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A recent piece of great news for Scottish family historians and also academic historians was the launch online of Scottish kirk session records. Kirk sessions oversee a local parish and its congregation, including in the past in particular disciplinary matters, and also poor relief payments. As a result the kirk session minutes and accounts are a goldmine for historians.

I’ve used these records on and off for 40 years. Some are included in the parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, where the kirk session minutes were mixed up with these. But most kirk session records are held separately. For a long time they were in Edinburgh, in the National Records of Scotland (or Scottish Record Office as I long knew it). But increasingly now the manuscript original records are being transferred, where possible, to local archives.

Some years ago the kirk session records were largely digitised, and made available on computer to visitors to the National Records of Scotland, or visitors to a number of satellite archives around Scotland. But this still did not open the records in a widespread way to researchers who could not visit in person. Instead the model was still essentially based around going to Edinburgh.

Now, thankfully, that has changed, with earlier (pre-1870 ish) kirk session records now largely viewable online at ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk. The digitised images can be viewed for free, but are not indexed by name. There is a charge (2 ScotlandsPeople credits = 50p) to download and save a page image to keep. Though often this would not be necessary, especially when browsing.

The user interface is a somewhat mixed bag. Even getting to the kirk session material can be a slight challenge, finding it in the ScotlandsPeople website alongside all the other records – most of which are indexed and searchable by name. Once in the right section there are various search options for the kirk session material, to find the right record set. Though again these are somewhat problematic, e.g. searching for place “Hawick” doesn’t find Wilton parish (the northerly part of Hawick town) which is named in the system as “Wilton (Hawick).

At the moment the biggest downside with the system is that not all available kirk session records from the target period are online yet. More are being uploaded over time, but at the moment you often search, and find no records, or very incomplete ones. Note however that there is also the issue of patchy survival of kirk session material full stop, so often the manuscript originals are lost.

On plus when you do find a parish with records the documents can be extremely rewarding, though this does vary by place. For example for Melrose parish, which I have researched extensively in the 17th and 18th centuries, there is kirk session material online going back to 1642.

Opening a page to view it will vary in what it shows. Often you are presented with two manuscript pages side by side. Luckily there is a zoom function, though it took me a while to find it! It is a little clunky to use, zooming you in greatly initially, then often you will need to zoom out a bit and pan around sideways to find the part you need. Only then can you start properly reading the bit you want.

Of course the real joy is in the content in the records. Genealogists can uncover ancestors’ irregular marriages and get clues re illegitimate births, with mothers typically called in for questioning, and often the father’s name revealed. You may also strike gold re an ancestor getting entangled in another kind of disciplinary dispute with the censorious session members.

For academics the records have immense potential. For anyone undertaking an academic study of a given area any kirk session records from the same place and time are well worth a look. More generally the records give a powerful insight into social conditions, and are a rich source of information on topics such as migration, welfare and poverty, weather, family structures, social values and morals, and the impact locally of wider events.

I can’t write this without commenting on the issue of accessibility. For nearly two decades I have been too ill from my progressive neurological disease to travel to the archives in Edinburgh, or to spend time in local archives. The early digitised version of the kirk session records were effectively cut off from me and anyone else who couldn’t travel to access them. This new online access is transformative, and for me personally will open up multiple avenues of academic research, as well as family history research. So thank you, NRS/SP, not least for making these free to view! I just hope the range and depth of records will continue to grow.

Recently I read the second in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy of novels. These books provide the reader with a vividly immersive glimpse of Tudor life, a subject that has fascinated me since I was very young. I still have to read the third novel, probably later this year. But to keep me in the Tudor world for a bit longer I turned to another book, this time non-fiction.

Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, was Henry VIII’s uncle, illegitimate half brother of Elizabeth of York. Lord Lisle is mentioned occasionally in the Mantel books, sending a dog to queen Anne Boleyn. But very much as a background character.

