Sydney Wood, Honorary Teaching Fellow, University of Dundee, Scotland

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The School History Curriculum in Scotland & Issues of National Identity

Sydney Wood, Honorary Teaching Fellow, University of Dundee, Scotland

Abstract This article stresses the importance of historical knowledge in shaping attitudes to national identity. The background to the current situation for history in Scottish schools is outlined. Evidence of pupils’ historical ignorance, and the absence of vital aspects of the past in the curriculum, are indicated. Concern is expressed for the focus on an oppositional identity and for the lack of a clear rationale for the selection of historical content.


Politicians seek to shape the school curriculum to satisfy a number of purposes.
The future employability of pupils provides one obvious purpose: the development of attitudes, seen as appropriate for a stable and harmonious democracy, furnishes a second. A common response to a perceived social ill is to require some sort of educational input - thus sex and drugs education and citizenship now feature in school courses. The diversity of peoples who inhabit the United Kingdom has stimulated debate about the nature of national identity in a changing society; within this debate the coming of devolution has increased interest in the nature of the identities of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. The teaching of history forms a key element in the discussion about the formation of the attitudes of future adult citizens.

The development of a national curriculum for history stirred vigorous argument in both England and Wales, about the nature of national identity (Phillips, 1996). But the distinctive Scottish system has stayed detached, apparently at ease with its circumstances. Schooling in Scotland remained largely unaffected by the union of 1707, proud of its distinctive parish schools and its universities. Nineteenth century upheavals led to the 1872 act that created the board schools and the London-based Scotch Education Department to oversee Scottish education. The 1918 Education Act produced a key feature of the system - state funding for Roman Catholic schools with guarantees for their religious character (Anderson, 1997). Though the administration shifted to Edinburgh in 1939, the direction in which policy moved was shaped until 1997 by the outcome of British elections. Thus, during the Thatcher years, when Scottish politics resolutely refused to move to the right, the school system was shaped by a succession of Conservative Secretaries of State. The devolution vote of 1997, therefore, marks a considerable change. It is the party dominant in Scotland that now controls educational policy making; there is little sign that this party is likely to be Conservative in the foreseeable future.

National identity in Scotland

With national identity issues more to the fore than ever before one might have expected an impact to have been evident on as crucial an area as the school history curriculum. Yet, so far, this has not been the case. Scots, it is often asserted, have a clear sense of their identity. It is the English who have problems. Certainly Scots have always been very aware of the two distinct dimensions of being both Scottish and British and have been irritated by the English habit of using ‘English’ and ’British’ interchangeably. One wonders what went through the mind of the Scot from Lewis who was required to haul aloft Nelson’s pre-Trafalgar signal of ‘England expects every man to do his duty’. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Convention of Scottish Burghs (1905) complained of the existence of school books in which:

Great Britain is called England, the British throne is called the English throne … David Livingstone is called an Englishman, James Watt and Adam Smith are called English.

Research among 9 to 11 year olds in an Edinburgh school revealed pupils’ determination to distinguish between being Scottish and British and, from many children (Carrington & Short, 1996) an emphasis on their Scottish identity. Evidence from polls and investigations (such as the British Social Attitudes Survey, 2001) all point to Scots’ preference for asserting their Scottish rather than their British identity. Yet what does this Scottish identity consist of? The Glasgow journalist, Cliff Hanley (Hanley, 1980) has offered a parody of how Scots are portrayed:

The Scots are tall, rugged people who live in the mountain fastness of their native land, on a diet of oatmeal porridge and whisky. They wear kilts of a tartan weave, play a deafening musical instrument called the bagpipes, are immediately hospitable, but cautious with money … They are sparing with words, but when they speak they speak the truth. They have a hard and Spartan religious faith and regard virtually any activity on a Sunday as a grave sin. When they leave their native land, they immediately rise to the top in other peoples’ industries and professions.

Children’s perceptions are shaped by forces other than the school curriculum. Representations in film of the Scottish male so alarmed the Scottish journalist Jan Moir that, writing in The Observer (29 October 1995) she felt it wise to warn English girls of a gulf between image and reality:

Scotland, my dears, is not full of rippling hunks with biceps like footballs, men who are romantically prepared to die for their country and who will ride their horses right into your bedrooms because they cannot wait one second more to be in your arms … Scotland, in fact, is full of wee guys in anoraks wondering what’s for their tea tonight. Scotland is full of men with chapped knees and freckles eating deep fried pies and moaning that there’s nothing good on telly.

