Scottish records, academic history, and higher education


The following paper was a talk given at Pass It On! Celebrating Scotland’s Sporting Heritage: Friday, 24 February 2017 at the University of Stirling Library.

Quite a few of you in this room know me, but for those who don’t, I am a lecturer at Edinburgh University on the BSc Sport and Recreation Management programme. I additionally supervise dissertations on the MSc Sport Policy, Management, and International Development course. I am, however, an historian: I completed my PhD in Scottish history at Glasgow University in 2010. So, I am an historian working on academic programmes which train students for employment in the broad sport, leisure, and (to an extent) tourism industries. So my paper today has three purposes:

  • A discussion of some of my own academic research: the sources I use, and my thoughts on publishing my work.
  • How I utilise my research in a sport and recreation management classroom: both on its own, and as an effort to teach research methods skills.
  • For my brief conclusion – and here is a challenge for the audience here – bringing a healthy tension back to “history” and “heritage”, and allowing us to celebrate Scotland’s sporting heritage while also using it to make critical points about the larger history of the nation and its external relationships.

My PhD research, which I followed up on in my postdoctoral years, was on the culture and patronage of association football in the west of Scotland, up to the Ibrox disaster of 1902. Having an already-sizeable chunk of the historiography on the Old Firm of Celtic and Rangers allowed me to look at other clubs, other communities, and different phenomena. It also shifted my focus onto different newspapers: long-forgotten titles like the Partick and Maryhill Press, the Kilmarnock Herald (not to be confused with the Kilmarnock Standard), and the Johnstone Advertiser – along with more used titles like early sports newspapers Scottish Referee and Scottish Athletic Journal, which also discussed football clubs’ social gatherings and columnists’ nights on the town alongside match accounts. Much of the initial research was completed at the Mitchell Library, but it also meant train voyages to libraries and heritage centres in Paisley, Irvine, Motherwell and elsewhere.

My other postdoctoral research shifted gears towards more contemporary phenomena, less football-themed and more events-based. I had originally intended my second book to focus on the culture and politics of sport on the Firth of Clyde. I had only gotten part of the way with this in 2012 when Dr. Fiona Skillen at Glasgow Caledonian University offered me the opportunity to work jointly on two Commonwealth Games-related projects: 1) academic research on the history of the 1970 and 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh; and 2) a project that Fiona had pitched developing an app examining Glasgow’s sporting heritage. Whilst our work on the app was completed fairly fast, we still continue to write material on 1970 and 1986, the latter of which was controversial at the time and a now-famous failure of mega-event planning. For 1970, we examined Games records housed in the National Records of Scotland (NRS), whilst for 1986 we made use of official records in the Edinburgh City Archives. For both, we also utilised hard-bound volumes of Edinburgh newspapers housed in the National Library of Scotland (NLS).

The 1986 Games’ boycott by African, Caribbean, and Asian nations – designed to penalise the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher for its trade relationship with South Africa – led us to more broadly examine Scotland and its relationships with Anti-Apartheid and the white-supremacist regimes of southern Africa, specifically South Africa and Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. In turn, this vein led to a forthcoming article by myself in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies which examines Clyde’s and Kilmarnock’s 1969 and 1970 tours (respectively) of Zimbabwe during the regime of Ian Smith. Here, I had initially hoped to use oral histories from players, in concert with the papers of the UK Minister for Sport Denis Howell (housed in the NRS). Whilst the latter were easy to access, it proved difficult to arrange meetings with ex-players, and I thus discovered an alternative: Rhodesia’s two major daily newspapers, housed in the British Library in London on microfilm.

As anyone who has followed my Twitter feed in the past few weeks knows, I have been working on a potential book project. This focuses on something very different: surfing and community in Caithness from 1970 onwards, itself partly a product of internal migration pulled towards work at the new Dounreay nuclear plant. My initial research included a different kind of source material than I have previously used: surfing magazines, specifically old issues of mainstay British title Wavelength. Back issues of it aren’t typically based in archives, so it necessitated a trip to Wavelength’s offices in a Newquay caravan to view them. The main portion of the research, however, will be via interviews. (It is worth noting that Thurso’s surfing scene is now receiving popular cultural attention, in the form of a documentary on CBBC’s My Life about local teenage surfer Iona McLachlan.)

I am, however, also proceeding with work on another project at the same time. I have always been interested in the idea of “North Atlantic” popular culture, and Scotland’s place within it. One of my past projects was an examination of the early tours of Scottish football clubs of Denmark, starting with Queen’s Park in 1898. This first trip, barely reported on within the press, was served by some material in the Scottish Football Museum, but the bulk of the research was based in Copenhagen, specifically the Danish State Archives and the Royal Library. Later, pre-First World War trips were covered extensively by Denmark’s newspapers, and by the pro-Celtic Glasgow Observer and the pro-Rangers Glasgow News. To that end, my next project will combine elements of this and my work on the Commonwealth Games: a book-sized project on the history of the Island Games, first initiated in 1985 in the Isle of Man. (I have already been to the Public Record Office of the Isle of Man and the Manx National Heritage Library in connection with this project, which will of course include Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles.)