Throughout much of the 1530s Lord Lisle was Constable of Calais, then under English control. Later he was suspected of treason, and his correspondence was seized. And this cache of letters, ones written to him and his wife, and copies of letters from them to others, survives to this day. In 1981 a complete transcribed version was published, edited by Muriel St. Clare Byrne. Reading this, even in transcript, would be quite a challenge. More accessible is the abridged version, by the same editor, first published in 1983. I was able to nab a low-cost secondhand copy of the Folio Society edition of this, and have been slowly working through it.

The letters are presented in chronological order, together with explanatory notes about them. Many of the letters concern daily business of governing Calais, but others are letters to/from the royal court in England. The canine gift to Anne Boleyn crops up, as do other letters about gifts of animals.

Read in sequence the letters provide a different view of Tudor court life, seen at a distance and from a somewhat different perspective from usual, let alone as in Hilary Mantel’s popular fiction. For example Thomas Cromwell does not come across well in the letters, frequently acting as an unmovable obstacle to Lord Lisle’s frequent and seemingly reasonable requests for help.

It is also astonishing from a modern perspective to start to grasp the sheer enormity of correspondence and paperwork represented by these letters, many related to the high-level management of one English dependency at the time. It is also somewhat amusing to see the polite and diplomatic – and also extremely verbose – courtly letters nevertheless reveal true feelings and often frustrations, albeit always expressed in the most careful way.

Of course another joy of reading lengthy and detailed correspondence is the insight they give into the personalities involved. Lord Lisle comes across as largely well-meaning, conscientious in his appointed rule, and often frustrated in the difficulties he encounters day to day. His wife Honor is more opaque, but clearly a lady of fashion, trying to keep up her standards, buying things by mail order from London. You do rather feel she feels very cut off where they are.

So a fun set of letters, well presented, in an accessible edited abridged edition. If you want a different glimpse of Tudor life I highly recommend reading these. I believe the book is out of print now, but secondhand copies (both hardback and paperback) are readily available to buy.

A while back I discovered that there is a nice list of subscribers in the back of a book of poems from 1811 by Borders poet Andrew Scott (1757-1839). This seemed well worth analysing further. Indeed it’s the sort of thing that I did as part of my history PhD researching reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820.

I thought it might be interesting if I jotted down some thoughts about the process, before I start. The ultimate aim is some form of publication, possibly another academic journal paper.

Surprisingly little is known about the poet Andrew Scott. He was a native of Bowden in Roxburghshire, and spent some years fighting for the British army in the American Wars of Independence. Later he returned to his home parish, and for the rest of his days worked as an agricultural labourer, and also church officer (“beadle”). He died at Bowden in 1839.

His poems are fun, as indeed are the songs also included in the 1811 publication. They are mainly written in Scots, indeed more specifically Border Scots. Many are about the local area, or people he knew. There is a particularly touching poem mourning the loss of his young son.

The list of subscribers appears at the back of the book. It was common at this time for a book to be published by subscription. About 600 names appear, many from the nearby Scottish Borders area, others from elsewhere, including just across the Border in Northumberland, so relatively nearby of course.

Looking at the list of subscribers I am struck by the strong presence of women. Even married women with husbands still living, such as my 6xg-granny Mrs Usher at Melrose. Often in records of reading, including subscription lists, women are largely invisible, concealed behind the names of male relatives, if at all. This book does not seem like that.

For the men in the list in particular many occupations are given, which definitely merit further analysis. Addresses are also given for subscribers, allowing a geographical analysis, including by type of settlement.

My immediate task is to transcribe the subscription list. This will then provide the basis for the analysis steps. I may also want to research some of the subscribers more fully, perhaps using genealogical records. Much to do anyway, and a process I should enjoy very much.

Alice in Wonderland in Border Scots book cover

I’ve long been a fan of Lewis Carroll’s whimsical Alice books, loving them since a very young age. I recently discovered that there are many modern translated versions, published by Dundee-based publisher Evertype. These include a large number of Scots translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, covering different parts of Scotland. And for Borderer me there is even a Border Scots version. I bought a copy, and have been reading it.

