By Michael Penman
History Teaching Review Yearbook, Volume 17 (2003)
Introduction: On a recent visit to a local High School the response to a question to an assembled mix of Intermediate and Higher pupils left me, momentarily, at a stand. ‘And where was the famous Declaration of 1320 signed?’ I asked. Answer – ‘At the bottom.’ This served me out for not wording my query more carefully and I was soon further and rightly informed that, actually, the nobility’s letter to the Pope, dated at Arbroath, would have been sealed, not signed, and there is considerable doubt besides that those earls, lords and knights named on the document actually knew what they were agreeing to – this may have been a true statement of identity, or it may have been Bruce propaganda.
This lesson has made me wonder if history students these days, although not perhaps reading more than in the past, are reading and thinking increasingly critically about their curricula topics and personal historical interests; or that they are otherwise sharper and healthily cynical when it comes to analysing politics or debunking myths and ‘media’ presentation.The following article will reflect something of this perception and is designed to be a continuation of my 2003 Yearbook survey of scholarship on the Wars of Independence published since 1995. As a tutor on a third year Honours module on the Wars of Independence I have certainly found that since writing that first piece my experience of students’ initial interest in this field has changed markedly. Most strikingly, the film Braveheart (1995) is no longer the first point of contact for an enthusiastic majority. This is perhaps unsurprising since next year’s cohort of Standard Grade history pupils would only have been born in the year in which that still stirring medieval romp hit the big screen. But although most pupils/students have still nonetheless seen Mel Gibson’s opus, rerun on TV or DVD, their points of access to the wider history of the Wars of Independence are otherwise undoubtedly changing.
Not least, there is a perceptible growth in interest generated through students’ experience of heritage sites: most notably through personal or class visits to The National Wallace Monument (still one of the most popular of tourist attractions thanks to the Braveheart effect), the recently represented Bannockburn Heritage Centre, the perennial Stirling Castle and some ecclesiastical sites such as the abbeys of Dunfermline (where Bruce is buried) or Arbroath (‘home’ of the Declaration and now with a new statue of King Robert and Abbot Bernard holding aloft their letter to greet visitors to the burgh). This year I have also encountered first year students inspired to study Scottish History after watching the BBC’s ten-part and handsomely-shot History of Scotland (and not been put off by all that dripping water, wine, ink, blood…).