Scottish history errors explained: From William Wallace to clan tartans, the truth behind the legends

A new book by a TV question-setter helps sort out a few misconceptions about Scotland, a couple of outright mistakes and some of our trickier pronunciations

• Robert the Bruce: King of Scotland?

OUR thirst for knowledge – the more esoteric the better – is unquenchable. Just look at the television and radio schedules, where quiz programmes abound. From Mastermind and The Weakest Link, to QI and Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, the Q&A format is king. And who can forget what a huge splash Trivial Pursuit made when that board game first appeared and made its inventors wealthy overnight?

Yet while everyone's an "expert", it's amazing how much we still get wrong, a notion that's explored in a new book from The Weakest Link's question setter, Stewart McCartney. Popular Errors Explained disproves "facts" such as: stress causes ulcers; every human year is seven dog years; and coffee is a bean. At the same time, it explains where gypsies originated, how dogs sweat, and why nothing on earth has ever seen a brontosaurus.

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McCartney, 50, a former champion quizzer and contestant on both Mastermind and Brain of Britain has a naturally retentive mind. "I link things into stories. Like the fact that it takes Mercury about 88 days to go around the Sun leads to the fact that there are 88 keys on a piano keyboard, and that Princess Beatrice was born on the eighth of eight, eighty-eight (8 August 1988). You remember by association and the more you learn, the more you absorb. If someone mentions something unusual, I've got to find out more."

He's originally from York but now lives in Glasgow, working for the BBC, and says with some pride that one of his grandfathers hails from Govan.

There's no point asking how long he spent researching the book, because the answer is "a lifetime". Even so, there were some surprises. "I was stunned to find that the driest place on earth is actually in Antarctica. The McMurdo Dry Valleys haven't seen rain in two million years! In fact, the majority of the world's deserts are in the Arctic and Antarctica – they're at least 50 per cent bigger than the Sahara."

General knowledge programmes and games are not just a UK phenomenon, he says. "Look at Slumdog Millionaire. The European Quiz Championships are taking place next month. Holland, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries, the Baltic states, Hungary, they all love quiz programmes."

McCartney says that while there are some great female quizzers, it seems to attract more men.

"We get regular complaints on Weakest Link that we always have five blokes and four women, and that's because we get more male applicants than women. It's a bit testosterone-driven sometimes, all about 'I know more than you'."

So what's the impulse behind this international craze?

"I think it's because in the wealthier nations we have moved from worrying about where the next meal's coming from and have more time to try to discover the world. The availability of mass media and the internet means more interest in more things. Our brains say, 'Oh that's interesting, I wonder what's behind that – and what's behind that?'

"This is not an encyclopaedia, just a book that hopefully gets people saying, 'Oh, I didn't know that!'"

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Click Next Page to find out the truth about some common errors...

1. The Scots historically wore different tartans to show which clan they belonged to.

I have said this "Victorian Romantic" induced myth was not so, but here are a couple of interesting notes that we can add to the knowledge that specific "clan" tartans were a 19th-century invention, Highland dress previously being dependent on location (naturally sourced dyes from the coast differing from those on the moors), and the basic availability of the pattern or "sett" that a local weaver liked to produce.

Firstly, 13 centuries before the written evidence of James V buying "three ells of Heland Tartans", the ancient 'Falkirk Tartan' at the National Museum shows that actually, pardon the pun, tartan as a cloth was already part of the Nation's fabric. Secondly, the temporary, if long-lived, government ban on the wearing of tartan instigated after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 applied only to male commoners. "Gentlefolk", "common" women and – importantly for the "Clan Tarta" explosion later fuelled by George IV and by his niece Victoria – Highland regiments could still wear tartan with impunity.

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2. William Wallace was a national hero

POST Braveheart, this might seem a strange claim, but this argument rests on two general points. One, the fact most of the population of any country in the 13th and 14th centuries didn't give a jot about such things (nor was their opinion counted), and until we moved, in more modern times, from worrying about the crops into actually finding out about the world more than ten miles from where we lived, heroes of nation states didn't really concern the majority.

Two, Scotland was riven by factionalism at the time – Wallace was with one "gang" of nobles, and other "gangs" despised him.

Author Edwin Moore has actually gone further. He has suggested Wallace's activities in Northern England made him a "genocidal coward", and that his monument should be made into a museum educating the public about the "ethnic cleansing" policies he and Edward Longshanks followed.

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3. Culloden was the last battle on British soil

It was the last pitched battle on the mainland, and although the Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles occupied in the Second World War, the events that took place in the streets of St Helier, Jersey, in 1781 can lay claim to the accolade of being the last actual battle on British soil.

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In that year, Major Francis Pierson (who has lent his name to a pub in Royal Square in the town), repelled an invasion by a small French force under the Baron de Rullecourt.

A strange irony was the composition of Pierson's force, fighting only 35 years after Culloden. In addition to the local militia, the backbone was provided by a small but obviously determined troop of Highlanders.

3a. At Culloden, the English beat the Scots

The recent discovery by archaeologists of the graves of government troops has brought the nature of this incorrect assessment of the battle back into focus – about a quarter of the "redcoats" were Scottish themselves.

