The Fiction of Historical Fact

Opinion Piece by Fiona Grahame

Fiona Grahame

Fiona Grahame Editor

I’ve always been a bit of a nerd for history. At age 5 in Primary one my favourite comics (apart from the Beano) was Treasure which was a ‘Look and Learn’ for younger kids. I loved it. One of the articles it did was on stone age peoples.  I have no idea of the accuracy of the article but as a child reading this it captured my imagination and for weeks I played at being in the stone age up in the back field behind our houses at Clermiston.

This thirst for history was encouraged by my father who took me to the museum in Chambers Street and the Scottish Portrait Gallery in Queens St (both Edinburgh) where I gazed upon those famous leaders of Scotland’s past like Argyll and Montrose.  Dad would take me round his Leith birthplace where grandad worked firstly in the Leith Fire Brigade and then when he was made redundant from that once the horse driven vehicles were no longer needed, in the Docks .

And my social history was enhanced further by bedtime tales from my mother who spoke of her poverty stricken childhood as an orphan during the Depression in Burton-on-Trent. Stories that were true but which could have come straight from a Dickens novel.

Rosemary Sutcliffe‘s novels like ‘Warrior Scarlet’ and ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ took me into the realms of historical fiction gradually leading onto John Prebble and  Nigel Tranter. Seeing me get Tranter’s books out the library my parents bought me the trilogy of ‘Robert the Bruce’ for my birthday.

Hillary Mantell has recently received  flak from some Historians who like to think that writing about factual history is somehow superior to those who write historical fiction. Listening to Mantell’s Reith Lectures broadcast on the BBC showed the huge amount of research and knowledge she builds up about a period and its characters before even putting it into words so that she can bring to life again those players and times and perhaps lead us to a better understanding of the unfolding of events.

The historian selects the facts he/she wishes to evidence the particular stance they are putting forward. The writer of historical fiction puts into the mouths of their characters words they may or may not have spoken. Both authors are self-selective. And so long as the reader is aware of this there is no harm done.

The TV  Channel BBC Four presents itself as an ‘intelligent’ channel where you can find factual programmes. Beware of those facts. Just as historians who write about the past are self selective so too are those who make programmes. The fashion for labelling programmes as ‘British’ history when clearly they are not has become all too prevalent and goes mostly unchallenged. By doing so they attempt to erase a past when there were 3 very separate nations. Three separate nations that have amazing histories in themselves which often collide but just as often drift off and link into the past of other nations. Have a read of Billy Kay’s The Scottish World: A Journey Into the Scottish Diaspora

Why should it matter?

Merging the histories of three nations into that of a non-existent single state of the past twists and distorts not just our view of the past but our perception of the present. We are where we are because of those past events.

Today as we prepare to exit the EU  we have the UK Government dredging up the 16th C King of England  Henry VIII and inserting clauses he wrote into the Great Repeal Bill which will allow the UK Prime Minister to change existing laws without Parliament’s full approval.

As the UK Government continues down the road of privatising more and more parts of the NHS in England perhaps they should have listened to my mothers stories of her childhood when poverty meant you couldn’t afford to be ill. And people suffered and died prematurely through lack of medical attention.

Twisting and erasing history, your past,  is also an effective method of control. Estonia, a nation of 1,315,635 has this year taken on the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This country has gone through many phases of being independent only to be overrun by a larger country. Every invader has tried to erase the history of Estonia and rewrite it in an image more pleasing to themselves.

Successive attempts to warp Estonian past and culture has failed –  because of songs.

Estonians have a joy of singing and especially of big singing festivals. And like all songs everywhere they are of lost loves and working lives. During the Soviet occupation they were also of  Communism, Lenin, and Marx. Then at the 1947 song festival the choir sang an old traditional Estonian poem  “Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love,” . This was to become an anthem for the nation and a potent symbol of their resistance.

In 1987 the Heritage Society was formed. It discussed culture and Estonian history which of course raised the issue of Soviet occupation and the right of free speech. The path to independence was extremely hard for Estonia but singing and regaining their history were essential ingredients. On 20 August 1991 Estonia became once again independent and is now one of the highest performing nations in the EU. It has universal health care, an extremely high standard of education and  one of the longest paid maternity leaves in the West.

A passion for Scotland’s history is not just about one nation but of the many people’s of the world. It does not make you insular or a xenophobic small minded nationalist that wishes to erase the past of others. Nor does it result in a romantic notion where we forget our roles in the slave trade and the brutal expansionist policies of the British Empire. But it is a part of us. It is embedded in our laws and in our landscape. Knowledge of Scotland’s history is to understand our present and is the life blood of our future path.

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” Martin Luther King, Jr.


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2 replies »

  1. It’s not just history. If a person watches a television programme about a subject which they actually know something about, the mis-representation can be at least annoying, and at most infuriating.
    Regarding history – it’s often written by the folk who won the battles or who were ‘in charge’.
    You need to gather an awful lot of information before you can have any kind of feeling that you might have got a grip on having any real knowledge about a subject – history in particular can be a slippery fish to catch hold of.
    There are so many ‘sides ‘ to any historical ‘story’.
    One big thing – beware of myths – the usually have a grain of truth and that grain can make them very mis-leading.
    We went to the open day at the Hall of Clestrain on Sunday, and, as Andrew Appleby was talking with a visitor, I heard him say that the Franklin family, and the Rae family were good friends, until John Rae came home with The News. I hadn’t known this – it puts a different perspective on what happened. Hurt is harder, when it’s between people who had an attachment to each other.
    Andrew hopes that the Hall of Clestrain can become a place of healing and reconciliation regarding the whole sorry tale.
    This is what I’m going on about. I saw Mrs Franklin and Charles Dickens as the bad guys in this ( hard to take, as I like Dickens’ writing so much – mainly because of his understanding of and compassion for humanity). Maybe, with a shift in perspective and a bit of understanding, the ‘history’ of the Franklin expedition and the Rae expedition can be brought more into balance and some greater clarity can be reached.
    I risk rambling off into a diatribe about the people I’m now thinking of as ‘The Two Johns’ – but…I don’t really know enough to do so! Maybe Andrew A. will write something for ‘The Orkney News’ about this different and more kindly approach to the tale?

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