"Telling old stories, and singing songs, that make me think about where I came from"

Posts tagged ‘Scottish History’

Sour yoghurt doesn’t go well with coffee

Not for coffee

As the title suggests, I had my first little accident in Sweden. Surviving without coffee was not something I was ever going to do, but when I bought sour yoghurt – thinking it was milk – and added it to the already cheap and nasty coffee, I got a fairly revolting surprise which left me caffeine-less for an evening. It’s a mistake I have no intention of repeating, and I’m pleased to announce, that I have now figured out the Swedish word for milk – mjölk. Don’t ask me why that was hard.

Settling in a new country is a little like being a recovering alcoholic; you have good days, you have bad days. Today is a good day. Everything seems a little easier now and I’ve regained some of my focus; if not really started any serious reading. Being a masters student is rather different from my time as an undergraduate. We have access to a study room exclusively for postgrads, we have a little kitchen to prepare food, 24hr access to the buildings, and an air of superiority – maybe that’s just me. Having been set some reading for one of my courses I was surprised to notice a name

Chris Storrs

I recognised. The book in question was written by Chris Storrs, a Professor at Dundee who taught me during honours. I have to admit that I’ve never read any of his work before. It feels a little strange coming all the way to Sweden to read the works of my former teachers in Scotland. I’ve also decided that most of what I’ll be tackling for my assignments will be Scottish history – which begs the question why I’m in Sweden. Well, I suppose there’s the little fact of no fees.

In the last week I’ve realised how poor Scottish football is, not only because of our defeat to the Czechs (which was hard to swallow), but by watching the Swedish third division and noticing a parity with the SPL, I’ve continued to be sunburnt – Scottish skin is not made for this climate – settled into my new home, enjoyed class, played football with Swedes, drank coffee, had fika, liked fika, refused to eat raw heron, and began to enjoy the whole experience.

Julie visits on Wednesday… I’m counting the days. So much to catch up on, so much to see. For now, spare me a thought as I tackle the mountains of reading that I have been set. I need to make space for my favourite Scottish girl who will have my undivided attention for the latter part of this week.

A different ‘Scot in Sweden’

The year is 1812, Thomas Thomson visited Sweden and recorded his thoughts. I came across them and thought they might be of interest. Got me wondering if it has changed much…

“The principal merchants in Gothenburg are Scotsmen. In consequence of letters of introduction which we carried to several of them, we experienced from that liberal and respectable body a profusion of kindness and politeness which it was impossible to surpass, and which it would be very difficult to equal. The want of inns, and our ignorance of the Swedish language, would have made it very difficult for us to have procured dinner while we stayed at Gothenburg, but this difficulty was obvaited by the merchants, with one or other of whom we dined every day during our stay in that city. The entertainments which they gave were in the Swedish style, and possessed a degree of splendour at which I was not a little surprised. As the mode of dining in Sweden is very different from the mode followed in Great Britain, I shall give a general description of a dinner, that my readers may form some notion to themselves of the customs of that country.

The houses in Sweden are fitted up with great magnificence. The public rooms are usually on the first floor, and vary from three to seven or more according to the size of the house and the wealth of its master. These rooms always open into each other, and constitute a very elegant suite of apartments.The furniture though very handsome is not similar to ours. You seldom see mahogany chairs; they are usually of birch or of some other wood painted. As the table cloth is never removed they have no occasion for our fine mahogany tables, and as the dishes are brought in one by one, and the dessert and wine put upon the table before the company sit down, they have but little occasion for a side-board. Accordingly, except in the house of Mr. Lorent, who had a very splendid side-board made in London, I do not recollect to have seen one in Sweden, even in the houses of men of the first rank. The rooms are not provided with bells. This I am told is owing to the extreme cheapness of servants in Sweden, which enabled every person to keep such a number as rendered bells unnecessary. This reason, which I do not consider as a very good one, exists not at present, for since the loss of Finland the wages of servants have considerably increased. Bells, therefore, might now be introduced with the greatest propriety; and to a foreigner, from Britain at least, they would constitute a great convenience. I have sometimes been obliged to go three times to the kitchen during the course of my breakfast, to ask for things that had been neglected or forgotten by the servants.

The Swedes are fond of great parties. I have more than once sat down to table with nearly 50 people in a private house. The hour of dinner is two o’clock. After the company are assembled they are shown into a room adjoining the dining-room. In the middle of this room there is a round table covered with a table-cloth, upon which are placed bread, cheese, butter and corn-brandy. Every person eats a morsel of bread and cheese and butter, and drinks a dram of brandy, by way of exciting the appetite for dinner. There are usually two kinds of bread; namely, wheat-bread baked into a kind of small rolls, for I never saw any loaves in Sweden: and rye, which is usually baked in thin cakes, and is known in Sweden by the name of nickebroed. It is very palatable but requires good teeth to chew it.

After this whet, the company are shown into the dining-room, and take their seats round the table. The first dish brought in is salmagundy, salt fish, a mixture of salmon and rice, sausages, or some such strong seasoned article, to give an additional whet to the appetite. It is handed round the table, and every person helps himself in succession to as much of it as he chooses. The next dish is commonly roasted or stewed mutton, with bacon ham. These articles are carved by some individual at table, most commonly the master of the house, and the carved pieces being heaped upon a plate are carried round the company like the first dish. The Swedes like the French eat of every thing that is presented at table. The third dish is usually soup, then fowls, then fish (generally salmon, pike or streamlings), then pudding, then the dessert, which consists of a great profusion of sweet-meats, in the preparation of which the inhabitants of Gottenburg excel. Each of these dishes handed about in succession. The vegetables, consisting of potatoes, carrots, turnips, cauliflowers, greens, &c. are handed about in the same way. During the whole time of dinner a great deal of wine is drunk by the company. The wines are claret, port, sherry, and madeira. What they call claret at Gottenburg does not seem to be Bourdeaux wine. It is a French wine with a taste intermediate between claret and port. At Stockholm I drank occasionally true claret; but scarcely in any other part of Sweden. As all the wine used in Sweden is imported from Great Britain, our wine merchants can probably explain this circumstance though I cannot.

The Swedes employ the same articles for seasoning their food as we do, salt, peppar, mustard, vinegar, &c. I was struck with one peculiarity which I had never seen before: they always mix together mustard and sugar: I had the curiosity to try this mixture, and found it not bad. The dinner usually lasts about two hours. On a signal given the company all rise together, bow with much solemnity towards the table, or rather towards each other, and then adjourn into the drawing-room. Here a cup of coffee is served up immediately to every individual. It is but doing the Swedes justice to say that their coffee is excellent, greatly preferable to what is usually drunk in England. This is the more remarkable because the Swedes import all their coffee from Britain: its quality therefore is not different from that of our own, and its superiority owing solely to their understanding better how to make it. You can get coffee in the meanest peasant’s house, and it is always excellent. It is usually about five o’clock when coffee is over. The company separate at this time, either going home to their own houses, or sauntering about in the fields if the weather be good.”

Neil Oliver, Scotland’s answer to Marmite

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.