DURING Britain’s long occupation of Ireland they weren’t content merely to enslave its people and send them into forced exile. They also sought to eradicate their culture and religion by means of imposing on them a suite of laws forbidding use of the Irish language and hearing the Catholic Mass.

This is why many of us feel an involuntary shudder whenever there is talk of letting Gaelic die a natural death, for there has never been anything ‘natural’ about it. The penal laws endured by the Irish throughout the 18th and 19th century were also used by the British in their attempts to pacify the Highlands of Scotland. Outlaw their language and their religion and you effectively absorb and then cancel an entire civilisation.

It was a shock and awe strategy that Britain used more ruthlessly and effectively than any other nation in constructing an empire based almost entirely on genocide and enslavement.

They bled countries of their natural resources by use of a vast administrative infrastructure run directly from London and then used a sophisticated, multi-generational propaganda apparatus to cover up the crimes and disseminate a false narrative.

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It helped that almost all of the UK’s biggest-selling newspapers were in the hands of a handful of aristocrats committed to the fiction. But to ensure that the message of might-is-right British superiority became embedded in the mass public consciousness the British education system and the teaching of history in particular was deployed to stunning effect.

In Scotland, vestiges of this approach still curiously persist. Until a decade ago the overwhelming majority of Scotland’s citizens rarely, if ever, encountered anything about the history of their own country. Twelve years of primary and secondary schooling would pass where Scottish history was mentioned fleetingly and only as a footnote or corollary to the great events designed and enacted by England. If you were fortunate enough to gain admittance to one of the very few universities which offered Scottish history and literature as a degree course then you were blessed indeed.

Irritated and intrigued by what seemed to have been a deliberate and insidious attempt to hide Scotland’s past from its present-day citizens I approached Fiona Hyslop, then the Cabinet Minister for Education, to discuss this in 2007. At this point I was an executive working on the Daily Mail.

You might imagine such an outlet to be a curious platform for such notionally nationalistic overtures but it wasn’t really. For reasons that I was never quite able fully to fathom, the Mail in Scotland has always been keen to carry features on the history of our nation. My editor at the time, a metropolitan Englishman steeped in the traditions of Paul Dacre and the Northcliffe publishing empire said simply: “Scotland has such a rich and vibrant history with loads of amazing people and stories. Why wouldn’t we want to carry them? No one else seems to be.”


I explained to Ms Hyslop that many benefits would accrue from making the teaching of Scottish history a compulsory, certificated subject in our secondary schools. One of them was an increased understanding of the origins of the religious differences that persist in Scotland and which have disfigured much of our recent past. If all of our main faith communities were taught the origins, course and consequences of the Protestant Reformation and why it was culturally and economically necessary at that moment in Scotland’s story it might lead to an increased understanding and acceptance of each other’s lived and bequeathed experiences.

An authentic and well-planned Scottish history syllabus would also help analyse and interpret our relationship with England and our important and long-standing connections with Europe. It might help increase our sense of self-confidence as a people: that we weren’t merely perched on the edge of great events or kept well back from them in the cheap seats but had a history of being at the centre of them.

The Education Secretary was receptive to my thoughts and a meeting with two senior civil servants followed. It soon became apparent that these two – polite and efficient and laden with degrees and post-grad diplomas – had little or no knowledge of the great events that had brought them here either. I don’t know if my entreaties counted for much but a Higher paper in Scottish History duly appeared in 2011. It was something of a breakthrough, yet little has been done to build on this in the years since.

Instead we’re occasionally witness to the type of abject ignorance displayed this week by the Conservative MP Andrew Bowie in claiming that there should be a “fight back against nationalist bias” in the teaching of history. There is of course no nationalist bias; there is hardly even a trace of Scottish bias. Rather, as there always has been, there remains an overwhelming bias in favour of England’s history and its interpretation by mainly English scholars.

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In a well-crafted and eloquent letter which appeared in The Herald’s Letters Pages this week, Mr David J Crawford had this to say: “I don’t recall lessons on the significance of the Highland Clearances or of why we have Fort William, Fort George and “old military roads”. The significance of the 1746 Act of Proscription was lost in tales of heroic Admiral Nelson. Nobody mentioned the Calton weavers or the 1919 “Battle of George Square”; any reference to the struggle for Irish independence was a negative one, they didn’t tell me about the Croke Park Massacre, the Black and Tans and their atrocities never existed.”

The history of England, of course, is rich and dramatic too and must always have a place in our classrooms. The deeds of that great nation – for good or for ill – have helped shape the world in which we live. But how can we be expected to understand it properly if we remain ignorant of Scotland’s story both within it and separate from it? And how can we tell our children that Scotland’s historic connections to Europe are as deep as our links to the rest of the UK?

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.