Murder, mayhem, madness and lots of blood. It’s amazing just how entertaining our nation’s macabre history is. When it comes to tales of high drama, gory encounters and boundless intrigue, we are world-beaters.

I was reminded of this last week, when as a family we visited the magnificent Stirling Castle. The highlight had to be when one of the Palace’s brilliant “actors”, dressed in period garb, recalled James VI’s encounter with an irate subject after he blew up her cow with his new cannon. To prove his magnanimity, instead of ordering her execution for insubordination, the “kindly” king apologised and offered her new livestock.

A great story, and as I listened I imagined what it would be like if Prince Charles did the same thing today. Of course, that would be ridiculous, I hope. But actions – whether good, bad or plain bizarre – have a time and a place.

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The danger comes, however, when history becomes entangled with modern value judgments or is used for political spin.

The most obvious example of these tensions has to be Winston Churchill, who inspires both adoration and opprobrium in equal measure. Was he a “great” man?

There’s no denying he is a hugely significant historical figure, whose rousing speeches inspired the British public in its darkest hour. Grainy footage of flag-waving Cockneys welcoming their saviour during the height of the Blitz is evidence of how much he was, and is still, loved. But he was also responsible for many needless deaths and held racist views.

Should he be removed from history lessons? No. Both his successes and transgresses should be taught – not as a means to justify his deeds, but to understand. To cancel him for failing to live up to today’s social mores only harms ourselves by closing a window into the past.

Meanwhile, the independence movement’s deification of Robert the Bruce may stir the loins of ardent nationalists, but while they celebrate his defeat of the English does such a pick ‘n’ mix approach to history include his views on democracy or women’s rights? Well, no, because that would be silly – such concepts were alien to 14th-century Scotland. This, in turn, begs the question: does he really belong in a 21st-century political landscape at all?

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History is written by the victors, so it is important to shine a light on forgotten groups and not to underplay the role of racial superiority and prejudice. But this should not come at the expense of ignoring or manipulating the legacy of major players too.

The zealotry of our past kings and queens would make a Taliban hardliner blush today, but context is everything. When we listened to the tale of King James VI’s obliteration of a cow, did we shake our heads and express our utter disgust? Hardly, we all laughed, knowing that even though it took place a few hundreds yards away it happened 400 years ago.

The fascinating stories from our past fire the imagination and speak to the universal truths of the human condition. Times and attitudes change but the facts don’t, so let’s stick to those.


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