The book thankfully retains the original Tenniel illustrations alongside the text in translation. Border Scots has quite a lot of variety within it, from dialect spoken in the Tweeddale area, through Berwickshire, and the somewhat stronger twang of the Hawick and Jedburgh areas. Fortunately for me from Hawick the translator of this edition is a fellow ex Hawick High School pupil, and the language used includes many words and expressions familiar to the area.

Having said that I’m not the strongest Border Scots speaker myself, yet the book has much vocabulary that I recognise. It reads well, though may be a trickier read for those less familiar with the dialect. As for how best to read it, I found reading fast in my head worked well, especially if I made an effort not to dwell too long on individual words, which could break the flow.

Some vocabulary did take me by surprise. Like ‘hink’. But checking in Douglas Scott’s comprehensive and encyclopaedic Hawick Word Book it is a bona fide local word. Other vocabulary was clearly bang on, such as ‘how’ for ‘why’, and ‘teesh’. I was also highly amused by the translator changing the treacle reference at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party to the much more quintessentially Scottish foodstuff tablet.

I greatly enjoyed reading this, and admired the work by the translator Cameron Halfpenny. It’s a lot of Border Scots for a reader to read, but an even bigger task for a translator to produce! I think the book would be enjoyed most by Borderers or those with Border connections. For Scots elsewhere I would perhaps suggest that you might like to try the translated version of Alice for your area.

Best of all I now want to read more Border Scots. Evertype can we please have some more translations?

I am also now about to dive into Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice, that I’ve long wanted to read, and the Border Scots Alice reminded me of. There may be a review forthcoming of that other Alice book in due course.

I was invited to speak at the Scottish History Society AGM today. Which normally would be face to face in Edinburgh, but this year – of course – is online, by Zoom. I was speaking about a forthcoming publication I have with them – transcript plus accompanying essay – about a poem recording events at the local court in Melrose in 1682. A poem written back then.

It went very well. I’ve been so extremely ill with my progressive neurological disease lately, and am still recovering from that flare in symptoms, that I was worried I wouldn’t be strong enough, especially if I’d had little sleep beforehand. When my brain shuts down it’s quick and sudden, with initially slurred speech then rapid confusion. And that could have struck at any point through my 20-minute slot (10/15-minute talk, plus time for questions after).

But I made it through. The audience enjoyed the talk, and are looking forward to reading the full piece when it is published. I was able to field the many interesting questions and discussion. The other talks were stimulating and interesting, and I was able to participate in their Q&As too. And best of all I felt engaged in and part of the academic community in a way I haven’t for ages.

Meanwhile though back to sleep more …

It’s International Women’s Day, and the Books and Borrowing 1750-1830 project I’m involved with blogged today about women borrowers in libraries.

I studied such records as part of my PhD examining Scottish reading habits between circa 1750 and 1820. Women are largely hidden as readers in historic library borrowing records, especially in libraries which restricted access to men. But sometimes they show up as borrowers directly, or it is recorded that a book was borrowed on their behalf. Other female members of the family may potentially have read any other book borrowed from the library.

At Haddington’s Gray Library which I studied female borrowers make a prominent appearance, and their borrowing patterns can also be compared with male borrowers at the same time. For example it’s possible to detect that they were borrowing on different days of the week from men, and that they also tended to choose a different pattern of books. For full details see my Journal of Scottish Historical Studies paper on this, which is available free in open access form.

However for this blog post I want to focus on one female Haddington borrower in particular. Jean Veitch (ca1770-1804) was my 5xg-granny, the daughter of a watchmaker in the town, and granddaughter of a Border laird in Peeblesshire and Selkirkshire. Jean first appears in the Haddington library’s borrowing records in June 1785, when she was about 15, and her father William started to borrow books for her. Over the following months he borrowed several volumes of Fielding’s Works for Jean. At this time the library asked that anyone borrowing especially for someone else note that when they took out the book. This rule may not always have been followed rigidly though, and it is possible that William borrowed some other books for his daughter over the following years.