Trevor Royle, writing in the National Trust for Scotland Magazine, has gone so far as to make case for a memorial to those that died fighting the Jacobites to be erected, a marker that is currently missing.

Although "Culloden" was not granted as a "battle honour" to any of the government regiments that fought there, he may have a point. Sadly, there is evidence that the events of 1745 and 1746 led to that most terrible of things, brother fighting brother. It has also been discovered recently that two of the Farquharsons of Allargue in Aberdeenshire were Jacobite officers, in opposition to their siblings on the government side.

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4. Scotland's official national anthem is still 'God save the Queen'.

There is no "legal" national anthem for the UK as a whole at the moment, or any of its constituent parts. However, Scotland has a tradition of using Scotland the Brave when they win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games (actually prior to 1958 it was Scots Wha Hae).

Since writing this, by a vote of 211 to 15, Scottish athletes have chosen Flower of Scotland to be used at the 2010 New Delhi Games instead. At the same time, the English have also changed their anthem at the Commonwealth Games from Land of Hope and Glory to Jerusalem.

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5. Stewart is Scottish, not English

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This is typically an English misconception. While I've lived here in Scotland, nobody has raised the question of the spelling of my name – whether it's "Scottish" or "English".

It did, however, used to happen all the time when I was south of the Border.

The main reason I've been given for the existence of the two spellings is that when James Stewart went to London in 1603 to become King of England as well as King of Scots, the English spelt his name James Stuart.

Not so – it was the fact his mother Mary spent most of her young life in France, where the natives decided on the spelling "Stuart". She brought it back with her when she returned to Scotland in 1561.

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6. Robert the Bruce was not 'King of Scotland'.

Some people say there is a political significance in the distinction between being "King of Scotland" and "King of Scots". There is not. The Latin title used by the Scottish kings from at least the 11th century, rex Scotorum, translates as "King of Scots" rather than "King of Scotland" This is in contrast to the 19th-century Louis-Phillipe of France who, in hoping to rule with more popular support than his predecessor, the Bourbon Charles X, changed his title from "King of France" to "King of the French".

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7. The Shetlands and the Orkneys

The terms "Shetlands" and "Orkneys" are still being used by BBC reporters to this day, mainly in reference to such things as the continued search for oil in the North Sea. The two major constituents of the Northern Isles which sit off the tip of Scotland (there is also Fair Isle and, in some reckonings, the Caithness island of Stroma), are more correctly "Shetland" and "Orkney", their names being derived in the singular from the Old Norse words Hjalt(land) (similar to the English "hilt" of a sword, the shape the island group takes) and Orkn, meaning seal.

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8. Pontius Pilate's bodyguard was Scots

There are still many legends, some quite believable to us in our Da Vinci Code influenced times, that Pontius Pilate was from Glen Lyon. By association, the oldest regiment in the British army, The Royal Scots, acquired this nickname as a tribute to its antiquity. The fact is it stems from an argument between officers of the Le Regiment de Douglas (its direct predecessor) arguing with officers of France's oldest, Le Regiment de Picardie about precedence. The French tried to joke that if the Scottish regiment was as old as it claimed, it must have been on guard for Pilate at Christ's tomb. Not so, said the Scots; if they'd have been on guard, the body wouldn't have disappeared.

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9. Playing at St Andrew's

Many people, often English, add an apostrophe where there shouldn't be one. It's St Andrews. Americans also fall into this trap, and with the associations of golf with wealth that the citizens of that country have, they often presume playing on the Old Course especially, is an exclusive experience available to the few; at least when an event they wrongly refer to as the "British" Open isn't being held there.

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The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews is a club with membership, but people are quite often surprised to find that not one of the seven courses around St Andrews belongs to this august body. As the people of Fife know, other local clubs, residents and visitors are all allowed access to the fairways and greens.

9a. Golf was invented in Scotland

Again, because Scotland can clearly now claim to be the modern home of golf, there is a worldwide misbelief that it's where the game started.

There are at least two foreign predecessors to the modern game. The Romans hit a feather-filled leather ball with a bent stick in a game called "paganica".

Later, the people of the Low Countries made use of the extensive ice available in the mini-ice ages of the medieval and renaissance periods to do exactly the same thing in a winter game called "kolven".

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10. Is it Menzies... or... Menzies?

Menzies looks like it should be pronounced "MEN-zees", but the Fife politician always says "MING-is". This is because an old letter of Anglo-Saxon origin, the yogh, was in the original spelling of the name. In the post-Norman Conquest era, British non-Latin letters fell out of favour, and printers often substituted "z". The yogh looks like a "z" when, as it can be, it is written to resemble a number 3. As pronunciations were already established, spellings changed but Culzean is pronounced "KULL-ayn", Dalziel "DEE-ell" and so on. Even the OED has the modern spelling of "capercaille" as a variant to spellings of capercailye or capercailzie, where the original yogh has been replaced by either a "z" or a "y"

• Popular Errors Explained by Stewart McCartney is out now from Preface Publishing, priced 14.99