OK – the final word on the History Festival. Was there a funnier gig last week than the closing event? I rather wager there wasn't – and since five learned academics were hogging the stage at the Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh, one of Scotland's regular comedy venues was out of commission anyway. Why history in a comedy club? Why not – the strike on November 30th meant university venues were out. Then a late run on tickets meant smaller alternative venues weren't big enough. So me ol mucker from NI-- Tommy Shepherd – gave the venue free and gratis to diminutive comedienne and History Festival organiser Susan Morrison (or Sumo as we are not to call her).
The slightly counter-cultural nature of the venue transformed the night. Or to put it mair succinctly, the boffins lightened up. Indeed the Worshipful Tom illuminated the proceedings like an incandescent lightbulb – the kind that sputters into brilliant 100 watt clarity and then leaves you stottering aboot in the dark awhile. But not for long.
Prof D was preceded by four historians each addressing the same subject for ten minutes apiece – and it was this.
Historically, we tend to view the drain of people from Scotland's shores in the light of loss. But is this necessarily the case? Could Scotland's diaspora be an advantage to our small nation?
It was a high-powered line-up – Strathclyde's Professor Richard Finlay, Aberdeen's Dr Andrew MacKillop, Glasgow's Dr Catriona MM Macdonald and Edinburgh's Frank Cogliano. It would be hard to summarise their arguments. Some felt the forcible migration of hundreds of thousands of Scots since the 15th century had helped Scotland be relieving pressure on those who remained behind. Richard Finlay (somehow) calculated we would have a population of 8million today if they had all stayed. I observed that we might also have had the intolerable population pressure that prompted revolution or at the very least radical realignment of wealth in other countries – and that migration rather let the steam out of the system. No-one really agreed with this at the time, though on the way out Mackie (Mr MacKillop) observed (and I paraphrase heavily) that miserable poverty, starvation and emigration in Scotland seemed to prompt spurts of religious rather than political zeal. On stage others observed that cash followed migrants out of Scotland and never returned. Rates of return were given on various investments – sheep farming in Oz and railway construction in Canada gave ten times higher yields than iron or coal mining in Scotland. Another inconvenient truth was the way Empire opened doors for literate Scots – at one point it seems half the doctors in Europe were Scots and many of the engineers.
Maddeningly I have mislaid the copious notes I took that night. Doubtless to be rediscovered the minute I hit the "post" button. So for any misconstruing of expert arguments in the jottings above I hereby apologise.
For anyone who has any clout with the Scottish Government can someone please persuade Fiona Hyslop to give Not Sumo some cash next year? She's proved the impossible can be done on a shoestring – it doesn't need megabucks but a modest budget could at least pay train fares for speakers, hire large venues like the Stand throughout and get enough publicity to give folk from outside Edinburgh the chance to attend.
And a final well done to Susan and Ian Harrower for this year's wonderfully original, argumentative and interactive History Festival.