By Tim Porteus

WHAT is history? It isn’t actually what happened in the past. History is the way we view and see things that happened in the past. That view is limited by a number of factors. The availability of surviving records and evidence is one.

The vast majority of what happened in the past is inevitably lost to us. This is true even for our own personal memories. So history is the small tip of the iceberg of events and times gone by, brought to the surface by the survival of some accounts more than others.

And these records are never unbiased. Often historical records and evidence are purposely partial, influenced by ideology and personal allegiances. But all are biased in some way, as the limited viewpoint and interests of those recording events is based on their experience or motives.

As a result, we can only see historical events through a narrow keyhole, with most characters and goings on out of view. It’s the common people who are most always invisible in history. Our own ideological preference and belief in what is important will then affect how we interpret the limited evidence we have.

This is why history is often subject to furious debate, and rightly so. I’d say it’s almost impossible not to allow our own perspectives, interests and values to influence the way we interpret the broader meaning of historical events and their significance for contemporary society.

Such a debate is being had in East Lothian just now, as to the name of the new town to be built on the Blindwells site, between Prestonpans and Longniddry and just to the north of Gladsmuir and Tranent.

The name can be romantically translated to mean ‘hidden springs’ and it was across this once-marshy ground that the Jacobites crept stealthily at night to mount a surprise attack on the Redcoats on September 21, 1745. That famous battle lasted 15 minutes and was a victory for the Jacobites, and the launchpad of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s march into England.

Consequently, the Scottish Battlefields Trust has submitted a petition, as reported in the Courier last week, to name the new community Charlestoun and build a statue of Charles.

When I was at school, he seemed a dashing and heroic figure. The songs and stories about him are infectious and I totally understand how the stories told about him have created a romantic and thrilling image.

But then I studied the topic in more depth, at both university and afterwards. The period has suffered from the romantic treatment but there are fascinating stories of loyalty and sacrifice to a man who, in reality, saw the common people chiefly as cannon fodder for his personal and family ambitions.

It is for this reason I feel there are enough name places and statues to aristocratic and powerful men whose main historical role was to make and wage war, even if he has a famous and romantic reputation.

This is not to say we shouldn’t remember the fascinating history of the area, including that fateful day of battle when the Jacobites crossed the land.

But it’s how we commemorate it and who we include. What makes the Jacobite period truly fascinating is the tapestry of stories of the many people involved, on both sides. It was a brutal time, in which there was certainly deep loyalty on both sides, but there were many other reasons why people found themselves on one side or the other. It was a brutal civil war, brought on by the aspirations of the exiled Stuarts.

Do we commemorate the memory of the man who caused that war or do we commemorate those who were caught up in it? Is it really the case that if we do the former we do the latter? I’m not convinced.

There are other stories to consider of course for the site. There was coal mining there for generations. The lives of mining families, men, women and children who toiled in horrific conditions, still remains mostly unheralded by history. Maybe it’s not ‘romantic’ enough. Likewise with farming, which was a constant economic activity in the area for generations.

There was also another unusual underground activity on the site after the early mine closed. Smugglers made an illegal whisky still deep down in the mine shaft once it was disused. It took a while for the customs men to realise East Lothian had an illicit whisky-making enterprise deep below ground in the old mine workings. When they finally raided the mine, they found the still, but no sign of the makers of the whisky. It kind of gives new meaning to the name ‘hidden springs’!

It is suggested the children in schools should have the final say in the new name, which is a great idea. But let our children be introduced to all aspects of our local history and allow them to understand how the way history is taught influences what we believe is important in contemporary society as well, and that there is no ‘correct’ view on this.

I’d love to be part of that discussion and debate.