It is an absolute pleasure and a privilege to be writing this blog, the first in what will no doubt be a fascinating series, considering the diversity and directions of the discipline of Scottish History – whether that be in teaching, research or wider public history and engagement. We can thank the active and innovative Scottish History Network for this – and I personally have even more to thank them for. This is because, as of September last year, I moved post and took up my first job at an English institution, Newcastle University, ending a twenty year stint in Scotland, first as a student, then as an academic and researcher. So, I thought I would take the opportunity in this blog to consider – in quite a preliminary fashion – what it is like to teach and research Scottish history outwith Scotland. I am far from the first Scottish historian to work south of the border, of course, and geographically I am still quite close, but in our age of Brexit, radical differences in the higher education systems of Scotland and England, and the possibility of an IndyRef2 in the not too distant future, it seems an interesting time to think about these issues.
Before I left, I asked myself: how different can it really be? After all, universities are supra-national organisations (idealistic as this sounds), and despite devolution and the different fees regimes, we broadly operate on similar lines – we teach and research, we publish and engage with our broader communities. And while this stands, there are differences, although perhaps where I had not expected to find them.
Take teaching. I research and teach the modern history of the Scottish (and British, and Irish) landed and aristocratic classes. Although the core content of what I teach has not changed with the move to England, the wider social and political context is startlingly different. In Scotland, as well as considering the territorial, financial, political and social challenges faced by the landed classes from the 1830s to the postwar period, critically assessing the dominant historiography of ‘decline and fall’, we would put this into the contemporary context of Scottish land reform. This allowed for some really interesting exchanges with students on the legacies of aristocratic dominance in Scotland in particular, which has the highest concentration of landownership in Europe, as well as the responses of the state to this situation firstly in 2003 and latterly, 2016. One of the oddities (to my eyes anyway), of England is the almost complete apathy towards land issues, at least in the political context. For a country obsessed with property, location, location, location and getting ‘on the ladder’, there is a remarkable level of myopia around how and why the relatively simple act of being able to afford a house is connected to land law and taxation regimes. Walking around the Northumbrian countryside presents the observer with multiple ‘keep out’ and ‘private property’ signs; a rarity now in Scotland with its Right to Roam. All of this provides a different – but no less interesting – context in which to teach the landed classes.
And how do predominantly English students view the prospect of Scottish History more generally? So far, I am pleased to report a fair appetite for the subject just south of the border. I taught the 1707 Union just after I arrived, and there was (unless I deceive myself!) real interest, ignited I think by the recent referendums for both Brexit, and – although none of my students had been involved – IndyRef. Being a modernist helps, I suspect, but it is encouraging so far, with no complaints of parochialism, such as I used to find among Scottish students.
There are many differences between the systems, though – if not the pursuit of learning – common across all English universities (and to greater and lesser extent, Scottish universities too), such as the pressures placed on both staff and students by the fees regime. This inescapably presents a radically different set of expectations and leads to different outcomes; some good, some bad. Student support seems to me much more comprehensive and sophisticated in England – but then, it needs to be. Our students are under immense financial pressures, combined with a perceived requirement for a 2:1 or resultant career/life death, this takes a heavy toll.
From the perspective of research and scholars such as me, now, the importance of the Scottish History Network in keeping scholars connected – not just from somewhere as close as Newcastle, but all over the world – has become even more important than before, for teaching, engagement and research and for folk interested in the history of Scotland and the Scots wherever they might be geographically.
Dr Annie Tindley is a lecturer at Newcastle University. If you would like to be part of our new blog series and let people across the field know what you’re up to, get in touch!