Friday, December 04, 2009

Haggis and the Taliban

Limited exposure to Scottish TV programming hadn't left me wanting much more. What's that you say? ... A program about Scottish history? How many massacres and clearances and tartans can I stomach? Then a Glaswegian with sinusitis will show up and I can't understand the dialogue. Then I get skull-punched in the nose, breaking my septum -- and they call it a kiss. With such trepidation I started watching Neil Oliver's A History of Scotland.

What a great series. As television about history it was excellent: clear but not condescending; balancing anecdotes of instructive individuals with larger social themes; beautifully photographed; wonderfully written for TV. Even the re-enactment scenes -- in other programs frequently over-extended and wretchedly executed to a comical degree -- were brief, unvoiced, striking, and elliptically evocative rather than bludgeoning.

Oliver, an archaeologist and not a historian, has been bashed by some for the series. But his scripted narration was stellar: about as engaging and informative as one gets in historical TV, with many amusing turns of phrase.

I am unencumbered by a great knowledge of Scottish history. But the parts I know a bit about were featured in recent episodes (The Covenenters, dealt with in Episode 6: God's Chosen People; and the Scottish tobacco trade's influence on American independence, Episode 8: The Price of Progress), and they were deftly and accurately sketched. Many Americans would have their eyes opened by The Price of Progress, with Scottish mercantilism, colonial slavery, and Adam Smith's ideas examined as well as tobacco and the American colonies. For me it was the richest episode so far, using disparate personal stories to illuminate some huge historical themes and an important time in the history of ideas.

Oliver has an easier task than English history documentarians. Their past has been so picked over that I expect at some point to see a BBC program about the Greatest Fourteen Seconds of the Most Important 9 Cubic Inches in British History, as if Nicholson Baker got a commission. But Oliver has done the larger history well. Thus we have a pudding in which the proof is ... excellent, to my taste.

Covering nearly two millenia in ten episodes is going to leave a lot out. Still, perhaps Highland Scots deserved more time, though I'm sure that there would have been complaints about any depiction of their tribalism. I've also seen grumbling that the series was too anglocentric, but to me that's pretty thin: Scotland's history has for centuries been intertwined with that of England. Perhaps more could have been done with the Edinburgh enlightenment -- covered almost solely (so far) by a considered treatment of Adam Smith.

[Let's pause to thank Presbyterians for making literacy so important. I heard someone compare the Covenenters to Taliban recently, and I nearly plotzed. If the Covenenters ran Afghanistan, Pashtun in great numbers would be able to read and write, instead of having only a surname they couldn't identify in script or print.]

The last episode is this Sunday. I'll be sad to see it go. If you have any interest in history or even in popular depictions of history, perhaps you should watch it.

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