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Series / A History of Scotland

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"I want to look beyond the legends, to find the real story of Scotland. And it's every bit as thrilling."
Neil Oliver (Series One, Episode One)

Running from November 2008 to November 2009, A History of Scotland was an ambitious documentary made by The BBC exploring the history of Scotland. Presented and narrated by author, broadcaster and archaeologist Neil Oliver, the series was first broadcast on BBC One Scotland and consisted of ten sixty-minute episodes spread over two series.

Consisting of shots of the presenter strolling dramatically across Scotland's beautiful natural landscape, historical reconstructions to accompany Neil Oliver's narration and a kick-ass original musical score by James Newton Howard, the series aspired to add a sense of drama and romance to the show rather than create another dry, matter-of-fact history lecture. Whether this adds to the experience or detracts from the show's capacity to educate the viewer is a matter for the viewer.


Series One:

  • Episode One: The Last of the Free
    At the dawn of the first millennia, there was no Scotland or England. In the first episode Oliver reveals the mystery of how the Gaelic Scottish Kingdom - Alba - was born, and why its role in one of the greatest battles ever fought on British soil defined the shape of Britain in the modern era.
  • Episode Two: Hammers of the Scots
    Oliver charts the 13th century story of the two men who helped transform the Gaelic kingdom of Alba into the Scotland of today. While Alexander II forged Scotland in blood and violence, William Wallace's resistance to King Edward I of England hammered national consciousness into the Scots.
  • Episode Three: Bishop Makes King
    Robert the Bruce's 22-year struggle to secure the Scots' independence is one of the most important chapters in Scotland's story. Oliver explores the role the Scottish church played in promoting Robert Bruce, the propaganda campaigns, both at home and abroad, and how the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath persuaded The Pope to finally recognise Scotland as an independent nation.
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  • Episode Four: Language Is Power
    At one time, Gaelic Scotland - the people and the language - was central to the identity of Scots. But as Oliver reveals, Scotland's infamous Highland/Lowland divide was the result of a family struggle that divided the kingdom. This is the story of how the policies of the Stewart royal family in the 15th century led to the Gaels being perceived as rebels and outsiders.
  • Episode Five: Project Britain
    Oliver describes how the ambitions of two of Scotland's Stuart monarchs were the driving force that united two ancient enemies, and set them on the road to the Great Britain we know today. While Mary Queen of Scots plotted to usurp Elizabeth I and seize the throne of England, her son James dreamt of a more radical future: a Protestant Great Britain.

Series Two:

  • Episode One: God's Chosen People
    Neil Oliver continues his journey through Scotland's past with the story of the Covenanters, whose profound religious beliefs were declared in the National Covenant of 1638. This document licensed revolution, started the Civil War that cost King Charles I his head, cost tens of thousands of Scots their lives and led to Britain's first war on terror.
  • Episode Two: Let's Pretend
    Bitterly divided by politics and religion for centuries, this is the infamous story of how Scotland and England came together in 1707 to form Great Britain. Over time the Union matured into one of the longest in European history, but it very nearly ended in divorce. Exploiting the Union's unpopularity, the exiled Stuarts staged several comebacks, selling themselves as a credible and liberal alternative to the Hanoverian regime. Neil Oliver reveals just how close they came to succeeding.
  • Episode Three: The Price of Progress
    Through the winning and losing of an American empire and the impact of the Scottish Enlightenment, Neil Oliver reveals how in the second half of the 18th century Scotland was transformed from a poor northern backwater with a serious image problem into one of the richest nations on Earth. This was the dawn of the modern age when Scotland made its mark on the world by exporting its most valuable commodities - its people and ideas.
  • Episode Four: This Land is our Land
    At the start of the 19th century, everything familiar was swept away. People fled from the countryside into the industrial towns of Scotland's Central Belt. Rural workers became factory workers - in some of the worst conditions in Europe. This new Scotland became a seedbed of revolution. But it wasn't just force that kept the Scottish people in their place, it was fantasy. Neil Oliver reveals how Sir Walter Scott created so powerful a myth, it haunts the Scots collective imagination to this day.
  • Episode Five: Project Scotland
    As a partner in The British Empire, Scotland began the 20th century with an advanced economy and a world-beating heavy industry. But in the closing decades its sense of Britishness was in doubt and a Scottish Parliament sat in Edinburgh for the first time since 1707. Charting Scotland's darkest century, Neil Oliver discovers a country driven to self-determination through a series of economic crises so deep that her most striking export became her own disillusioned population.