Nor is the activity of watching such films simply external to the classroom - indeed colourful videos are welcomed by teachers eager to hold adolescent attention and keen for history, to triumph in the competition for older pupils’ subject choice.

The heritage industry, too, is exploited by school trips as well as by informal family outings. Yet heritage sites provide all sorts of messages. At the Archaeolink centre near Aberdeen, for example, a powerful introductory video portrays Pictish peoples being assaulted by Agricola’s Roman Legions. The Picts speak in Scottish accents; the Romans in accents derived from the English public school system. Heritage sites seeking tourist business may well provide an uneven, even unbalanced, portrayal of the past. Conflict, Wallace, Bruce, Mary Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie provide topics likely to be popular. Identity that is essentially oppositional and anti-English pervades both the media and many heritage sites.

This oppositional identity is further reinforced through sport, a context in which England is commonly called ‘the auld enemy’. Recent trouble between Glasgow Rangers and Aberdeen football supporters, for example, was promptly attributed by the Scottish press to the presence of English agitators (e.g. Press and Journal, 2002). In fact no evidence of this emerged. The press had pounced on English-shirt-wearing Rangers fans.

The development of history as a school subject in Scotland

History became a school subject in 1886. Early Scottish history was covered in Standard III but attracted gloomy comments from the inspectorate as aghastly line of battles, feuds and deaths … one must question the value of a school history that lands a child in the midst of loose laws and looser passions and unquestionably helps … to maintain the sentimental scotch antipathy to England’ (quoted in Anderson, 1995, p.214).

Autobiographies, too, bear witness to the past ability of history teachers to stir up anti-English feelings, for example:

School in Aberdeen meant, primarily, the establishment of my identity as a Scotsman … To this day my knowledge of Scottish history is nothing more than a vague chauvinistic haze permeated by hostility to England (Hay, 1997).

In the years after 1945, history struggled to survive and often existed as a facet of school English departments. Graduates who emerged to teach history came from universities where Scottish history seemed to lack serious status. During the 1970s changes affected both primary and secondary schools, changes that directed attention away from concern about the rationale for selecting certain aspects of the past and concentrated, instead, on processes. In primary schools history was sucked into integrated Environmental Studies; pupils explored themes like Homes, Transport and Water. The distinctive attributes of subject structures were neglected. In secondary schools the Schools Council’s skills-based approach, though English-based, seeped into Scotland too and placed the stress on historical topics as vehicles for skill development.

By the 1990s sufficient unease at the consequence of these developments produced changes, yet Scottish authorities shrank from the detailed strategy exemplified by the English national curriculum and produced, instead, guidelines for pupils aged 5-14. History found itself within Environmental Studies guidelines, separately described as People in the Past (SOED, 1993). These guidelines listed the attributes of the subjects that were to be developed through the topics studied but offered brief and vague guidance on what was to be taught. Pupils were expected to study ‘people, events and societies of significance in the past’; what this actually meant was not explained. Pupils aged between 5-14 were expected to give attention to local, Scottish, British, European and world dimensions, and to do so through studies located in different periods of time.

At the time of writing, this system still operates. Pupils remain in primary schools for seven years, working with teachers who have the whole curriculum to implement and cannot be expected to be historical experts. The result is a history curriculum that consists of widely scattered episodes. Once pupils have emerged from their first three (early stages) years they might for example, study The Vikings in Primary 4, Medieval Life in Primary 5, The Victorians in Primary 6 and the Second World War in Primary 7. Inevitably, teachers are likely to choose topics that are well resourced with material appropriate to their pupils’ ages and abilities. Much of this will have been produced in England.

It is not easy for secondary school history teachers to provide a coherent study of Scotland’s past, as the amount of time available for the subject has diminished; an hour or less a week is a common allocation and aspects of the past other than Scottish history press for attention. Yet these two years are crucial, for history then becomes an option; nearly two thirds of pupils abandon it as they enter the years that are still shaped by a twenty five year old report (Munn, 1977) in which the third and fourth years of the secondary curriculum are organised into ‘modes’, each of which pupils are required to study. History falls into the Social Subjects mode along with Geography and Modern Studies.

