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Simon Schama Antidote (#10421)
by editor on April 4, 2003 at 8:59 AM
The Scotsman

March 28, 2003, Friday



BYLINE: Paul Gallagher

SCOTTISH Television is to broadcast the "antidote to Simon Schama" with a documentary series telling the history of Britain from the point of view of the Celts.

Schama's BBC series A History of Britain was criticised for being too anglocentric and brushing over the influence of the vanquished ancient Britons in the story of the British Isles.

The alternative view will be given in The Sea Kingdoms, a ten-part documentary series to be broadcast in a prime-time slot from next month.

Based on a book by Alistair Moffatt, the presenter, the series describes the origins of modern Britain by visiting the western and northern areas of the British Isles, where traces of the ancient Celtic culture are most visible today. Mr Moffat said: "In the early history of Britain, the sea played a key role. That was how people travelled and communicated because there were no roads. The sea is the main character in the series. It is the sea that binds the Celtic races together and it was by the sea that the culture flourished.

"This series is in many ways the antidote to Simon Schama, who took a very land-based view - and a very English point of view - of our history."

The Sea Kingdoms describes the stories of traditionally overlooked historical characters such as Urien, the king of North Rheged in the sixth century who is regarded as the most powerful Celtic King.

"He narrowly failed to chase the Angles out of northern England and, if he had succeeded, would have been one of the best-known figures of our history," Mr Moffat added. "As it is, Urien is hardly mentioned in traditional histories of Britain."

Another subject examined is the Lordship of the Isles, which was strung between Scotland, the Isle of Man and Ireland.

Welsh and Cornish history also plays a major part in the series, with an examination of Gaelic languages and also the Celtic traditions which survive in the western and northern fringes of the nation.

Mr Moffat believes the failure of historians to examine Celtic history has resulted in the subject being associated with "romantic, new-agey elements", which he hopes to avoid.

He said: "Early Celtic society was non-literate and history progressed through memory and recital. There are oral histories and legends but it is still real history. There is a history of Celtic Britain which has largely been unwritten.

"We don't look at the progression towards the United Kingdom as an inevitability," he added. "It did not have to happen.

"We also don't look at the division between England and Scotland. There is only a split between Celtic Britain and Anglo-Saxon Britain. And, of course, England is far more of a Celtic nation than it realises."

Mr Moffat acknowledges that the reason Celtic history is overlooked is because it is the tale of the vanquished. "The English won the war for Britain and the Celts lost again and again. We have set out to find out what Celtic Britain is and to report that it does exist."

Schama's series A History of Britain was a popular and critical success, attracting an average audience of 4.4 million and propelling his accompanying books into the bestseller charts. But it was questioned by some historians for its concentration on the trials and tribulations of royalty and for sidelining the contribution of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish .

When figures such as James VI and I and Bonnie Prince Charlie were mentioned, it was for their impact on English history - and seen as further proof of Schama's concentration on royalty.

Christopher Harvie, a professor of British and Irish Studies at Tuebingen university in Germany, and Neil Evans, a Welsh historian, criticised Schama's treatment as the "Hello! history of England", and suggested the series could be challenged under the Trades Descriptions Act for calling itself A History of Britain.

"Wales and Scotland existed in the series only when the English looked at them," Prof Harvie said. "I want to know why the BBC has sponsored such an insensitively anglocentric production."

Prof Harvie complained that the final volume of Schama's trilogy had only 11 index references to Scotland in its 560 pages. "We have an over-centralised media and publishing structure which doesn't connect with any life north of the M25," he argued.

He also complained about Schama's reference to devolution by comparing it with the disintegration of nations in the Balkans. "Why should post-imperial Britain not resemble the happy patchwork of nations that is post-communist Yugoslavia?" Schama wrote.

Other leading Scottish historians joined the disapproval, with Professor Ted Cowan, of Glasgow University, saying: "Instead of pretending England is the most important, we should be taking a more measured look at history. It is very much a one-man show which is an old-fashioned way to do things. We should have debates between historians instead of having one man blathering away about England."

Schama hit back at his critics by saying it would be wrong to produce a "tokenistic" history. He added: "The programme on Britannia Incorporated began with Glencoe and ended with Robert Adam and Adam Smith. Five out of 15 programmes dealt in a significant way with Scottish history."

He also pointed out that the series discussed Robert the Bruce and William Wallace extensively and devoted a whole episode to Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots.

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