In December 1790 Jean is first recorded borrowing a book in her own name, a volume of Cook’s Voyages. A week later she borrowed a volume of Pope’s Works. This was the last mention of her in the record.

Jean married in 1794, to my 5xg-granddad Richard Somner. For more on her life story see my blog post about her.

Also potentially of interest is my blog post about her grandfather James Veitch of Glen and Bowhill, including the extensive library of books he left when he died. I don’t know if any of these passed down to his watchmaker son in Haddington.

I thought it might be nice to look back at the books I’ve finished in the previous 12 months. Others are still in progress, but there are 75 titles I finished reading in 2020, accounting for over 21,000 pages. For the full list see my Goodreads 2020 Reading Challenge page, which the following image shows a snippet from.

Books read in 2020

Here are two charts showing the numbers of books finished and pages finished per month during 2020.

Books finished per month during 2020
Pages finished per month during 2020

I find this reading total astonishing, given how ill neurologically I was for much of the year. It’s clear I battled to keep reading, almost always with my utterly gigantic Ladybird book style font in my Kindle. There aren’t many words visible on each screen with such a huge size font, but I gobble up books this way. Reading gives me enormous comfort, and despite the circumstances in which I have to read, unable to generally read conventional print books, or even library large print editions (I find they have too much text on a page for me to concentrate on comfortably), I read eagerly and substantially, as the page count figures show.

The most popular subject for me in 2020 was fantasy (20 books), followed by sci-fi and non-fiction (18 books each), historical fiction (14 books) and children’s books (10 books) – the last including many classic texts. These categories overlap though, so should not be viewed as distinct. Also sci-fi is a little misleading, particularly the multiple Doctor Who books it includes, which fall under sci-fi by default, but in many cases are much more than that. Though to be fair I did read some “hard” scifi this year, with I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, two Star Trek books, and a partial reread of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

Only 9 of the books I finished this year were rereads, for example the Hitchhiker’s books, some Sherlock Holmes, and my favourite reread every year for the run up to Halloween, Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October.

I’d like to briefly mention a number of books which were particular highlights for me in 2020. A non-fiction I enjoyed immensely was Charlotte Higgins’s Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain. This is an account of trips around Britain to visit Roman sites, recounting the history in a thoroughly readable manner. Erudite, educational, but also a page turner and a thoroughly well-written work.

My standout fiction highlight was a classic that I’d never read before, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I didn’t know the story from seeing the film in the past, if I ever did. Reading the novel was an eye opener. I think it does dip a little mid way, as the location shifts and the cast expands suddenly. But it picks up again, and as a fiction read I found it astonishing. I learned about a period of French history I knew little of, and was wowed by the combination of genres (revenge plot, social intrigue, crime etc.) and rich characters and vivid descriptions throughout. Apart from Dickens this must be one of the longest fiction books I’ve read for a very long time, but I’m sure I will reread it in future.

The last two books that I want to mention are both classic time-slip novels for children, which I’m surprised I hadn’t read before. First up was Alison Uttley’s time-slip children’s novel A Traveller in Time. This sees a 20th century girl slip between her time and the late 16th century, getting caught up in intrigues with the doomed Mary Queen of Scots. I saw the TV version in 1978, and still remember scenes from it. The sense of place and the historical period in the book is strong, but against that I found much of the book a little too convenient, for example how easily the people in the past accepted the modern girl appearing suddenly in their midst. A stronger example of the time-slip genre for me was the other read this year, Penelope Lively’s A Stitch in Time. Again a modern era child makes links to the past, though more subtly handled. I found it quite unsettling in places, but in a good way. By the end I was rather wowed.

So yes, rather a packed year of reading, despite huge health problems, particularly between March and October. I’m really pleased to have been able to keep reading. On to more books in 2021!

2020 marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. I originally intended to write a blog post about this in the anniversary month of April, but illness prevented this. But I can do it now, better late than never, and still in time before the end of the 700th anniversary year.

