Tuesday, October 25, 2011

1000 Years of Scottish History in 600 minutes

In August, a friend wrote to tell me that A History of Scotland, presented by archaeologist Neil Oliver, was available for viewing on YouTube. It sounded good, so I investigated and found the show as individual portions and organized as a playlist, one of which is here. But sitting in front of my computer to watch all ten episodes didn't sound like any fun. I then found the DVD set on Amazon, but it was expensive, so I added it to my wish list. At this point I discovered that it was already on my wishlist. Evidently, I knew about it, but had forgotten.

Ultimately, I requested the DVD set through inter-library loan and watched all 600 minutes in about two and a half weeks. Do. Not. Do. This. The series is very good, visually stunning and probably worth buying; but if you watch all the episodes so close together all you will notice is that there is lots of dripping blood and lots of Neil Oliver looking over his shoulder talking to the camera while walking away from it.

I am not a specialist in all periods of Scottish History (and to be honest, who is?), so I can not really comment on the accuracy of each episode (which are listed here), but they seemed good to me. Like most history programs aimed at a general audience, The History of Scotland, did focus on the popular topics: Wars of Independence, the War of the Three Kingdoms, Reformation, the Jacobite Risings, and the Union. Oliver did on occasion contrast traditional views on a subject with newer ones. The one that sticks out in my mind is Robert the Bruce - usually seen as a hero, but perhaps really a man who was conflicted over the actions that made him a hero.

My specialization, emigration, was only lightly touched on in the last three episodes of series two. I suppose since emigration has been such a huge component of the Scottish experience since the late Middle Ages, it should have figured more prominently; but emigration is not as "cool" as things topics that involve dripping blood. Actually, the BBC could do a whole 600 minutes just on Scottish emigration (hint, hint).

I was disappointed in the treatment of Union. What Oliver presented was a very "bought and sold for English gold" view, but recent research has shown that the Union negotiations were far more nuanced (although there was plenty of money involved). I thought a popular program like this would have been a great opportunity to bring the work of scholars like Karin Bowie and Christopher Whatley to a wider audience, especially light of the current debate on Independence.

My favorite episode was The Price of Progress covering the second half of the eighteenth century. The focus of this program was the exportation of Scotland's people and ideas. I enjoyed this episode for two reasons: it was the closest to my particular interests and had very little, if any, dripping blood.

If you want to learn about Scotland without cracking the cover of a book, then this series would be an excellent place to start. If you teach Scottish or British history, many episodes, or even snippets of them, would be great to share with students. I'm quite sure many students will find the dripping of blood, chopping off of heads, and dangling of bodies much more entertaining than I did. In fact, it might be all they remember come exam time.

Happy Viewing!


Yvonne Perkins said...

We accidentally found this series flicking channels one evening. We loved what we saw so much that we bought the DVDs. Unfortunately we haven't had a chance to watch them yet.

I don't have a good background in Scottish history so cannot comment on this series from a knowledgeable point of view, but in terms of presentation what we saw was excellent. Critical to these endeavours is the presence of the narrator. Neil Oliver gave the series the dramatic tone that is needed to captivate an audience.

I agree with you Amanda that a series on Scottish emmigration would be wonderful. Who is going to do it - you? Or perhaps you can develop some storylines and pitch it. Maybe we can start an online campaign for it?

Amanda E. Epperson said...

Oh, I thought Neil Oliver was a good choice - knowledgable, enagaging and easy on the eye (which is important for television). I first saw him when he did the Two Men in a Trench series when I lived in Glasgow. It's just that since I watched all the episodes in such a short period of time, it was an awful lot of him, and the dripping blood.
Regarding the emigration documentary, I'm not opposed, but have absolutely NO IDEA how to go about it. Although, I suppose I could find out, couldn't I.... It would definately "go with" the Scottish Executive's interest in the diaspora.

BDM said...

We've just seen the first series this month in Canada (not sure if it's been shown here before). I'm enjoying the archaeological "take" in certain parts, new to me. When I see the ever-dripping blood I just reach for my red wine!


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