Examples of Tropes found in this series:

  • Abdicate the Throne: Constantine II did this voluntarily after fourty-two years as King, and went on to live in a cave as a holy man.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Alexander II The Great, crowned at 16.
    • David II, who succeeded his father, Robert the Bruce, when just five years old.
    • James III was eight when he became King.
    • Taken to ludicrous extremes when Mary I became Queen while six days old after the death of James V.
  • Arranged Marriage: Several, mostly of the bureaucratic kind.
    • Edward I wanted his son and heir to marry the very young Queen Margaret to secure England's control over Scotland. If failed when she died before this could happen.
    • Henry VIII thought-up the same plan and wanted his son to marry the very young Queen Mary of Scotland to bring Scotland under English control. He had the added pressure of fearing that Scotland would serve as a willing invasion point for Anglican England's Catholic enemies on the continent.
  • Artistic License – History: Discussed. Mistakes in popular perceptions of Scotland's history are often pointed out.
  • BFG: Mons Meg, the cannon given to James II by the Duke of Burgundy as a wedding present.
  • Big Fancy House: James I liked to build these, even though he couldn't afford it.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The MacDonald's during the fighting between John MacDonald and his son, Angus Orr.
  • William Wallace
  • British Brevity: Just ten episodes in two series.
  • Buy Them Off: Edward The First's tactics for keeping the peace post-1305.
  • The Chessmaster: Edward The First utilised Scotland's Succession Crisis to give himself effective control over the country.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: In the Barons' War, the rebelling English nobles switched from fighting with Alexander II against their own King to siding with said King's son against Alexander II.
    • Side-switching was a recurring element in the War of Independence.
  • The Church: The Scottish branches, of course, play a big role in Scotland's story.
  • Civil War: Several cases.
    • The feud between The Stuart's and the MacDonald's tended to become this.
  • The Clan: Of the Scottish type and the given definition.
    • The MacDonald's, who effectively had their own mini-Kingdom with the prestigious title of Lord of the Isles.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered in London before execution, largely as depicted in Braveheart.
    • The same treatment was inflicted upon Robert the Bruce's brother by Edward I.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: James II had this going on over John MacDonald and William, The Black Douglas.
  • Creepy Souvenir: After Edward I's treasurer Hugh Cressingham was killed at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, William Wallace has his skin turned into a sword belt.
  • Culture Clash: Between the Scots-speaking Lowlanders and the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The battle of Dun Nechtan - the Picts lured the Northumbrian army into unfamilliar territory and slaughtered them, putting an end to the Northumbrian hegemony in the North
    • Inflicted by William Wallace's army on the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Edward The First returned the favour at Falirk.
    • Edward's generals inflicted something similar on Robert the Bruce's rebellion, forcing him to go on the run.
    • James I's troops suffered this at Inverlochy.
  • Darkest Hour: The treatment given to the situation after William Wallace's death in 1305.
  • Deal with the Devil: The Ragman Rolls and John Baliol accepting Edward I as overlord.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Several people are named after dead relatives and/or predecessors.
  • Death by Irony: James II loved guns... until his BFG exploded in his face.
  • Decisive Battle: "The Great Battle" at Brunanburgh in 937, which (more or less) shaped the boundaries between Constantine's Scotland and Aethelstan's England. Ironically, neither side claimed much of a real victory.
    • Robert the Bruce's famous victory at Bannockburn in 1314.
  • Distinguishing Mark: James II was known as "James the Firey-Face" because of the red birthmark on his face.
  • The Don: Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, was basically this for the Gaelic-speaking Western Isles, to the extent that he was known as the "King of the Hebridies".
