Future is good for Scots past

February 27, 1998

AS SCOTLAND prepares for its own parliament, Dundee University and the Open University have created a distance learning course that traces Scottish history from 1707, when it ceased to have a parliament, to the present day.

The project, the first major collaboration between the OU and another institution, is backed by Pounds 100,000 from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. It is based on five books commissioned from 28 academic experts, covering topics ranging from Jacobitism and politics to religion and environmental history.

Christopher Whatley, head of Dundee's modern history department, said:

"Many thousands of Scots or descendants of Scots are hungry to learn about Scottish history, to get behind the myths and to make up for the inadequacies of their earlier education. This course creates new opportunities for people unable to attend courses on offer at Scottish universities."

The 30-week honours level course has already attracted 150 students for 1998. The universities expect numbers to increase, predicting that interest in Scotland's past is growing as a result of devolution.

In light of this interest, a Strathclyde University symposium has challenged Scottish historians to make their work more accessible to the general public. More than 250 people attended a symposium on Scottish history and the Scottish media, run by Strathclyde's research centre in Scottish history.

Louise Yeoman of the National Library of Scotland, who recently presented a BBC television series on Scottish history, questioned the relevance of students' training to the way most people would absorb history. This ranged from television and radio to visitor centres and story boards at sites of historic interest.

"There are no courses in an academic history degree dealing with what I would call applied history, explaining history to non-historians, designing exhibitions, deciding with limited air time how to tell a story, what is a proper simplification and what is misleading or inaccurate," she said.

"Yet academics are the first to complain if a television series or an exhibition or a visitor centre does not meet their exacting standards."

Tom Devine, Strathclyde's professor of Scottish history, said that 30 years ago Scottish history was considered academically inferior to British history but it was now a buoyant and dynamic discipline.

"But it would be a grotesque calumny and utterly patronising to think it is only a university subject," he said.

"It is our collective heritage as Scottish people, and one of the prime justifications of historical studies is to understand how you are in the present and the influences that shaped your society. Scottish academics have not been very good at distilling the essence of their research and making it accessible."

But Ted Cowan, professor of Scottish history at Glasgow University, said the media often did not approach academic historians because they unfairly assumed that they were boring. "We must try to communicate the fascination of Scottish history to our students without gimmicks, moving pictures and background music."

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