Those who remain to study history up to the age of 16 follow a course whose rationale focuses on the value of the activity of studying the past rather than consideration of the importance of certain areas of knowledge. The course required the study of Scottish history, offering a choice of periods all of which are post-Union and deal primarily with changing social, economic and political conditions within Scotland (Scottish Qualifications Authority, 1997).

The post-16 structure is complex; opportunities to study Scottish history exist in the form of widely separated episodes from the past at the lower ‘Intermediate’ level. At the more challenging Higher level students must explore Scotland’s past in either medieval, early or later modern times. But numbers here are small - around 8,000 attempted Higher history in 2002, for example.

In an attempt to stir teachers’ thinking about Scottish history the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum produced recommendations urging that it be studied in a more sustained and coherent manner. The report recognised the great upsurge in university research and publication in this area and urged the need to find ways of bridging the gap between the growing academic understanding of Scotland’s past and what was happening in the classroom. But the report carried no force, its authors possessed no powers of compulsion. Those who chose to ignore it were free to do so.

Scottish suffering/English dominance?

Given the patchy and inconsistent nature of the structure outlined above, it is hardly surprising that the Scottish history currently experienced by pupils tends to consist of the study of episodes whose hallmark is Scottish suffering. Having seen Agricola’s Roman legions assault north Britain, win the battle of Mons Graupius and build forts and walls, pupils are likely to jump to an exploration of Viking onslaughts. Assaults by Anglo-Norman monarchs allow the deeds of Wallace and Bruce to be celebrated, yet soon the Tutors are battering at Scotland’s lowlands, King William rules (and the massacre of Glencoe takes place) and gallant Jacobites are crushed. The tale is rounded off with Highland suffering amid the Clearances.

No clear rationale underpins this curious curriculum. It neglects numerous major dimensions of Scotland’s past and leaves a residue of resentment and simplistic understanding. Scots are commonly referred to today as a Celtic people. This label, which ignores the substantial Anglo-Saxon settlement of the south-east, and the later Scandinavian arrivals, implies a distinct Celtic people’s arrival. Yet Armit (2001) suggests that what mattered was the spread of Celtic language rather than the arrival of a new people –

there is nothing in the archaeological record to suggest any significant infusion of new ethnic groups into Scotland … during the thousand or so years before the Roman incursion (p.14).

In addition:

Far from the coherence implied by calling Scots a Celtic people, historians have observed ‘There is no common ancestral or genetic heritage which links the people of Scotland (ibid, xvi).

The current curriculum is very inward looking, yet few peoples have migrated from their own country more than the Scots. Medieval and early modern trade with and settlement in northern Europe was substantial. The post-1707 opportunity to participate in imperial expansion was grasped enthusiastically by enterprising Scots. A recent historian’s study of this dimension notes:

Nobody could sensibly claim that Scotland had been other than transformed beyond recognition by Empire … we must regard it, with Reformation, Union and Enlightenment as one of the great formative experiences of a nation now facing a fresh future (Fry, 2001).

Not only does imperial history not feature in most school curricula, nor do the other aspects identified above loom large. The development of a British identity (readily accepted by most Scots by the late eighteenth century) is an area of intense interest to historians yet neglected by school history. The astonishing achievements of the age of Robert Adam, David Hume, etc. are rarely considered. Scotland has suffered attacks, but Scots too have been aggressors. Inhabitants of northern England had good reason to fear brutal onslaughts from the north (not least by Wallace and Bruce). Even the disaster of Flodden was triggered by James IV’s needless march over the border, forcing the elderly Earl of Surrey to trudge wearily north to give battle. Scots settlers in the empire were as ready to sweep away native inhabitants as any other British emigrants.