  • Double Standard: Lampshaded by the Scots in their negotiations with Edward II when they pointed out that The House of Normandy and The House of Plantagenet were both illegitimate and the result of a foreign invasion. They used this to argue that Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, was, as the sole living member of the House of Wessex, also the only legitimate King of England!
  • Downer Beginning: Episode one opens with the legend of Calgacus losing the Battle of Mons Graupius to the invading Romans.
  • The Dreaded: The Vikings to Dark Age Scotland.
    Neil Oliver: This is what the end of the world looks like. This is the end of everything that you've ever known and held dear.
  • Elective Monarchy: Claimed, at least to a degree, as the justification for Robert the Bruce replacing John Baliol: if the current King is useless, he has violated his contract with the people and should be replaced with someone more suitable. Its appearance in the Declaration of the Clergy and the Declaration of Arbroath has led some to call these documents a kind of proto-American Declaration of Independence.
  • The Empire: England are characterised this way during The Middle Ages, mostly for dramatic effect.
  • End of an Age: The end of Gaelic Scotland's Golden Age with the collapse of the MacDonald's, and the passing of the title "Lord of the Isles" to James IV.
  • Enemy Mine: One response by the early Scottish kingdom's to the Vikings.
    • Constantine II then does with the Nordic king against Aethelstan, King of England.
    • Alexander II later allied himself with the English nobles who penned the Magna Carta, against England's King John.
    • A frequent habit of both Scotland and France, who tended to ally against England. The "Auld Alliance" is still a term recognised today as a result.
    • Edward IV of England allying with the MacDonald and Douglas families against Scotland's young King, James III.
  • Evil Overlord: King John of England, from Alexander II's perspective.
  • The Exile: After Giric killed and replaced King Aed, Aed's son Constantine and nephew Donald fled to Ireland.
    • John Baliol in France during the First War of Independence.
    • Mary of Scotland in France.
  • Feuding Families: The Baliol's/Comyn's and the Bruce's, feuding over the crown.
    • The Stuart and the MacDonald family, which came to shape Scotland's political and cultural destiny.
  • Flower Motifs: The Scottish Thistle, first adopted as an emblem by James IV, which eventually became a symbol of the whole of Scotland.
  • Humiliation Conga: Alexander II was betrayed by his allies, excommunicated by The Pope and forced to pay homage to the nine-year old Henry III of England.
  • Idiot Ball: The English commanders at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
    • James I has his enemy Alexander MacDonald imprisoned twice... and twice lets him walk free. The first instance leads to an open rebellion against him and the second time is seen as the ultimate show of weakness - leading to James' assassination.
  • I Have Your Wife: Edward I's army captured and held Robert the Bruce's wife and daughter during the early stages of his rebellion.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One!: William Wallace during his trial at Westminster. Accused of murder, arson, destruction of property and sacrilege, he only spoke when accused of treason - pointing out that he had never sworn allegiance to Edward I to begin with.
  • Just the First Citizen: How the Lords generally viewed the King (if he was popular) prior to the return of James I. James had other ideas.
  • Kick the Dog: Alexander II went as far as to kill a baby girl to make sure that his reign couldn't be challenged.
  • Kill 'Em All: Alexander II's approach to tackling disobedient lords.
    • Edward I's solution to Scotland's rebelliousness. At Berwick, for example.
    • How Robert the Bruce tackled the rival Comyn family.
  • King on His Deathbed: Robert the Bruce. He got better. For a while.
  • La Résistance: The Scottish side is generally presented this way whenever conflicts with England are focused on.
    • The Scots in the First War of Independence.
  • Left Hanging: Episode Three ends with the five year old David II becoming King and England invading once again. Episode Four picks up years later, with King David having died and The House of Stuart ascended to the throne.
  • Legend Fades to Myth: What happened to the Picts.
    "We see that the Picts have now been wiped out and their language also is totally destroyed, so that they seem to be a fable we find mentioned in old writings"
    Archdeacon of Huntington on the Picts in 1140
  • Living MacGuffin: James I of Scotland, held captive by the English since he was 12 years old as a bargaining chip.
