Lindsey and I attended two contrasting sessions at the Borders Book Festival yesterday.
The first one was by Sir Tom Devine, who talked about his new book, Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present. It is always a privilege to listen to Divine. He may have declared for independence in the summer of 2014, but he is a superb historian. He told us that Independence or Union was as impartial as he could make it, in terms of the Scottish Referendum and independence issues. I haven’t read the book yet, but will do so in the future.
Why do I like him as an historian? Because he is capable of examining issues and evidence of the past, and then describing them without partiality. He is not one for the ‘over-fueled and over-passionate Burns Supper’ perspective on Scottish history, which seems to claim as fact that “Wee’s Sco’ish is great. Wee’s has had a’ they fantastic fowk in history, an’ that’s because wee’s is barry. An ra ainly reason why wees is nae great jes noo is ‘cuz o’ they Unglish poash boys” and neither does he force past facts and evidence into a simplistic Marxist straight-jacket interpretation of the past.
When asked by someone in the audience why Scotland appeared to have punched above its weight in the past in terms of contributions to developments (good and bad) in other parts of the world, his answer demonstrated his grasp on the facts. Firstly he looked at whether this was fact or fiction. It was fact, and he gave figures for the disproportionate number of Scottish people who had worked and lived abroad, differentiating between those who settled in places that eventually became Dominions (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, etc) and those who had administrative, military and commercial posts in other parts of the world. Then, especially with reference to administration and service, he looked at who those people were – they tended on the whole not to be the aristocracy or the poorest people from Scotland, but rather the ‘middle orders’. Why was this? In the 18th and 19th centuries advances in health had meant better child survival rates. He mentioned examples of families with ten or more offspring. So there were many of them. These people benefited from the Scottish education system – not so much good primary education but relatively widespread ‘grammar school’ type secondary education, where they received a grounding in classics, maths and science subjects. So, what were they going to do with their qualifications and knowledge? There simply weren’t enough positions in Scotland for them to occupy, so with Scotland’s trade connections with India, Sri Lanka, the West Indies and elsewhere benefiting from participation in the British Empire, they set off for fame and fortune abroad, where their educational background suited the type of work available to them. There’s the explanation. His words were much clearer than mine.
He gave informative answers to several other questions from the audience, as well as an entertaining presentation about his new book. I would have liked to have asked him if he agreed that recent political trends in Scotland, the UK and elsewhere showed a significant growth in anti-establishmentarianism, and if so, why he thought this trend had come about, but was too shy to do so in public.
The second session featured Richard Porter, a script editor, who spoke about the sorts of things that happened behind the scenes when making Top Gear. Very entertaining.