'Wha's like us?' Historian questions BBC's choice for new flagship series

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A LEADING historian has criticised BBC Scotland over their choice of presenter for a new ten-part series on Scottish history.

Best-selling Scottish writer Professor Tom Devine has questioned why the BBC picked Neil Oliver to front the show which promises to "explode the myths" of Scotland's romantic past.

Prof Devine, who also said there were few myths left to explode, welcomed the new series, A History of Scotland, and its multi-media package but raised a red flag over its "patronising" approach.

Prof Devine, whose book Scotland's Empire became a six-part BBC2 series, complained that an "army" of young Scottish historians had been overlooked in favour of Mr Oliver, an archaeologist who also presented Coast.

He asked: "Why are they using an archaeologist as a presenter? There surely is an army out there of young and telegenic historians."

With the Scottish Government demanding more Scottish history in the school curriculum, BBC Scotland yesterday unveiled a History of Scotland as the spearhead of a multi-media project to bring the country's history to light through the internet, radio, events, and concerts.

The show airs in Scotland in November this year with a screening on BBC Two across the UK to follow.

For centuries Scottish history, according to modern experts, was loaded with myth, romantic bias about the English-Scottish rivalry, and over-sized personalities like Mary, Queen of Scots, or Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Three leading Scottish historians are on the series' advisory committee: Professor Ted Cowan, of the University of Glasgow; Allan MacInnes, of the University of Strathclyde; and Jenny Wormald, now associated with the University of Edinburgh.

Mr Oliver, 40, is an archaeologist by training and a former journalist. He cut his television teeth with the battlefield series Two Men in a Trench.

Women were said to rave over the rugged, brainy and "beefy" TV celebrity. In 2006 he presented BBC Two's Scotland's History: The Top Ten, aiming to choose Scottish history's pivotal moment. Mr Oliver said yesterday: "The beauty of Scotland is overwhelming.

Impossibly romantic, obscured by mist and myth and always changing. Over the centuries, the romantic version has been of a 'lost cause' – the tragic victim – but this isn't history, it's Scottish mythology."

But Prof Devine, who turned down a place on the advisory board, said: "You could argue that at this time the English need a thorough education on the history of Scotland. Mr Oliver's approach on Scotland's Top 10 was unduly populist. "

Of Mr Oliver's description of Scottish history as "impossibly romantic", he said: "That might have been true 30 years ago, but the myths have long been swept away." The series' approach was "not only patronising, it's a bit old-fashioned," he added.


SCOTTISH history is littered with myths and misconceptions.

Culloden was long seen as a Scotland v England battle, but modern historians portray it as a clash of rival factions, with Scots on both sides.

Scottish "victimhood" has been a refrain from Glencoe to the Darien disaster. Traditionalists have bemoaned the fall of Mary, Queen of Scots. But myth-skewering historians paint her as a vastly overrated figure.

Robert the Bruce has often been portrayed as a vacillating turncoat, but now the balance is shifting back to his victories.

More recent accounts have chosen to examine Scottish success within the British Empire.

Professor Ted Cowan, a historian on the advisory board of A History of Scotland, said: "There's nothing wrong with exploring why the myths are there in the first place."

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