The Declaration of Arbroath was a letter of April 1320, from the Scottish barons to Pope John XXII. It asserts the independence of Scotland, in particular with regard to the threats from England, and asks the Pope for his support and assistance. The letter was drawn up probably at Newbattle, but then written at Arbroath Abbey, the chancery or royal writing house at the time. A particularly famous part of the letter is the following, which is oft cited even to this day, especially in the context of moves for Scottish independence.

As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself

The number of men who signed the letter is problematic. 39 names are definitely included in the document itself, and would have had their seals attached. Seals are also attached for an additional 7 names which can be identified. It is thought that there may have been as many as 50 seals originally. So 39, 46 or 50? The number is tricky to pin down. However historians tend to agree on the core 39, plus the additional 7 names with seals attached and identifiable. So that was the list of “signatories” that I chose to work from.

Picture of Declaration of Arbroath, showing the seals attached to it

Given this list of signatories I wondered how many I could confidently identify as known ancestors of myself. I’ve traced my family tree for nearly 40 years, and my ancestry includes numerous noble and royal lines, including King James IV of Scotland and his antecedents, as well as other genealogical links back to the earlier Stewart kings. So it was worth a punt.

I started from the list of 46 names, to see what I could find. Some names jumped out as ancestors immediately, others needed more digging. My source material is primarily published genealogies about Scottish noble families, such as James Balfour Paul’s Scots peerage volumes. There are problems with published peerages and genealogies. In particular they tend to miss daughters, and can be vague on younger sons, both things I’ve found myself where I’ve researched landed families to plug gaps re ancestors, e.g. the Douglases of Drumlanrig, and Scotts of Woll in the 16th and 17th centuries. Published genealogies are also sometimes dodgy on wives. Not ideal! But they’re the best I have, so I saw where I could get with them. It’s probably more likely I am underestimating the number of my ancestors among the signatories than overestimating them.

From the list of 46 known names I could identify 22 as (probably, bearing in mind the published genealogy issues) g..granddads or brothers of g..granddads or g..grannies. I was initially intending just to include direct g..granddads I found in the list. But then I thought again, and realised just how much I value g..uncles and their stories in more recent parts of my family tree. And if a g..uncle signed the Declaration of Arbroath I’d be interested in knowing that too! In practice the majority of my ancestral signatory identifications were g..granddads, 17/22. The other 5 were g..uncles, brothers of g..granddads or g..grannies. Those g..uncle “ancestors” below have asterisks (*) after their names in the list of 22 here.

  • Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray
  • Patrick Dunbar, Earl of March (or Earl of Dunbar)*
  • Malise, Earl of Strathearn
  • William, Earl of Ross
  • Walter, High Steward of Scotland (son-in-law of King Robert the Bruce)
  • Sir James Douglas, Lord of Douglas
  • David de Graham of Kincardine (grandfather of Robert II’s Queen)
  • John de Menteith, guardian of the earldom of Menteith
  • Alexander Fraser of Touchfraser and Cowie
  • Gilbert de la Hay, Constable of Scotland
  • Robert Keith, Marischal of Scotland*
  • Henry St Clair of Rosslyn
  • David Lindsay of Crawford
  • John de Fenton, Lord of Baikie and Beaufort*
  • William de Abernethy of Saltoun
  • David Wemyss of Wemyss
  • Eustace Maxwell of Caerlaverock*
  • Donald Campbell*
  • Alexander Seton
  • Andrew de Leslie
  • Edward Keith (later Marischal of Scotland)
  • John de Inchmartin

This list includes 4/8 earls who signed the Declaration of Arbroath, and numerous other lords and barons. In the second group are Robert the Bruce’s son-in-law Walter, High Steward. Other post holders include the Constable of Scotland, Gilbert de la Hay, and the Marischal of Scotland, Robert Keith. 20 of the 22 ancestor names are from the 39 names of men whose names appear as signatories directly on the original document. Only 2 of the 22 names – Edward Keith, later Marischal of Scotland (and brother of Robert above), and John de Inchmartin – were among the extra 7 names not written in the document, but whose seals were attached.

