By Duncan Ferguson, Rector emeritus, Plockton High School

THANKS to Shakespeare, the ancient world’s most famous assassination – on the Ides of March– and Julius Caesar’s apocryphal final words (Et tu, Brute?) in Latin are well known. We are also in Caesar’s debt for the well known adages “crossing the Rubicon” and “alea iacta est”/the die is cast; and that latter saying could well be applied to the disappearance of Latin teaching from the Scottish curriculum in which the venerable Roman language has had such an established and influential place in the history of our national education. Indeed there is a cohort of Scots educated in the mid-20th century for whom Paterson and Macnaughton (the authors of The Approach to Latin, the introductory school textbook first published in 1938) were household names.

Reports on the demise of Classics teaching in schools are always bemoaned as in the case of Richmond School, in Yorkshire, which recently intimated the end of Classics teaching after 600 years, and Cicero’s phrase “O tempora! O mores!” is appropriately quoted in such circumstances; and it is a not unfamiliar refrain for Scots who studied Latin to rue dropping it and wax lyrical on how it has enhanced their English vocabulary even if many a Latin coursebook was defaced with “Latin is a language as dead as dead can be, once it killed the Romans and now it’s boring me”.

It was not always thus. When Strathclyde Regional Council was established in 1975 every secondary school in Glasgow Division had a teacher of Classics and not only was Latin on the curriculum for those showing particular aptitude in language (usually as an S2 choice against German) but also new non-language courses in Classical Studies were taught to all stages in well devised units thanks to the dedicated subject advisers, Jordanhill College lecturers et al. There were pupils from Shettleston to Springburn who were very familiar with the story of Troy: The Fall of a City, the acclaimed new drama version currently on BBC 1 on Saturday evenings; and the jovial quip that “Helen had the face that launched a thousand chips”always went down well with west coast classical disciples.

The removal of Classics from the curriculum in schools nationwide has been a familiar tale since those short-lived halcyon days and groundhog day seems inevitable; nevertheless, although the independent sector schools are now the main providers of Classics, there are still state schools with Latin and Classical Studies on the curriculum, including Kirkcaldy High School, former premier Gordon Brown’s alma mater, and online courses are available to schools without Classics on the regular curriculum. Of course, three of our ancient universities – St Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh – still have a full range of Classics and there are laudable initiatives by the departments in these institutions to offer outreach courses to both secondary and primary schools in their areas.

The classicists in our universities now have a crucial role in ensuring there are opportunities to study Latin and its concomitant classical courses in the nation of the Antonine Wall; and through the work of academics and broadcasters like Mary Beard there are more programmes than ever on the BBC on classical civilisation; Roman history continues to be a rich seam for drama series; and in 2020 Scotland will mark the 700th anniversary of its most famous historical document – the Declaration of Arbroath – written in Latin.

So, notwithstanding the Ides of March, let us celebrate the place of Latin in Scottish education and its significance for our nation’s cultural commitment to European tradition.