Re-enactment and Living History experiences have become a major vehicle for heritage organisations to present the past to a demanding audience and, therefore, to inspire children, families and those with a passing interest into the further study of history. Almost all of us have attended a historical re-enactment event at some point in our lives, bringing history to life in a way that no book or classroom ever could. My own fascination with history began when I was twelve years old with a school visit to see the Sealed Knot re-enact the 1642 Battle of Edgehill. Now, after years of visiting schools and historic sites myself with my partner, dressed as King Robert the Bruce and his Queen, Elizabeth de Burgh, we are always amazed at the reaction of children.
In pre-war days, cinema was a popular Scottish pastime. Admission charges were very low, making it a relatively affordable leisure option. It was especially popular with the working classes and with youths, demonstrated by a 1937 survey that found 36% of West Lothian children attended the cinema at least once a week. During the war, cinema continued as one of Scotland’s most popular forms of entertainment. In response to a 1943 questionnaire on cinema habits, Scottish respondents mentioned the pleasure of being able to lose oneself in a film featuring a favourite actor, going to the cinema ‘for a good laugh’, and using film as a way of avoiding ‘the usual fit of depression of a Saturday afternoon’.
People have been researching history through objects for centuries. The Antiquarians of the eighteenth-century fascinated over artefacts as survivors from ancient pasts. Most of us are familiar with looking at objects in museums as a way to learn about history. Historical artefacts offer a tangible connection to past peoples and places. But when we are taught the basics of history in school – and, indeed, in the early years of university history training – ‘things’ are rarely presented as historical sources. Often they are used as illustrative material, or supporting artefacts for documentary sources. Through this learning resource, I wanted to introduce school pupils to the ways in which they can examine material culture as evidence. It encourages them to consider the objects themselves but also the way people used, exchanged, and thought about things in the past to shed light on broader cultural, social, economic, and political histories.
The ‘Who Owned Scotland’ conference was hosted by the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland in June 2021. It presented an exciting opportunity to discuss the past, present and future of Scottish land ownership. The panels covered an impressive range of topics and periods to address the layered and complex relationships between land, resources and people, and the event was particularly strong in linking historical topics to themes as varied as social justice, heritage and literature. Who had access to land? Who did not? Working on the emergence of production-driven attitudes to landscape in the eighteenth-century Scottish Highlands, the conference resonated with my own research and led me to reflect on what ‘ownership’ means then and now.
At the heart of so many Scottish towns and cities stands a mercat cross. First recorded in the late twelfth century, mercat crosses signaled a Royal Burgh’s unique trading privileges and its direct relationship with the crown. These crosses also became focal points for legal and political practises: sites for enacting justice; platforms for promulgating official proclamations; meeting spaces for burgh magistrates in lieu of a tolbooth or town house.
When I first began my research on the royal seals of Scotland, I had to repeatedly convince friends and family that I wasn’t studying semi-aquatic marine mammals. Instead, my work focused on wax impressions that might have been attached to documents such as charters. Less cute but, to my mind, incredibly interesting. So, why did I want to study seals? What fascinated me was the way in which a seal was both a practical object, used almost as an alternative to a written signature, and a symbolic object, which could embody the presence of the sealer and assert something about how they wished to be perceived.
In March 1700, the Scots colony of New Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama was abandoned for the second time. Already overwhelmed by “the Extreamity of famine” the previous year, the colony was finally and forcefully dislodged by the Spanish. Despite the ultimate failure of the colonial project, the Darien scheme – by its very existence – underlined a fundamental contradiction in Iberian colonial doctrines of occupation and highlighted a significant chink in the imperial armour of the “Spanish” Americas.