A: In the 1990s, with the prospect
of devolution coming closer, people in Scotland were thinking more and
more about their identity as a nation, and it seemed a good time to look
at Scotland’s history from a layman’s point of view. The trigger to start
serious work was when BBC Radio Scotland commissioned me to present a
series on the way in which contemporary Scottish historians now viewed
Scotland’s history. The fact that so much excellent historical research
has been going on, and being published, was a tremendous bonus. The radio
series served to give focus to my thinking. The series and the book took
about two years of research and a year of writing.
was nice to see Sir Walter Scott get some modern day recognition in your
book. The way you referenced other historians’ opinions to counter those
of Mr. Scott was an interesting and refreshing concept. How did you come
to quote Tales of a Grandfather as extensively as you did, even
stating "Scotland, it has often been said, was invented by Walter
Scott in his portrayal of its history"?
A: Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather
had been boyhood reading for me, and I loved it! Indeed, it was the only
Scottish history I read (we got none at my school). The structure I chose
for the radio series and the book was to have a look at how historical
perceptions had changed in Scotland in the 179 years since Scott wrote.
Scott was the reference point. It was about historiography, as well as
being a narrative account of how modern historians now perceive Scotland’s
Scott is sometimes accused of giving Scotland her "tartan and shortbread"
image that has come down to this day. Many people dislike that image of
Scotland, but what image do you think Scotland would have today if he had
not made such an imprint on the country so many of us love?
A: The ‘tartan and shortbread’ image
was underway before Scott! For details, see ‘The Tartan craze on pp 653-4.
Similarly, Scott was by no means the first to popularize tourism in
Scotland – nor was he the last. The ‘picturesque sensibility’ age had
begun late in the 18th century (think of Wordsworth and the
Lakeland poets), and the Napoleonic Wars had closed Europe for the Grand
Tour. But Scott’s early writings, particularly ‘The Lady of the Lake’
(1810), gave a tremendous boost to all this as far as Scotland was
concerned. Without Walter Scott, others would doubtless have done the same
– Queen Victoria building Balmoral Castle also did much to popularize the
Highlands, and the coming of railways made them much more accessible.
noticed on the internet that Professor Ted Cowan, head of Scottish history
at Glasgow University, took you to task for using Scott as you did in your
book, but he went on to confess that he had not even read your book.
Having not read your book, he was unaware that you quoted him and many
others to counter Scott’s positions. This, in my opinion, left Professor
Cowan with egg on his face. You evidently touched a "hot spot" of his.
What gives? Did you two ever discuss the matter and come to an
A: Ted and I are the best of
friends, and I have learned a tremendous amount from him. He is always
willing to give of his time to help others, and he was one of the key
interviewees on the radio series. When my book was about to come out, a
journalist phoned him up and gave him a garbled version of what it was
about; Ted made the mistake of speculating on this misinformation. It’s a
warning to us all!
You’ve been asked this before, but is it true that on your first day at
The Scotsman as a young man you burst into the offices exclaiming,
"Where are the girls? I’ll lay them like tables"?
A: No – alas! I wish I had!
have a very interesting family: Magnus (journalist, broadcaster, author),
wife Mamie Baird (journalist), and children: Sally (broadcaster), Margaret
(television producer), Anna (radio producer) and John (television and
radio comedy producer). What influenced your children to follow in the
paths of their parents?
A: Not I – or not directly, at
least. They grew up in a house crammed with books, where everything
revolved around journalism and television – communicating, in the broadest
sense. They chose their own careers – despite the fact that having a
well-known name did not make it any easier. Quite the contrary, in fact.
They had to do much more to prove themselves in their own right.
have seen you described as Britain’s "brainiest man" and a sure bet to
have won as a contestant on the show you hosted for 25 years, BBC’s "Mastermind".
A: I can categorically deny any
claim to being Britain’s ‘brainiest man’! The real Masterminds were those
who sat in the Black Chair – I had the questions and answers written down
in front of me!
did you manage to capture such a beautiful picture of Scotland in your
book while other authors have written about Scotland by volumes?
A: I was trying to tell the story
of Scotland, the saga of Scotland – not to write a definitive
history of Scotland (which cannot be done anyway, in however many
volumes). I am not an academic historian – if anything, I am a ‘storian’,
to coin a phrase.
all the awards you have received, and you have received many, which one or
two are your favorites, if any?
A: What stands out for me, I think,
is the Medlicott Medal of the Historical Association in 1989, because it
was presented by a society of professional historians to a layman. The
double ‘knighthood’ stands out, too – Knight Commander of the Order of the
Icelandic Falcon in 1986, and honorary Knight of the British Empire in
1989. It is extraordinarily gratifying to have been honored in this way by
both my countries – Iceland and Scotland. Honorary doctorates from seven
British universities have also been immensely flattering.
oft-asked question of mine to people of all walks of life in Scotland: If
Scotland ever becomes totally independent, could she support herself in
the custom she finds herself today, enjoying the same services then as she
does today from the Crown?
A: Why not? Much smaller countries,
like Iceland, have flourished mightily since they became independent. But
more importantly, it allows us to make our own mistakes and have no one
else to blame except ourselves!
K. Rowling’s books about Harry Potter have taken America by storm. Now the
movie is doing the same with Harry grossing nearly 200 million dollars
here in the United States during the first two weeks of screening. What
has been the reaction in Scotland to Harry Potter and Rowling? How do
people view the second richest woman in Great Britain, the Queen naturally
being the richest?