A Scottish history lecturer teaches US students that there is more to Scotland than Braveheart. Olga Wojtas joins him on walkabout
Groups of American teenagers visiting Edinburgh in the summer are not unusual. But this group has a purpose: clutching worksheets, the eight 16 and 17-year-olds are taking part in a St Andrews University summer school. St Andrews believes it is unique in the United Kingdom in offering the month-long "pre-college taster" in Scottish culture and history to American high-school students.
Today the students are on a field trip to Scotland's capital, following lectures on the Scottish Enlightenment, the union between England and Scotland, and the Jacobites by David Allan, lecturer in Scottish history. The students' prior knowledge of Scotland ranges from minimal to non-existent. As they pass the Scott Monument, Ian Hunter of the university's international office points to the statue of Scotland's greatest author and asks if anyone recognises him. "Sophocles?" ventures one student. "He looks kinda Greek."
The Mel Gibson film Braveheart turns out to be a favourite, although David Plumly from South Carolina has already taken the academic lectures to heart. "It's a bunch of historical bunk," he says. "But it attracts people to Scotland and that's good."
The students say they are starting to understand the distinctions between Scotland and England. The field trip is adding atmosphere, says Ian Scott from North Carolina. The taster course has a touristy feel compared with the Scottish history course at St Andrews, which attracts many North Americans and does not require a school qualification in the subject from entrants.
"The main difference here is one of mood," says Dr Allan. With undergraduates, the hallmark is academic discipline, but these people are here to enjoy themselves as well. In terms of academic pitch, I give them the same. These students are pretty tuned in. You don't go on a study trip if you don't want to learn."
He has given all the students a quiz sheet, which will be marked after the trip. "The staff have to assess the students in some way, and I wasn't any more keen on a sit-down exam than they would be," he says.
As they walk round the back of St Giles Cathedral, David Plumly excitedly spots the equestrian statue of Charles I.
"That's the horse guy! That's on the quiz!" He assiduously checks the worksheet throughout the trip. "I love history, and I came here to study the history. I've not been disappointed - Edinburgh is one of the most prestigious cities I've ever seen."
Dr Allan leads them to a breathtaking view of the city from the castle ramparts, pointing out the eight blocks of the New Town beyond Princes Street. He explains that the elegant Georgian grid was created in response to the increasing wealth of the 18th century, when people wanted to escape the cramped tenements of the Old Town. "You see, the Old Town buildings are on a steep slope, often about five storeys at the front, but 12 or 15 storeys at the back. Servants, lawyers, merchants, craftsmen were literally living on top of one another, and you can imagine what it was like with people throwing their sewage out first thing in the morning."
The students are particularly impressed by the national war memorial in the castle, commemorating the 100,000 Scots killed in active service in the first world war. Mary Jane Irwin from Maine enthuses about its "solemn feeling" and "how much honour there is for those who died".
"So much for modern theories about what young people like," says Dr Allan, "that if it doesn't have lots of gadgets and flashing lights, it doesn't interest them."