WHEN I was a child it seemed there was no such thing as Scottish history. Other than occasional primary school lessons on Mary Queen of Scots, and a session on stone age hunters – calm your excitement! – our country might have been brand new for all the attention the curriculum paid to its past.

Secondary school teaching, meanwhile, was woefully dull. In the words of Professor Sir Tom Devine, history was “so ineffably badly taught” that even those of us interested in bygone ages studied geography instead. In Devine’s case, and indeed my own, we only turned to history once at university.

These days it’s hard to comprehend how students could be deemed educated yet leave school knowing almost nothing of their country’s story. Were the powers that be alarmed that, if taught, the subject might spark a nationalist conflagration? Or did they cringe at being part of a small country that owed much of its fortune to its union with England, whose history was essential reading if you wanted to advance up the greasy pole? More prosaically, was Scotland just too boring?

I doubt we will ever know the reasoning behind what looks suspiciously like state suppression. Thankfully, however, in the last few decades that outlook has dramatically changed, in large part because of the spadework of an army of historians.

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Even so, despite far greater awareness of what earlier generations of Scots did and why, it seems that there is still some way to go. Historian William Dalrymple, from East Lothian, is the author of a plethora of books about the East India Company, and the history of India and Afghanistan. Having delved into the archives, he believes that Scots still have no comprehension of their often nefarious role in the British Empire.

The first three Governors-General of India were Scots, while hundreds of thousands more were employed there as soldiers, sailors, engineers, traders and much else. This much was already known, but Dalrymple says, “We have not even begun to recognise the Scots role in the looting of India.” He points out that the children of Highlanders traumatised by the Battle of Culloden “committed similar atrocities in India”.

He suggests our Braveheart image has given us a “free pass”, making England the villain of the piece, when in fact we were involved up to our necks. “This is something that we just don’t teach our kids,” he says. And, certainly, we ought to.

In the running of American slave plantations, and across the British Empire, Scots were evident in disproportionately high numbers. Recent attempts to calibrate how much of the country’s wealth can be traced to the slave trade have shown how deeply implicated Scottish merchants and their overseers were. The rewording of plaques, and the updated information offered about stately homes built on the proceeds of abominable deeds, are to be welcomed.

As yet, though, the scale of Scottish activity or complicity in some of the most reprehensible acts of the past 300 years continues to go unremarked. If we have not actively been ostriches, we have undoubtedly taken too long to shake the sand out of our eyes and ears.

So why should school students be taught how heartless their forebears could be? Because to know what your own country is capable of is essential if we are to face ourselves honestly and think realistically about what lies ahead, as well as understand the struggles of other nations.

For centuries we have adopted a distinctly smug position, believing that, compared with our nearest neighbour, we hold the moral high ground. Where this attitude comes from is not clear, but it is typified by the age-old equation that a small and comparatively poor country, with egalitarian tendencies, is de facto closer to God.

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Whatever its origins, and despite a past riddled with shameful episodes, we have persisted in feeling ‘slightly superior’. A label that was once drolly applied to Edinburgh could with justification be hung around all our necks, as a warning against hubris.

Because, obviously, such conceit is unwarranted. There are countless instances in our history books of violence inflicted by one clan or party on another. In the Borders, criminal gangs, who were more vicious than any mafia mob, terrorised those who lived in the region, regardless of whether they were from the same family let alone nationality.

What about the owners of the earliest coalfields, who turned their workers into feudal serfs with fewer rights, longer hours, lower pay, and far less to sustain them, than medieval peasants? Or 19th-century landowners who turfed tenants out of their crofts to make way for sheep, leaving them nothing to eat but seaweed and shellfish? Or factory owners who made children slave all day long in intolerable conditions, ruining their health, if not worse?

I could go on, but the point is abundantly clear. Our record is far from blameless. Of course, every nation has skeletons in the cupboard. And some intend to keep them there. In 2018, for instance, Poland passed an anti-defamation bill making it illegal to attribute blame for Nazi crimes to the Polish state or citizens.

There’s little danger of us going down that reprehensible road, not least because it has taken us long enough to unearth the bare bones of our past. Now, to that ever-unfolding story must be added the ethical perspective. This means assessing events not merely as a series of actions with political or economic consequences, but bearing moral freight as well. These reverberations have often been barely acknowledged, if at all. Nevertheless, they have a call on subsequent generations, such as ours, and oblige us to adjust our historical lens.

For a country deliberating what direction to take, either as an independent nation or as part of the union, such a reckoning is more important than ever. Our view of the past must not be distorted by wishful thinking, or a self-serving political agenda. Rather than perpetuate myths that calm our consciences or flatter us, we need to learn – and teach - historical fact.

This is not to abase ourselves, or feel crushed by guilt. But it is to put our multifarious history in perspective, and recognise that it is a long, winding, and sometimes inglorious procession. Robert Burns wrote, ‘Facts are chiels that winna ding’. We are surely grown-up enough now to face them.

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