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.