mortified that he dismissed the SNP, noting that in 2005 they had merely 25% of the popular vote in Scotland. A recent poll suggested that they now have 50% of the vote. That aside, however, Devine's take on the past decade is fascinating and sure to ignite controversy. First, he says, he deals with "a conundrum I've always been quite interested in", namely why, if - as Tom Nairn once suggested - the Union with England was only tenable as long as there was an empire, it still survives. In part, he argues that the coming of the welfare state may be the reason.

"The age of empire may have passed but, ironically, the Union in the 1940s and 1950s was now even more important than before. As one of the poorer parts of the United Kingdom, Scotland was likely to gain more than most other regions from the introduction of an interventionist social and economic policy which was being implemented in the very decade that decolonisation began with the independence of India. It was now welfare support from cradle to grave which became the real anchor of the union state."

In another chapter, Devine looks at Scottish politics since devolution and, in particular, challenges the "pessimistic thesis on modern Scottish society", as articulated by the likes of the aforementioned Niall Ferguson, who compared Scotland to Belarus; Stuart Cosgrove, who said Scots are in love with a culture of miserabilism; and Carol Craig, author of The Scots' Crisis Of Confidence and founder of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing. What's not to be confident about? is Devine's view.

"My central point is that since the 1980s, Scotland has undergone a transformation which can only be compared to the transformation of industrialisation. How could an unconfident society - especially in an economic, entrepreneurial sense - possibly have gone through this process? That's the first thing. The second thing is that, in terms of social-scientific methodology, how can you compare lack of confidence or over-confidence between nations? There's no real way of doing it.

"So what you therefore get back to is gut-feeling and gut-feeling is perhaps quite treacherous in terms of analysis. The third thing is there is a range of people out there, who have a very distinctive right-wing agenda, who see the Scottish problem as statism - over-reliance on the state - failing to point out that the most successful societies in western Europe have even more commitment to the state than Scotland has. The Scandinavian countries in general. But the related point is there's a complete under-estimation - and I'm not suggesting the state can't be more efficient - of the extent to which the role of the state in modern society is an absolutely vital part of material activity and material progress."

Often, he adds, Scotland is compared unfavourably to Ireland, despite the fact that "it is not a useful model". In contrast to the Scots, the Irish were trying to move from an impoverished economy to a rich one. We, meanwhile, were relatively well-off, with a mature industrial base. What was needed in Scotland in the 1980s was renewal and regeneration. In upbeat mode, Devine mentions Glasgow's burgeoning caf society and its description - by National Geographic magazine - as the "capital of cool", Edinburgh's status as a World City of Literature, and the fact that 40% of workers in Dundee wear white collars. "Scotland," he concludes, "seems well-placed to compete in a global economy where brainpower and talent are much more important than muscle power."

What he does not mention is his own contribution, which has led to a deeper understanding of who we are and where we came from. He himself, he boasts, does not have a Scottish gene in his body, being wholly Irish on both sides of his family. That said, he finds Scotland's history much more fascinating. "For a start it has had a much bigger impact worldwide and it's also undergone a series of what you'd call convulsions that Ireland hasn't. Ireland's big watershed moment is the famine. Once you get over that, what is there?"

It is said with a mischievous grin. One can imagine him throwing such grenades at undergraduates and waiting for them to react. How could they not? Devine's Irish heritage manifests itself in other ways, notably his Catholicism. Once I witnessed him debate with sociologist Steve Bruce the subject of sectarianism, as manifested in the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic. Bruce believed it to be largely mythical, Devine begged to differ.

Though Scotland is the only country to have an anti-sectarian policy, he wonders if sectarianism is still an issue. "There are some articulate people around - we don't have to mention names here - who still have that victim mentality. There have been difficulties and there has been discrimination. But I think, by and large, Scotland has been wonderful for the Scoto-Irish." And, as if that is not contentious enough, he adds that, contrary to received wisdom, the Billy Boys, who were never happier than when up to their knees in Fenian blood, have nothing to do with William of Orange. They were so named, apparently, because of their association with one William Fullerton, a vicious leader of a Glasgow gang in the 1930s, who had links to the Ku Klux Klan and Oswald Mosley's fascists. Fullerton, who was known as King Billy, and his thugs were used to break strikes in 1926. Thus endeth the history lesson.

The Scottish Nation 1700-2007 (Penguin £12.99) is out now. Scotland's History: The Countdown is on BBC Two on November 30 at 8pm. Viewers can vote at /scotlandshistory from 9pm this Friday