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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.

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