  • Puppet King: John Baliol. Was treated this way both by his overlord Edward I and the Lords that ended up running the country in opposition to Edward.
    • Henry V of England planned to use James I of Scotland, who had been an English captive since he was 12, like this to prevent the Scots fighting against him in The Hundred Years War.
  • The Quisling: King John (Baliol), who accepted Edward I as overlord in exchange for the Scottish crown. Although Baliol drew the line at being instructed to go fight in France on Edward's behalf.
  • Rags to Royalty: The House of Stuart's rise from hostages and prisoners to being the dominant force in the British isles.
  • Rightful King Returns: Cousins Donald and Constantine taking their families kingdom back from the usurper, Giric, circa 899.
    • Averted with John Baliol, who was content to hide out in France rather than try and resume his rule.
    • Robert the Bruce returning from hiding to fight for the Crown.
    • A less heroic example with James I, who was ransomed back because his English captors didn't see any value in holding him any more.
  • Scotireland: The Gaels, who arrived in the west of Scotland from Ireland and eventually become the dominant group.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Henry VIII wanted to Mary of Scotland to marry his son in order to prevent Scotland siding with his European enemies. Only during his war to try and force this through did France side with Scotland and arrange for the marriage of Mary into the French royal family, fulfilling Henry's fears.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Scotland's very early history.
    • This was exploited by the Scots Church when trying to win favour with The Pope in 1301; they spun him an elaborate story about how Scots are directly descended from ancient Israelites.
  • Siege Engines: Edward I built what was then the biggest trebuchet ever constructed to take Stirling Castle. He called it "Warwolf".
  • Spanner in the Works: Robert the Bruce murdering John Comyn, messing up most of the plan to get Bruce on the throne.
  • Succession Crisis: Caused by the sudden deaths of the Alexander III and his only heir, his three-year old granddaughter Margaret. Two competing claims to the throne, from John Baliol and Robert Bruce, nearly led to Civil War. Then up stepped Edward I...
    • Later happened in England, when the deaths of most of The Tudors left Henry VIII's illegitimate daughter Elizabeth and Mary of Scotland as the two competing claimants to being Queen of England.
  • Taking Up the Mantle: Robert the Bruce as the Scottish leader in the First War of Independence.
  • Take That!
    "The English had had enough, so they did what had become the traditional thing when faced with a Scottish army, its feet and spears firmly planted on the ground: they ran away."
  • These Hands Have Killed: Robert the Bruce's lifelong reaction to killing his rival, John Comyn, in a Dumfries Church.
  • Time Skip: Each episode tends to jump a few centuries ahead of where the last one ended.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Alexander III lost his wife and all three children in the space of nine years.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Edward I was invited to mediate on Scotland's Succession Crisis. He ended up taking over as overlord.
  • Unexplained Recovery: Robert the Bruce was dying of an unknown illness... then he was ok again for unknown reasons.
  • Warrior Monk: Bishop Robert Wishart and Bishop William Lamberton, who masterminded Robert I's rebellion.
  • What Could Have Been: Mary of Scotland was nearly nearly Mary of Scotland, England AND France.
  • WHAM Line
    "It's mid-winter, 1230. A horrific scene is played out in the middle of a busy market square: An infant child is held up to the crowds. Seconds later, she's dead. Her small corpse lies discarded in the mud, her brains splattered across the column of the market cross."
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Real Life example with the Picts, who simply vanished from the records with very little trace when the Kingdom of Scotland first appeared in them.
  • Wild Wilderness: The Scottish Highlands: "Britain's last great wilderness; a place as beautiful as it is barren".
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: averted by Alexander II.
  • Young Conqueror: Alexander II. After his English allies turned on him he abandoned the north of England and he embarked on a campaign to bring the largely independent Scottish Highland's under his control.


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