How do I feel about knowing that my ancestors signed this iconic document in Scottish history? I think I do feel a stronger sense of connection with this past, on a personal level. It makes it less abstract as a concept, and something that I can envisage more through the people involved.

What I don’t have in this, and I must make absolutely clear, is a sense of unusualness. Many, indeed probably most, Scots will be descended from signatories to the Declaration of Arbroath. The only difference is that I know my ancestry back to each of these people, whereas others don’t. It’s also true that many ordinary Scots would share this descent from signatories. Scotland in the past was an extremely fluid society in terms of mixing between social strata. It’s not strictly a case of us and them, but very much we are all them.

On a more practical level I now want to learn more about the period and people involved. I’m reading Ted Cowan’s book on the Declaration of Arbroath for starters, and will see where I go from that.

As a slight change of subject from my usual history musings I thought I’d write about something I’ve been trying recently for fun, relating to my musical side.

I’ve played the piano accordion for nearly 45 years, since I was 4. Later I learned violin at school, and taught myself piano, classical guitar, and most recently the concertina. Here is a picture of my accordion, that I’ve had since 1981.

Picture of my red accordion with sheet music in front of it

Often I’d like to do different musical arrangements for the accordion, or have sheet music for something I play only by ear. But being useless at writing sheet music by hand I’ve never tried creating my own sheet music. Until now!

I realised I might be able to use sheet music notation software to enter music into the computer. So I tried various packages, in demo mode. The extremely popular package Sibelius didn’t work well for me. I just didn’t find it intuitive to use from a user interface viewpoint at all. However I got on very well with the also well-established software program Notion, which is available for Windows, Mac and iOS devices. Very quickly I was working well with it, so bought a full licence (one-off purchase for this version), for my Mac and also my iPad.

I’m pleased to say it’s going very well, and is helping me create some great new arrangements for my accordion. Sometimes I’m starting from existing sheet music, often a published piano/vocal/guitar (PVG) book. I want to tweak this for the accordion, changing the arrangement, but also giving a more compact form for me to have on my music stand. With accordion music you often only need the melody line with a note of accompanying chords, e.g. C, Am, D7 etc. This can be presented far more compactly than in a PVG-book. At other times I am transcribing music totally by ear, e.g. from memory, or by listening to an audio recording as on an album, where I have no existing sheet music.

In the Notion software music can be entered by keyboard, mouse/trackpad, or by playing on a linked MIDI keyboard (MIDI is a computer/audio interface system, that links computers to musical instruments). I bought a low cost mini MIDI keyboard controller, that I can play music on, into the software, or experiment on as I am trying to figure out the right notes when transcribing by ear. With this compact keyboard I can even hold it up vertically as I play, as in a piano accordion posture! The picture shows it with my 13” laptop for scale.

Picture of small MIDI controller music keyboard perched on top of 13 inch laptop running Notion music software

Much of my arranging work involves developing the harmonies on the right hand, and adjusting the chords on the left hand. Ideally I’d try every change out on my accordion, but because of my neurological illness I’m too weak to play that often. Thankfully the Notion software can play back sheet music to show what it will sound like, including chords. This often reveals problems with the current arrangement, which I can then tweak, and gives me a good impression of what it will sound like played on my squeezebox. I’ve even been able to set the software up with an Italian accordion sound, so it sounds even more like my own Italian accordion. Here is a recording of part of one of my arrangements, played back in the Notion sheet music software, using that sound effect. The tune is “Once Upon A December” from the film and stage musical Anastasia.

Arranging sheet music, whether totally by ear or tweaking an existing set of sheet music, feels very much like a gigantic logic puzzle. It’s something that I find tremendously satisfying to work on. It also, importantly, stretches my musical side. In this way I can improve the range of sheet music I have available when I am able to play my accordion. And have musical fun even when I’m not strong enough to play it. Long may it continue!

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my experiences of school history of late. Prompted in part by the musings of other academics, but also as I think about how I view history and what it means to me.

I was at secondary school, at Hawick High School in the Scottish Borders, between 1984 and 1990. I studied history for the first four of those years. I’d like particularly to reflect on the Scottish history content, or more often the lack of it.

