A small but perfectly formed story of Scotland

Rab Houston has 'enemies' in Scottish history, but he is still proud of his roots, writes Olga Wojtas

December 4, 2008

When Rab Houston, professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews, was approached to write his latest book, Scotland: A Very Short Introduction, he was initially doubtful. "I thought, I've got enough enemies in Scottish history without making more," he said.

Every country has tensions between historians with differing viewpoints, but Scotland's small size arguably exaggerates this. Professor Houston is unashamedly opinionated, and has publicly described two of the country's best-known academics, Tom Devine and Michael Lynch of the University of Edinburgh, as "prima donnas".

It is fair to assume, then, there was outrage in some quarters when Professor Houston, who does not teach Scottish history, was commissioned to write the latest in the Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions series - on Scotland.

He has worked on many areas in Scottish, British and European history, and reads widely in subjects outside his own field, so was comfortable with the challenge. The principal difficulty was deciding what to exclude from the 40,000-word book. "Most academics couldn't tell you their names in 40,000 words," he joked. His current project, on the perception of suicide in Scotland and the north of England, weighs in at 300,000 words.

But while Scotland: A Very Short Introduction, published last week, may be his smallest book, it is the one he has enjoyed most.

"The research assessment exercise probably wouldn't even give it a glance, but I had a whale of a time writing it," Professor Houston said.

"Writing without footnotes is very liberating. I've tried to write a book that could be accessible to anyone interested in Scotland, not just academics, university students and secondary school pupils, but also visitors here for work or leisure, as well as Scottish expatriates around the world."

He has succeeded in being pithy without being cryptic, covering a breathtaking and comprehensive range of topics. The index ranges from archaeology, literacy and fornication to racism, Karl Marx and the Loch Ness Monster (initially thought of as a malignant water spirit, until a 1933 newspaper report helped it "blossom into an enduring tourist generator").

There is also a lengthy list of references and further reading - including work by professors Devine and Lynch.

The book is on Scotland rather than Scottish history, but Professor Houston chose to include key historical turning points, focusing on what made Scotland different in the past and what has contributed to making it different now.

"Despite appearances, Scotland really was and is nothing like England. The experience of being Scottish and British creates a tension in our lives that all Scots feel, but not all understand. I wanted to explain it and to explore the influence of history on the making of modern Scotland," he said.

Scotland is a part of Britain, but also a distinct nation, he said, "rather than just a backward version of England waiting to catch up".

Even after the union of the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707, education, local government, law and religion remained separate, and Professor Houston maps out their trajectories. Although he is not religious, he believes that Christianity, and indeed Calvinism, have had a positive impact on Scotland, for example, containing conflict, driving improved medical care, and supporting black nationalism.

"A lot of people don't think twice about the Church or, if they do, pick out what's bad about it. It is a myth, a distortion, to see the Christian Church as a bad thing," he said.

Calvinism is generally considered a dour religion, but Professor Houston disputes this image, pointing out how it accommodated popular festivities.

A German journalist who read the first draft of the book said: "You really love your country, don't you?" It was intended as a reproach, but Professor Houston is unrepentant.

"I'm trying to get Scots to reconnect with what's good about their history. It's not fashionable. There's an argument that to make people engage with history, you have to make them indignant," he said.

He also believes that the focus on "bad things" in modern museums, such as slavery, may not be helpful.

"Somewhere along the way, you need to strike a balance, and that's what I've tried to establish."

Modern Scotland and modern Scottish history are relatively poorly understood, he said, and higher education tends to concentrate on the period from the Dark Ages to the early 19th century. And while there is excellent academic research, "teaching is in a state of stasis", he argued, with few students taking degrees in Scottish history.

His own interest began when he was in secondary school, and he won top marks for an essay on Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian as a historical novel. His teacher praised him as a budding historian, although his father wanted him to follow something sensible, such as economics or medicine.

"I got a research fellowship at Cambridge and was over the moon. My father said: 'You'll never make any money.' He was right."

The new book may improve matters: OUP says 10,000 Very Short Introductions are sold around the world every week.

However, that is not what Professor Houston sees as important. "It's a personal statement. I'm proud of being Scottish, and Scotland matters."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com

• Scotland: A Very Short Introduction by Rab Houston (Oxford University Press).

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