From the Scottish public to foreign visitors, students to professional historians; everyone has an opinion of Neil Oliver. To those of you who fit none of the categories above, Mr. Oliver is the rugged, long-haired presenter of the BBC’s ‘History of Scotland’ series. His gruff Ayreshire accent provides the same opening line to each programme, a line which reverberates around my head, a line that is so tempting to imitate, ‘Welcome to Scotland’.
That the BBC has seen fit to create this series is evidence of the growing interest in Scottish History. There seems no coincidence that since the opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999 a barrage of books on the early-modern Scottish Parliament have been written. However, between 1900 and 1999 only a handful were released. The correlation seems too obvious to discuss further. Like any television broadcaster, the BBC create programmes which respond to the interests of their audience. There is no doubt that the ‘History of Scotland’ series has been successful, with impressive viewing figures to support this evaluation. The problem, for some, arises when we consider that this series is the only source of Scottish History which many people are exposed to.
Admittedly it is an ambitious project, with a £2million budget to boot. But it was hit by controversy when Professor Alan MacInnes of the University of Strathclyde resigned from the advisory board. He was angered by the ‘anglocentric’ nature of the programme, an early indication of the objections which would be repeated by many others, that with the creation of this series the BBC had an obvious political agenda to downplay Scotland. It was then revealed that Professor Tom Devine of the University of Edinburgh – a historian who holds an almost God-like position in Scotland’s academic community – had refused a position on the project’s advisory board. Without any meaningful academic contribution to the programme’s creation, could the programme go beyond the repetition of tired and outdated myth?
As if to confirm this, the BBC then compounded the problem – in the eyes of many – by hiring the charismatic archaeologist Neil Oliver as the programme’s presenter. Note ‘archaeologist’, not ‘historian’. I’ll always remember the disdain with which the academics at Dundee discussed Neil Oliver in a panel lecture I attended.
I find it hard to believe that from the plethora of academics in Scotland the BBC could not have found one who was articulate enough, charismatic enough, attractive enough, to present a programme on Scottish History. I am confused as to why they would not have tried harder to maintain the support of the academic community by having an advisory board with appropriate credentials. And I don’t understand why they felt it necessary to traipse over the same old stamping ground that we are taught as children in primary school. But, and you knew there was going to be a ‘but’, despite these minor objections I actually really like the BBC’s ‘History of Scotland’. I even really like Neil Oliver (please, please don’t tell anyone).
The objections are motivated by academic snobbery, political victim mentality of the ilk of ‘the BBC are an arm of the British establishment and will do anything to undermine Scotland’. The reality is that this series has filled a vacuum in Scottish broadcasting. It has brought what is too often the reserve of students and geeks alike, to the mass public. Through Neil Oliver’s idiosyncratic style he provides excitement to what can often be dry subject matter.
For better or worse, one thing is undeniable, the ‘History of Scotland’ is the BBC’s contribution to something far bigger than History education. It is playing a part in the awakening psyche of a nation which is desperately trying to define itself. That the mouthpiece for this series doesn’t have a History degree seems irrelevant to me.