BBC series to explode Scots history myths

TRADITIONALISTS will want to sharpen their claymores and prepare for battle after a radical new BBC examination of Scotland's history puts many long-established beliefs to the sword.

The controversial 2m flagship series, fronted by archaeologist Neil Oliver, claims to have evidence to prove that:

• St Columba was an "opportunist" whose claim of bringing Christianity to Scotland was dubious.

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• Kenneth MacAlpin was not, as generations of schoolchildren have been taught, the first king of Scotland.

• Picts were tattooed with images of animals, rather than smeared with the blue face paint of popular culture.

• The heroic Caledonian leader Calgacus almost never certainly uttered the phrase: "They make a desert and call it peace."

Scotland's History begins tonight. Oliver said: "I want to dispel the myths that have cursed Scotland's past and uncover the real characters and events that have shaped its history."

The first episode examines the events which brought Scotland together as a nation, including the arrival of Christianity.

It is widely held that St Columba established the faith which he brought with him from Ireland, but Oliver asks: "Was it really that simple?"

He claims that nearly all that is known about Columba comes from Vita Sancti Columbae, a story about his life, written 100 years after his death by Adomnan, an abbot of Iona.

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"His book is more fairytale than history and has to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

"The Gaels in Scotland were Christian long before Columba arrived and the hard graft had been done by numerous missionaries who had travelled from Ireland and from the Roman Empire."

Oliver also argues that Constantine I, and not his father, was the first true monarch of Scotland, who brought together the Pictish and Gaelic kingdoms.

He said: "The idea that Kenneth MacAlpin is the first king of Scotland is a myth that had persisted for centuries and it is one that I was taught as a wee lad at school.

"The historical records tell a different story. At the time of Ken MacAlpin Scotland did not exist and it remained a mixture of different peoples.

"The records clearly show that he was the king of Pictland not Scotland."

The broadcaster also took issue with the suggestion that the Picts covered themselves in blue woad before battle, an image that was used, ludicrously, in the Hollywood blockbuster Braveheart.

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He states: "The Picts tattooed themselves with the same designs and symbols used in their jewellery and stones."

But Dr Clare Downham of Aberdeen University took issue with some aspects of the claims contained in the show.

The expert in medieval history said: "I think the BBC are trying their best to be contentious here.

"I would half agree with some of their assertions, but not the entire package."

But Dr James Fraser of Edinburgh University gave his support to the ideas presented in the broadcast.

"The kind of thing that Neil Oliver is saying is more or less in line with the views that have been taken recently by professional scholars."

TV row

The series created controversy long before it hit TV screens.

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Professor Allan Macinnes of Strathclyde University resigned from its advisory board, saying it was flawed and "Anglocentric".

"I thought the whole production was dreadful," said the Scottish history expert. "It was written on the basis that Scotland was a divided country until the union with England came along and civilised it. It was just nonsense."

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