Interview with Professor Rab Houston
BooksfromScotland.com spoke to Professor Rab Houston, Professor of Modern History at the University of Scotland, about his new book Scotland: A Very Short Introduction.
You have written many academic books on Scottish and European history – was it a challenge to boil the thousand-year history of a nation down to 144 pages?
I wish it was just 1000 years! I covered the whole of Scotland’s peopled history since the last Ice Age. Scotland is a small country, but it is surprisingly diverse and it has a rich history that is almost impossible to condense into something the length of a short novel. More, the last 20 years has seen a flowering of publication about Scottish history and there is a mass of first-class writing to come to terms with. I learned a lot about Scotland past and present while writing it. And I had fun!
As a Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews, one of your research interests is Scottish literacy and identity; do you believe that an understanding of our history and culture is crucial to a sense of identity?
It is absolutely vital. To be alive is to be touched by history. However much we think we live in the present and hope for a better future, we are our memories and our history. Knowing where Scots come from and why we are the way we are gives us identity. But it also makes us better at dealing with the profound changes that are affecting Scotland now. Scots have an unusually strong sense of the past and that makes me optimistic about how we shall shape our future.
How far do you think Devolution has changed that sense of national identity? Or has changed the perceptions of Scottish identity abroad?
I think Devolution came out of a fundamental change in Scottish society during the 1980s and 1990s. Part of that was a reaction against Tory rule, because Thatcherism went against the civic sense and civic compassion that are a part of how Scots see themselves. But there were positive elements too, including a more outward-looking attitude and a willingness to embrace change as Scots tapped into their historic strengths. In turn, Devolution has added to the confidence of the Scottish people and it has enhanced curiosity about Scotland and the Scots not only in the rest of Britain and Ireland, but also in North America and across the world. People want to know whether Scots are really English. If not, what is it about their history that made them want to seek something close to independence after three centuries of being part of the United Kingdom, with all the material benefits that Union brought to English and Scots alike? And what features of Scottish life and culture mark out her people from others in Britain and Europe? These are the sorts of questions with which I grappled.
Many historical Scottish figures, such as William Wallace and Robert Bruce are continually re-written by Hollywood to the point where they are barely recognisable. St Andrews Medieval History department even has a module dedicated to studying the phenomenon – ‘The Middle Ages and the Movies’! Do you think it is harmless escapism or something that historians should be concerned by?
At one level television and cinema are great for historians because they make history come alive and they stimulate interest in the past. One reason the dictators of 20th century Europe are so popular with students is that they are never off TV! What concerns me is the impression that history is only real if it has a moving image and a living voice behind it. But more troubling is the Hollywoood idea that history is malleable. It isn’t. Not all interpretations of the past are equally valid because the facts we have only support some constructions. History is fun, but we owe it to the people of the past to understand them in their own terms and to respect them enough not to make them carry the burden of our preconceptions. If we tinker with history to suit present needs we distort where and who we are in time: we lie to ourselves. My colleagues who specialise in the Middle Ages tell me that it is very difficult to teach about the Wars of Independence in Scotland because of the effect that ‘Braveheart’ has had. It’s an enjoyable romp and it touches our emotions, but the historical inaccuracy is embarrassing and misleading. Instead I think it would be wonderful if David Starkey did a series on Scottish monarchs. OK, none of them had six wives, but they are a fascinating bunch and Starkey’s ‘history for grown-ups’ approach is what most historians hope for from the media. Real history is far more fascinating than the concocted fictions of Hollywood and I’ve tried to give a flavour of this in my book.
2009 is Scotland’s first official Year of Homecoming; why do you think the ideas and possibilities of Scottish ancestry have such a fascination for so many people?
For one thing the Scottish diaspora is enormous. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 10 to as high as 50 million people round the world who can claim Scottish ancestry. For another, people everywhere like the Scots and the values of independence, hard work, sincerity and trustworthiness they believe they stand for. At a more individual level, looking for one’s ancestors is about searching in the past for kinsfolk to make part of our present. Modern Westerners are fascinated by the possibilities and realities of individualism - not only the famous (alive or dead), but also those less well-known historical figures who share our genes. They also seek identity by placing themselves in history as part of an extended family. My book is for people researching their family tree because its will help genealogists to understand not just our private pasts – the living people who physically made us - but also the public past that shaped the lives of our predecessors. For Scots that means (among other things) the way law worked, how a Protestant church quickly became established after a millennium of Catholicism, the effect of changing ideas about democracy, and the development of a national education system that has been transported around the globe. My research supervisor once told me that the most important quality for an historian is imagination. I’ve tried to follow his example by thinking my way into the minds of historic Scots. Our ancestors lived through things we have forgotten or never knew and they thought in ways that are not immediately intelligible to us. As well as telling Scotland’s story I try to open up a mental world that is both reassuringly familiar and puzzlingly different.
