by Sarah Crome
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. They really do believe we are the King and Queen, so we have a duty to deliver historical messages as accurately as we can. Organisations such as Historic Environment Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland carefully prepare the living history characters they employ. For example, Marie de Guise and the other royal ladies at Stirling Castle are natural French speakers and give a real insight into the cultural background of their lives.
However, sometimes there is a danger of creating entertainment with inaccurate adherence to historical truths and the ‘real’ stories can get lost. The historical re-enactor Aidan Turnbull states that ‘We are here so people don’t need to read the book’. But I would take issue with this because surely our aim is to get people to pick up the book and look further into their history. Indeed, I found it much easier to absorb the information in a book because I felt I had already ‘been there’ and had experienced it. Paul Robson, head of events at English Heritage, claims that with re-enactment, ‘We try to recreate the past, recreate an atmosphere, recreate authenticity – but also fun‘. But if you are re-visiting the past and making it ‘fun’, how accurate can you be? Re-enactment companies can sometimes give the audience what they ‘expect’ to see rather than what they ‘should’ see. If you re-enacted the Battle of Bannockburn accurately it would surely have to carry an age content warning. So maybe the intention is not to be ‘accurate’ in that sense but to inspire as accurately as you can.
Nevertheless, is it okay to compromise on historical accuracy to bring history to life? There is a real challenge to present history in the name of entertainment. For example, the medieval period spans hundreds of years and quite often a medieval event will present different eras as if they are contemporary with each other. The IMCF World Medieval Combat Championships at Scone palace in 2019 was, strictly speaking, a sporting event, not re-enactment and there were many side shows involved, ourselves included. But the date of our period was early fourteenth century, and the main event was combat from the early fifteenth century. Would the crowds notice the difference between our king’s simple chainmail and the plate armour associated with a later period? Putting it in perspective, it would be like transporting ourselves back to the ‘Roaring ‘20s’ dressed in our twenty-first-century clothing. We would really look out of place. And there will always be anachronisms around: an ambulance lurking in the background for health and safety reasons; or a public address system delivering commentary; participants wearing microphones and making modern jokes to engage the audience.
Of course, re-enactment is not all about recreating battles. There is also the need to educate audiences about domestic life, and the teaching of traditional skills. Many of us learn more by ‘doing’ rather than simply ‘watching’ and in that respect, participating in the events by taking part in activities such as how they cooked, made medicines, dyed their clothes, wrote letters or made their weapons makes a lasting imprint on our memories. There are now hundreds of groups and societies promoting re-enactment events and this is a testament to its popularity. When it comes to the presentation of our heritage, people always want more, and there is a lot on offer. Many can be found on the Re-enactment Scotland website; all are run by dedicated, enthusiastic performers and educators, seeking to inspire future generations to understand our past with a little more excitement.
Sarah Crome BA (Hons) FSA Scot, has worked as a graphic designer for the heritage industry for thirty years, creating exhibitions, trails and publications for historical projects in Scotland and the wider UK. In the last ten years she became involved in re-enactment and living history as a way of communicating stories about our past. With her partner, Paul Hunter, she formed The Regal Storytellers and, characterised as Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh, they have visited schools, historical venues such as Rosslyn Chapel, Stirling Castle and Scone Palace as well as the Edinburgh Fringe. Sarah is now an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow, studying for an MA (Hons) in Scottish History and Classics.