For the first two years all pupils studied history, alongside many other subjects. In many ways this was the highlight period for me in terms of a strong representation of Scottish content. In one of those years we studied Scotland in the period before and during the Scottish Wars of Independence, using a published textbook written by several of the Hawick teachers. I particularly relished its case studies, for example a detailed examination of nearby Melrose Abbey and how it related to the surrounding countryside. Even better for genealogist me was an extremely detailed examination of the complex genealogical puzzle over who should inherit the Scottish crown after the death in 1290 of Margaret, Maid of Norway. We also covered in detail the stories and battles of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, alongside wider discussions of Scottish society and its people at this time.

Also in my first two years my history teacher Ian Landles was determined to teach us history of his beloved home town Hawick. So we learned all about where we lived, its history, including the famous textile industry, key events and people, and along the way guided walks taking us out and about to learn more on the ground. All very much appreciated.

In S3 and S4 (third and fourth years of Scottish secondary school) in my day Scottish pupils studied O-Grade courses, cutting down the range of subjects, to those we would sit formal school qualification exams in. My school year was the last before Standard Grade qualifications were introduced.

I chose history as one of my O-Grade subjects. Sadly S3 was an awful experience, with a teacher who could not control disruptive elements in his class. We battled to learn early nineteenth century British history despite this, but were eventually transferred to another history teacher’s class, thankfully Ian Landles again.

I remember we learned a little history of the Scottish Highland Clearances. But that was a rare Scottish element. I did enjoy the World War One content, and if I remember correctly Mr Landles tried to include Scottish elements. But it was still British history, with an emphasis on learning facts, names, dates, places, rather than the process of doing history per se.

I did well in the history O-Grade exam, but was disillusioned by the approach of school history, learning facts about things I often had little interest in. So I didn’t take Higher History. It’s such a shame, because for me history is such a fun subject, but the school courses, at least the syllabus I encountered in O-Grade, didn’t capture that at all. The magic for me lies in the process of discovery, working with primary sources and other evidence. These were all things I had learned to love myself through my own genealogical and family history research since primary school. This also led me to visit historical archives from age 12 or so, and quickly become hooked on the process of historical research. But again none of that appeared in S3 and S4 history, even if there were elements of it in S1 and S2.

When I went to St Andrews University there were two subjects I would have loved to study for an honours degree. Firstly computer science, which I applied to study, but also Scottish history, which I had to pass on. In the end I got to the Scottish history after all, after I fell ill with a progressive neurological disease aged just 22, and started studying history very part-time, to take my mind off the gruelling medical treatment I was undergoing. Over the following years, increasingly part-time, I picked up three history degrees, BA(Hons), taught MPhil, and PhD. But this was all done despite school history failing to grab me.

Now some might view the presence or otherwise of Scottish history in school history syllabuses as a political one, e.g. nationalism versus unionism, Scottish versus British. It’s certainly true that I’ve been a pro-SNP independence supporter, ever since my teenage years. However for me the issue seems deeper than that, more about learning about where you live, that has worth in learning about, and crucially is something that you can relate to. Luckily I became fascinated by history from age 5 onwards, but what I picked up re Scottish history was almost all due to my own private study from that, not from what I learned in school.

I also feel strongly that teaching facts to be learned by rote is not what history teaching should be about. It’s certainly not the aspect of history that hooked me. It’s also counter intuitive if the facts you are mechanically learning have no emotional resonance for you. Far better I think if you can teach the process of doing history i.e. how can we investigate a given topic? What sorts of evidence can we use? How can we handle inconsistencies between sources? And indeed what does the concept of a “fact” even mean in history anyway?

I have read that Scottish school history syllabuses are better in these respects now. I really hope that is the case, and that they continue to improve. Because if school history doesn’t teach youngsters a country’s history, it is letting them down and the country too. It’s also vital that it teaches the fun of history, and the buzz of enquiry, which should never be purely about learning so-called facts, but more how we can discover things for ourselves.