What we learned about Scottish history this week

Central Library this week hosted two very different, but equally fascinating events looking at different aspects of Scottish history.

On Wednesday author Walter Stephen launched his latest book, ‘A dirty swindle: true stories of Scots in the Great War

Walter Stephen signing copies of 'A Dirty Swindle'

Walter Stephen signing copies of ‘A Dirty Swindle’

The skill of Walter’s book is the way he takes stories which many of us are familiar with on a surface level and delves deeper into them to give us a very real sense of what the war was like for those who experienced it.

Walter’s talk was illustrated by a slide show and two images in particular stood out.

One was a haunting picture entitled ‘Shell Shock’ which was drawn by an officer while he was being treated at Craiglockhart Hospital.

The other was a photograph of a ‘Forward Observation Officer’ jumping to safety as his balloon came under fire. Being a Forward Observation Officer was an incredibly dangerous role: being up in a balloon made you such an easy target.

Many of us will be familiar with the story of Hearts F.C and McCrae’s Battalion but as Walter pointed out two of the Hearts team actually failed the army medical and were prevented from signing up. (This despite them playing football for the top team in the country at the time)

Walter also spoke about the Quintinshill train crash and the ‘perfect storm’ that made it the worst rail disaster this country has known. Tragically some men survived only to die in horrific circumstances at Gallipoli little over a month later.

Walter ended the evening talking about the unease he felt about how the 100th anniversary of the first world war has been used for political purposes, and politics and history was very much the theme for our event last night, as Stuart McHardy and Donald Smith took us on a journey along Scotland’s Democracy Trail.

A wide-ranging discussion took in everything from the Volkswagen emissions scandal to upcoming EU referendum to the teaching of Scottish history in schools.

Donald and Stuart also introduced us to some of the lesser known but significant figures from Scottish history.

The life and legacy of Thomas Muir has been marked by a series this year (the 250th anniversary of his birth), but Stuart argued he’s not as widely celebrated as he deserves to be. “Where’s the movie?” he asked. And you would have to agree that Muir’s life was one long extraordinary globe-spanning adventure.

We were also introduced to lesser known characters such as James Thomson Callender and Francis Hutcheson and the effect their life and work had on the long struggle for democracy as we know and understand it.

The evening ended with questions from the audience about the Highland Clearances, the Scottish Youth Parliament, James Robertson’s And the land lay still and the possibility of a pardon for Thomas Muir.

We’d like to thank Walter, Donald and Stuart for two terrific evenings which would have encouraged many audiences members to read not just their books, but others as well, to find out more about our nation’s past.


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