The modern world has been formed with more than a helping hand from Scotland.
There is a well-rehearsed list of Scottish inventors (and their inventions) who have helped shape society as we know it.
From the efforts of characters such as James Watt, whose steam engine improvements helped lay the foundations of the Industrial Revolution; to Alexander Fleming whose discovery of penicillin has saved countless lives, there is no lack of evidence for the worldwide infl uence Scotland has had.
Despite this, however, there still exists a nagging sense that ‘modern Scots’ perhaps still don’t know enough about their own history.
Th ere is recognition of famous battles like Bannockburn and Culloden, or key figures like Robert the Bruce and William Wallace – but even then, maybe some people are more familiar with the painted face of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart than the real events.
It is the reason why the SNP made it one of their manifesto pledges before the last election to launch Scottish Studies in schools, ensuring there was a focus in children’s education on the country’s historical, literary, linguistic and cultural heritage.
With 2014 and an independence referendum approaching, there is, understandably, a lot of concentration on issues about Scottish and British identity – and so the introduction of this new subject clearly raised fears of mixing education and politics. Last year, it led former Labour education spokesman, Ken Macintosh, to accuse the Nationalists of attempting to “brainwash” children – although this was denied by SNP schools minister Alasdair Allan in a debate in the Scottish Parliament.
Although a separate qualifi cation in Scottish Studies is still, by the Government’s own admission, some way off, investigations have been continuing with government agency Education Scotland to look at how a deeper Scottish-specific focus can be woven into different subject areas.
In March this year it launched Studying Scotland, which is intended to be a web-based resource for both teachers and pupils – a ‘onestop shop’ concerned with the nation’s heritage for schools.
Scottish Labour’s current education spokesman, Hugh Henry, said he believed history taught in schools should be able to tackle the many different aspects of where Scotland has come from, but emphasised the curriculum should come from the teachers – and not politicians.
While Henry said history was one of his favourite subjects at school, he said it took a “broad view” of history and was not “just learning about ancient battles and kings and queens.” He said it was important for modern Scots to be able to understand their own history and Scotland’s place in the world – and those people who had come to Scotland from Ireland, Italy and the Indian sub-continent, were also part of the country’s rich history.
But, he said, with the debates over Scottish Studies and the curriculum, there was a concern about the political influence on what was being taught in the classroom.
“I have the highest regard for the professionalism and commitment of Scottish teachers and I think it should be left to them to teach,” he said. “I am concerned about the encroachment by ministers to what is taught in schools. I am profoundly opposed to that.” SNP convener of the parliament’s Education and Culture committee, Stewart Maxwell, dismissed claims of political influence on education. “You don’t tell a maths teacher to teach certain sums, what you say is at the end of the day, they have got to be able to add up,” he said.
“In the same way, it is not up to us to say to teachers they should teach a particular part of Scottish history or culture, but, it is important that children understand their own environment and culture. I cannot think of a less controversial thing you could ask.
“It is absolutely bizarre that we live in a culture were we don’t study our own surroundings, our own history and culture.” He said while improvements had been made, there still needs to be more done to improve children’s knowledge of Scotland’s history when they leave school.
The new Curriculum for Excellence is supposed to give schools – and therefore teachers – more flexibility in their approach, which should give students the chance to have a broader and deeper knowledge of history and Scotland’s place in the world.
Minister for Learning Allan said: “In the past, many schools have not had a sense of Scotland’s history or culture embedded within their teaching. The changes we are now making are a significant step in the road to ensuring pupils in Scotland understand their country, its achievements and its future.” There is, though, a clear appetite for history and finding out more about Scotland and the world we live in by the public. It is not even a full year since the National Museum of Scotland grand reopening, but already more than two million visitors have passed through the doors.
Although an extension to the museum was opened in 1998, the main Victorian building had not seen any major changes since 1866. The relaunch has trebled the number of daily visitors and encouraged an increased focus on ensuring the museum has something for everyone – young and old.
Chief executive Gordon Rintoul said a key thread running through the museum’s displays is the interplay between Scotland and the rest of the world.
He said: “Scots have always had a greattradition of going off round the world and making an impact wherever they went.
“It always strikes me we seem to sometimes forget that too often. I think we’d do well to focus on that huge historic impact Scotland has had on the rest of the world.” A major exhibition, centred on Catherine the Great, is due to be launched soon at the museum. For the first time, 600+ artefacts will be on display outside Russia; she is just one of the examples of how far Scottish influence stretches.
Rintoul said: “When Catherine the Great was developing palaces and rebuilding St Petersburg, her favourite architect was a Scot; the Admiral in the Russian navy was a Scot; her personal physician was a Scot. She advertised in the Leith Mercury for stonemasons and other craftsmen to come and work in St Petersburg to help build and create these new developments.” Just how Scotland’s history is viewed differently elsewhere can be seen in the focus of a major exhibition to be launched later in the year.
Next year is the 200th anniversary of David Livingstone’s birth. The event is a partnership with the National Museum in Malawi and Rintoul welcomed two senior members of staff over to Scotland – who remarked to him that people in Scotland seemed as if they wanted to forget about the explorer.
“They said to me, ‘We have streets named after him, our capital is Blantyre; for us, he’s a great hero. We just don’t understand why people in Scotland don’t seem to see that’,” he said. “There are all sorts of different views about Livingstone.
But I thought it was quite interesting what those from Malawi have got to say about it.” Rintoul said he wondered if there needed to be stronger focus on history in schools.
“I think it’s probably the case that a lot of young people leave school perhaps without having as strong and deep a knowledge about their own history as you might expect them to have.
“I suppose, certainly in the past, history for some people felt a bit dry and dusty and not for them. Hopefully it will be different with the new Curriculum for Excellence in schools.” He added: “There’s a need to make sure that the young people today are given the opportunity to find out more about their past, that doesn’t mean in a narrow sense, more about Scotland and its place in the wider world and history, in general.
“I just certainly feel history doesn’t have a strong enough focus, and if we want to develop more rounded young people coming out of school then we would do well to ensure that we’re putting in place [the] means to give them the tools and understanding to fulfil their role in the world. In a sense, history’s important as part of that.” And the museum to him is a great way of achieving that: “One thing we can do,” he said, “is perhaps make history something that’s more meaningful, more immediate. If you can see an object there in 3-D in front of you that was once owned by Bonnie Prince Charlie, it might mean more than just reading the words on the page, however important that might be.”