Tom Devine: History is new star in culture constellation

TV historian Neil Oliver will present show at festival. Picture: Donald MacLeod
TV historian Neil Oliver will present show at festival. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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Denied public funding, Scotland’s current history festival has been written onto the map of national events by public appetite, writes Tom Devine

This week marks the second run of one of the most remarkable, though unsung festivals in the land, namely Previously… Scotland’s History Festival.

Over the next two weeks, more than two hundred events will take place in Edinburgh’s bars, churches and theatres, streets and coffee houses.

The ambition of the organisers, led by the indefatigable Susan Morrison, Ian Harrower and their willing band of volunteers is, as last year, to take history out of the university lecture rooms, museums and libraries and present it in the places where people usually gather and socialise.

If the festival of 2011 is anything to go by, that of 2012 will be another stunning success story. Nearly 6,000 people across a broad demographic profile turned out then for 236 events held by 69 organisations in a city-wide celebration of Scotland’s history. Audiences were educated, stimulated and entertained by a programme of original theatre, guided tours, film, historical reenactments, poetry, family history workshops, comedy and debates with public figures and renowned historians. Much was learned and great fun was had by all.

The most astonishing aspect of this ambitious enterprise was that it was delivered on a financial shoestring. Undeterred by the failure to attract public funding, the organisers and their advisory panel of academics pressed on regardless. The rest, as they say, is history. What transpired was the UK’s biggest ever history festival.

One would have thought that an achievement on this scale might have found favour from those who control the cultural purses of the country. Sadly, not so. For the second year in succession Creative Scotland has further harmed its already battered reputation by offering not a penny in support of this wonderful initiative. As the programme for 2012 laments: “The history festival is rapidly becoming the tragic Dickensian orphan of the festival family, pressing a wee button-nose up against the window, gazing at the goodies other festivals have.”

It might be argued that such parsimony is simply the predictable outcome of the lack of imagination of public bodies that cannot grasp the potential when something fresh and invigorating comes along. That may indeed be part of the explanation. I think, however, that the causes run more deeply and widely and apply equally to other parts of the arts and cultural establishment in Scotland.

Astonishingly, at this historic time for the nation, many arts administrators, journalists, institutions and “creative” writers seem unprepared to grant history admission to their self-proclaimed constellation of culture. No historian, so far as I am aware, was approached to sign the recent petition of numerous writers and artists criticising the performance of Creative Scotland.

I cannot remember the last time a history book was even shortlisted for the award of the Book of the Year by the Saltire Society. Even classic studies of the past have failed to find a place there, while long-forgotten and remaindered works of fiction dominate year after year. Time and again, too, in the arts pages of the press, “creative writing” is narrowly defined as encompassing only novels, poetry, drama and, occasionally, biography – assumptions that would never prevail in any country of Europe. The scandalous failure to help fund the Festival of History is one consequence of this myopic cultural mindset.

Thankfully, the Scottish public beg to differ. Family history is booming, television history is extraordinarily popular and history books regularly make the bestseller lists. We can therefore anticipate that the Cinderella of festivals will, once again, break box office records over the next fortnight.

Few can deny that writing history is no less challenging or creative than composing a work of fiction. Like historians, many novelists have to do a fair amount of background work before embarking on the process of composition, though few need match the long years of archival and library research in many locations that must go into the making of a high- quality original monograph.

Both are also engaged in that most difficult of intellectual exercises, trying to understand the complexities of the human condition in the past and present. History writing is not simply a “scientific” exercise. The craft requires a talent for insight, the flash of perception and inspiration that can transform an argument or instantly light up dense, detailed discussion. It is therefore an art but nonetheless requires adherence to logical argument and the disciplines of evidence.

Many books written by academic historians can seem unapproachable and arcane to the layman, designed to appeal mainly to fellow scholars as rigorous exercises in research rather than works intended to be widely read outside the academy. We should not forget, on the other hand, that some of the greatest works of world literature are far from being an easy read.

Nevertheless, historians can and do write for the public, as shown by successes in the bestseller lists over the years. Indeed, history is an academic subject that has profound civic and social relevance, so ought to have a substantial space in the public domain.

To achieve public impact, however, is exceptionally difficult for most scholars. Historians employed in universities have, above all, to be concerned with the judgement of peers on their publications.This is how reputations are made and promotions earned. Then there is the ever-present pressure in higher education of the regular assessments of research, whose evaluators might regard “public history” somewhat sniffily when they grade the outputs.

Those who write for a wide audience must, therefore, firstly produce books that are at the high professional standard required by the academy. After that, it helps if the subject matter is of intrinsic interest and appeal, all jargon is jettisoned and the prose fashioned carefully with a focus on absolute clarity and fluency. Does the resulting product not count as literature?’

• Professor Tom Devine is a professor of history at the University of Edinburgh.

Previously...Scotland’s History Festival takes place from 13 November to 3 December across Edinburgh ( Tom Devine’s own event, The Devine Interrogation, with Lesley Riddoch, takes place in the Stand Comedy Club, York Place, at 5pm on Thursday 29 November.