The Scots are famous for their national pride but also for an inferiority complex about their place in the world. Why do you think we have this Jekyll and Hyde complex about our heritage?
I’m not sure we do any more. The Australian writer Robert Hughes once said that small nations should neither strut nor cringe. I think we’ve learned that lesson in the last generation and it is one of the really pleasing things about how Scotland has changed since c.1980.
You have recently been lecturing on aspects of Scottish history, economics and politics in Japan. What were your impressions of Japanese perceptions of Scotland?
The Japanese are an island race like the British and they identify with Scots and English. The thing that struck me most was how interested they are in the Scottish (and English) industrial revolutions, possibly because this changed both islands so dramatically with Britain leading the way. Scotsman Thomas Glover is widely credited with a pivotal role in modernising Japanese industry in the late nineteenth century. Japanese also find the distinctive culture of Scotland particularly fascinating, again because their own is so very different even from their neighbours in south-east Asia. But their curiosity runs deeper. The process of centralising and augmenting state power during the last 500 years has recently stopped and developed countries in Europe and around the world are looking to devolve decision making and responsibility. The Japanese too are exploring this. They appreciate that Scotland is at a turning point where Union with England has ceased to be a constitutional fixture and become a constitutional option. They want to understand the complexities of Scottish identity and how this affects political loyalties and economic opportunities in Britain, Europe and the wider world. The hardest thing I had to do was explain how Scots can be Scottish and British (and sometimes European too). Japan is a homogeneous society and they found the variety within Britain (and even the diversity of Scotland) most curious. Finally, they wanted me to explain whether I thought Scotland could have a future either as a wholly independent country or as an independent member state of the European Union. Their interest here is in Japan as a part of Asia because economic power is shifting to China.
In your conclusion you write that ‘history can liberate as well as limit’; are there any examples of modern Scottish life that you think exemplify this particularly well?
What I am saying is that Scotland is empowered when it works with its history and when it makes radical changes in full awareness of what that history is. When I wrote I was thinking about policies on education and healthcare. Scottish poor relief in the past was never very generous, but those who really needed help got it and that included extensive provision of medical care. I think that the current Scottish policy on care for the elderly is an excellent example of that continuity. Being aware of what education has done and can do is also a part of Scotland’s history that is being carried on today. But I hope my comment has further resonances. I think one reason Scottish devolution has worked is because for centuries political power was diffused in Scotland. That doesn’t just mean that Scotland had its own parliament until 1707. Even when it did a lot of decision making was devolved to country estates or towns and there was a large and highly effective voluntary sector, mediating between individuals and families on the one hand and the state and its bureaucracies on the other. England hasn’t been like that for a millennium. Instead it was highly centralised and that helps explain why recent plans to devolve power to the north of England were a flop. Scots know what it is both to be independent and to have extensive ‘internal devolution’. They believe in the power of the state to do good, especially in what we might call ‘social engineering’, but they also have a keen awareness of where its interventions should stop.
Finally, are there any writers or historians you would particularly recommend for readers who are inspired by your Very Short Introduction to Scotland and want to find out more?
There are so many excellent historians of Scotland it’s hard to know where to start, though I do make suggestions for further reading at the end of my book. More generally, the people I looked up to over the last 25 years are those who led Scottish history from being perceived as marginal and parochial and made it a part of mainstream European and Atlantic history. They include Bruce Lenman, Christopher Smout and Jenny Wormald. Historical geographers like Bob Dodgshon have enormously expanded our understanding of Highland society. Among my peers I think Allan Macinnes has done important things for Highland history and has a powerful (nationalist) voice; Julian Goodare is one of the liveliest early modern historians; and Colin Kidd’s work on ideas and identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth century is original and stimulating. I also admire what Fiona Watson and Louise Yeoman have done to bring academically rigorous history to television and radio audiences. Among more popular writers I still get a lot of pleasure reading John Prebble. And of course Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian is the best historical novel ever written. One final suggestion for those whose curiosity has been kindled by my book ... why not do a course in Scottish history, either at university or through one of the excellent ‘distance learning’ programs they run?
Rab Houston, thank you.
Scotland: A Very Short IntroductionAdd to Basket
This very short introduction explores the key themes from more than 1,000 years of Scotland's fascinating history. Covering everything from the Jacobites to devolution to the modern economy, this concise account presents a fully-integrated picture of what Scottish society, culture, politics and religion look like, and why.