Scotland's History Festival uncovers our amazing past over four event-packed days in Edinburgh

WITH presentations on everything from embalming to witchcraft, Previously... Scotland's History Festival returns to the Capital on Thursday 21 November with events that are sure to capture the imagination right from day one.

Tuesday, 19th November 2019, 4:55 pm
Updated Wednesday, 20th November 2019, 2:31 pm
Susan Morrison

Indeed, it opens with the strikingly titled Satan and the Scots, in which Dr Mikki Brock will explore the relationship between Satan and the Scots. It's just one event in the festival's eclectic four-day programme.

Festival organiser, stand-up and Evening News columnist Susan Morrison admits, "We're always stunned by the people who come to us with fabulous subjects like how to pickle your body or why Scottish DNA is so fiendishly complicated. Our history and our historians are incredible and it's great to be able to offer them a stage."

Another of those historians is David Weinczok whose presentation, The Scottish History Behind Game of Thrones: The North Remembers, reflects that in Scotland, Westeros is all around you and promises to let you 'Discover the battles, locations, characters, conspiracies and castles from Scottish history that inspired events in Game of Thrones'.

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The Herring Gutters

Both events, like the others taking part in Previously... will take place at the French Institute, the festival's new home for 2019.

"The French Institute is our partner and offered us the spaces. It's a gorgeous building. It's the most perfect winter venue with an air of French sophistication about it. How do they do THAT?," says Susan, with a smile. "On the down side, the rooms have the names of famous French people. They made me do German at school, so I'm finding this a challenge. I've discovered that mumbling fake French sounding words doesn't work."

In those rooms, eclectic snapshots of Scotland's past will unfold, day two of the festival is a typical example.

Events on Friday 22 November start with an Industrial History Panel, continue with The Physix, in which Siân Hickson will regale the story of six physicists, all women from the mid 18th century to present day, and conclude with It was Twenty Years Ago Today … from 1999 to the Present, a look at recent politics and The Whiskey Rebellion, a live audience podcast with Frank Cogliano and David Silkenat discussing the history of US-French relations.


Reflecting on the fascination tales of the past hold for us, Susan explains, "History is not just about battles, Kings and Queens, it's about your family and their stories, and our festival wants to stimulate people into looking for those stories in their past.

"On the bigger stage, Scottish history has never been more popular. It's that time travelling nurse and her hunky Jacobite, I think. Even the mighty Game of Thrones owes a debt to our homicidal maniacs with titles. People want to know more about our history, all of it, even the stories we might not like. I'm always delighted when Scots have the courage to face some of our darker history.

"Scotland's involvement in the slave trade is coming to light, but we are looking at and acknowledging our role in a sober and reflective manner. Andrew Learmont's event explores the way one family profited from this terrible trade, and his walking tour takes you round the New Town."

It's certainly true that, in time, everyone becomes a part of history and on Saturday 23 November in From Family History to Published Book, Pam Wardell will reveal the practical ways you can bring family history to life and document it for future generations.

Other topics to be covered on Saturday include Ways of Seeing, Remembering Partition, Beauty in Hell: Heroes from the Soviet Gulag and Bringing up the Bodies: A Potted History of Preserving Human Remains with Cat Irving.

Saturday's programme is completed by Pabay, in which Chris Whatley tells of life on the tiny uninhabited island, Medieval Sex Lives (6pm-7pm), with Dr Gillian Jack reflecting on the medieval church's rules about sex, and On a Mission: The Adventures of Mary Slessor, in which Sir Tom Devine revisits the life of the Scottish missionary.

Susan adds, "The more you discover, the more you find you want to discover. One tiny fact can lead not on to a garden path, but an entire six-lane motorway, complete with diversions.

"I've developed an interest in Scotland's contribution to medical history. Take chemotherapy. Uncovered because of a wartime bombing mission. Yes. Really. Amazing. For a small country, we have a lot of history."

This year's Previously... concludes on Sunday 24 November with an equally mixed offering starting with the Gaelic Songs of Herring Gutters, sung for more than 100 years by the Hebridean women who travelled all over Scotland gutting herring. In The Forgotten Women of the French Revolution, writer David Mountain explores the forgotten accounts of women during this turbulent time.

Later, The Rise and Fall of the City of Money with Ray Perman, recalls how the Darien disaster of 1700 drove Scotland into union with England and how Edinburgh rose to become a global beacon for the financial world. Finally, in Why is Scots DNA so complicated?, Dr Bruce Durie reveals that Scots are at least five different historic peoples, which makes it impossible to answer the question, What is Scottish DNA? in simple terms.

As for the Festival itself, which is now securing its very own place in Scottish history, it is early days with much more still to come, promises Susan.

"In evolutionary terms, we're just at the microbe phase," she says.

Previously... Scotland's History Festival, Institut Français d'Ecosse, West Parliament Square, Thursday 21-Sunday 24 November, events tickets from £5 each, for full programme visit