It is hardly surprising that empirical research conducted on pupils’ knowledge of and attitudes towards Scottish history has shown the impact of this rather patchy historical education. A study of 3,000 16 year-old pupils revealed the consequences of the education they received (Wood and Payne, 1999). Pupils conveyed little sense that they felt that Scottish history really mattered, whilst their ignorance of events, people and circumstances in Scotland’s past was profound. Of particular interest was what shaped pupils’ selection from a range of possible explanations for a past event. When offered reasons as to why Scotland became part of the United Kingdom, for example, 37% selected ‘because English forces conquered it’ and 28% ‘as the result of a referendum’. Only 24% opted for ‘the Scots Parliament voted for it’. The Battle of Culloden was seen as a conflict between ‘wholly Scottish and wholly English armies’ by 41%; just 25% opted for ‘many Scots fought against Prince Charles’. A sense of conflict with England seems to shape the responses of the ignorant. The research which focused upon 16 year-olds’ knowledge of Scottish history pointed to ignorance even of the role of Scots inventors and engineers in the industrial revolution. Only 8% of the 3000 respondents connected James Watt with steam power; 26% thought he’d something to do with electricity!). The Reformation and the upheavals of the seventeenth century tend to be neglected as too complex.

The permissive curriculum of 5-14 and the narrowly conceived Standard Grade courses provide contexts which lack rigorous concern for what it is appropriate for pupils to know. In a paper presented in 1985 an American researcher reviewed all the available relevant data to attempt to identify the rationale(s) behind the teaching of American history in secondary schools (Chilcoat,1998) He set out a list of ten possible rationales and tested teachers’ work against them. His conclusion was that teachers had no clear idea of what they were trying to achieve. The same seems to be true in Scotland. Official justifications for history focus on the skills developed through the subject and on the value of history as a leisure interest. Detailed consideration of the reasons for content selection is sadly lacking. Do we want to offer pupils an heroic view of Scotland’s past? Should we focus on widely held myths and critically examine them? If citizenship today shapes the curriculum then the multi-cultural origins of the country, the imperial past, Irish migration in the 19th Century and the reasons for the arrival of more recent migrants should be studied. Scots life is partly shaped, today, through membership of the European Union. Yet Europe is seen almost wholly negatively, primarily through studies of the two world wars and by repeated examination of Nazi Germany.

With so much to study, and so little time, the current permissive curriculum needs to be re-considered and the lack of a rationale addressed. Meanwhile the media, myth and prejudice will fill the void left by insufficient concern for history in schools.


Anderson, R.D. (1997) Scottish Education since the Reformation Dundee, The Economic and Social History Society of Scotland.

Anderson, R. D. (1995) Education and the Scottish People, 1750-1918 OUP Oxford p.214.

Armit, I. (2001) ‘Prehistory’ in Houston R.A. & Knox W. W. J., The New Penguin History of Scotland London, Penguin p.14.

Carrington B. & Short G. (1996) ‘Who Counts: Who Cares? Scottish Children’s Notions of National Identity’ Educational Studies, Vol 22, No 2.

Chilcoat, G. (1998) A study of the Rationales and their implications for studying American history in the Secondary Schools Paper presented to the American Education Research Association, March - April 1998, Chicago.

Hanley, C. (1980) The Scots NY: New York Times Books, quoted in Houston R.A. & Knox W. W.J. (2002) The New Penguin History of Scotland London, p.xv.

Convention of Scottish Burghs (1905) School History Books; The Representation of the Convention of the Royal Burghs of Scotland SRO / BF257, Edinburgh, Scottish Records Office.

Fry, M. (2001) The Scottish Empire East Linton, Edinburgh, Tuckwell Press.

Hay, D. (1997) ‘Memories of a Calvinistic Childhood’ in Lawrence W. G. (ed) Roots in a Northern Landscape Edinburgh, Scottish Cultural Press.

Moir, J. (1995) ‘What do Braveheart and Rob Roy tell you about real Scotsmen?’ The Observer 29 October1995.

Munn J. (1977) The Structure of the Curriculum in the 3rd and 4th Years of the Scottish Secondary School HMSO Edinburgh.

Phillips R. (1996) ‘History teaching, cultural restorationism and national identity in England and Wales in the 20th century’ History of Education 28 (3).

Press & Journal (2002) ‘English Agitators blamed for Violence at Pittodrie’ Press & Journal 21 January 2002.

Scottish Qualifications Authority (1997) Scottish Certificate of Education: Standard Grade Arrangements in History Glasgow, SQA.

Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (1998) Scottish History in the Curriculum SCCC Dundee.

SOED (1993) Environmental Studies 5-14 Edinburgh, Scottish Office Education Department.

Wood, S. & Payne, F. (1999) ‘The Scottish School history curriculum and issues of national identity’ The Curriculum Journal, 10 (1).
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