In an academic context, what has any of this amounted to? My first book came out in 2013, based on my PhD thesis. It is very expensive, and it took three years after signing my contract for it to come out. I had initially been preoccupied with the death of my father back in New Jersey in 2010, and on my return was balancing a deeply precarious employment situation – both within academia and in hospitality. Content and cost were secondary to getting the book out and reviewed – and thus finding a way to get myself a job. Although my book has been well-reviewed (including by Andy Mitchell here), I often feel that the distribution of drafts of my published articles, initially through Academia and now on my blog on WordPress, has been a more successful means of transmitting elements of my PhD work. Being employed in a sports area, as well, means that (and for those academics in the room, you’ll know what I’m talking about) I have a bit more freedom as to which journals I submit to, as the general strictures of working in a history department assume that applicants for posts must have published in the best history journals. Historians of sport, of course, should be showing why sport is relevant to history. They should also be speaking to sports sociologists and political scientists of sport, and students in sport and event management programmes: to discuss the history of their workplaces, to deconstruct self-destructive ideologies within the world of sport and event, and to challenge pernicious myths on gender and race. We are, after all, like most academics, not just trying to push the frontiers of knowledge, but also change the world. Having said that, I am happy that my on-hiatus research on the Firth of Clyde has produced such diverse pieces as a Sport in History article on the history of Ailsa Craig and several encyclopaedia definitions for the History of Parliament’s The Victorian Commons project (specifically those on the Buteshire parliamentary constituency).

An historian’s research-led teaching within a sport management programme cuts a balance. Out of about twenty BSc dissertations and four MSc dissertations that I have supervised, only two have been on anything historical, whereas there is usually more liberal uptake for management/development/sociology/media subjects, etc. (reflecting the specialities of my co-workers). One has to realise that history, for some, is an acquired taste. In the second-year research methods module, designed to run before students go on a professional placement, I have included some of my burgeoning experience with oral histories (what we would just call qualitative interviews), including suggestions. And, in our first-year module Sport Management 1, I have been able to create a lecture on sport tourism which integrates sport heritage within tourism, and to a certain extent within organisational public relations (i.e. why people play for the shirt, why a city’s sporting heritage matters for bids for events etc.).

However, I am able to integrate a bit more historical content into third- and fourth-year. For Advanced Research Methods – our forerunner to the fourth-year BSc dissertation – I take students up to the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) at Edinburgh Uni, managed by Rachel Hosker. The CRC has in its possession the archives of the sport programme’s forerunner institution, the Dunfermline College of Physical Education (DCPE). (Along with other colleagues in my Institute, the CRC and I are currently putting together a bid for Wellcome Trust monies to catalogue the DCPE archives, and with other recently-obtained collections to hopefully create an archive of Scottish movement.) This allows students to be able to touch, see, and feel material that we would class as “historical”. The reception, for those who come, tends to be mixed – one former student started off the session by asking me if we were “going to look at a bunch of old books” – but as most students will gravitate towards contemporary topics anyway, it will introduce those one or two students who might have never considered historical material culture and archival documentation within a management dissertation to potential new avenues of thinking.

I also run a fourth-year course entitled “The Social History of Sport in Scotland” for our students. As one would expect, it is research-led, and in it we can begin to make connections with phenomena that students will have encountered within their sport careers: gendered discourses on women’s participations (particularly medical ones); work, discrimination, and divisions of labour, as reflected in sport (back to the Old Firm again…); and, of course, the internal and external politics of events. For each seminar discussion, students must read at least two scholarly articles on the seminar’s given topic from a list I provide. For this course, students must also design a 10-minute presentation on any phenomenon in sports history previous to 1980 (approved by me): they must integrate primary sources, and this is often their first taste of historic editions of The Scotsman (available through institutional login) and the Glasgow Herald (available through the Google News Archive). This is, of course, very different to the hard graft, exhilarating high and lows and what most academic historians do – we cannot always get access to archives in just one place: this Tuesday, I spent a day at the Highland Archive Centre finding some good hay but no needle – but all potential historians of any age had to take baby steps before we learned to walk.

I want students to be critical when they go through this process, and I want to conclude by introducing creative tension into history/heritage relationship, which I firmly believe should be more interested in “tearing them down”, rather than “building them up”. Fiona Skillen and I, in a recent chapter aimed at undergraduate event studies students, used our work on the 1970 and 1986 Commonwealth Games to show how archival research can be used in a practical and professional sense in critically analysing the “legacies” of events, as well as charting organisational behaviour. But, as I teach my fourth-years, multiple interpretations of historical events and phenomena exist depending on perspective, and not all of them are necessarily celebratory.

To a certain extent, I view my role as an historian in the academy as similar to the views of others in this room: partly a need to claim/reclaim Scotland’s sporting heritage, with a definite need to interpret knowledge for public understanding. But it is crucial that we understand what we might be celebrating. When we discuss the history of the Scottish diaspora, can we discuss it without talking about the more brutal elements of the British Empire? Scottish football clubs went to Zimbabwe during Ian Smith’s reign because Scottish-born city fathers in Bulawayo and Scottish-born officials in the Football Association of Rhodesia (including its secretary and national team manager) lobbied heavily for their trip. Similarly, when we celebrate the working-class heritage of Scottish football, are we also celebrating the divisions of the working class? Or are we celebrating immigration instead? And, as we look out at the majesty of Ailsa Craig from Ayr or Troon, is Scottish sport heritage addressing why it is more normal than not for the Donald Trumps of the world to own large chunks of Scotland’s land (including one of its major golf courses)? (Are we not seeing history repeat itself in 2017, where nostalgia is a major political issue?) My hope for my students, with regard to their interactions with the history of sport, is that they will have eventually made this earth (including their workplaces) a better place. My hope is that those based within the heritage sector, and academia, and beyond who are in this room today view it the same way, and consider – with regard to the heritage of Scottish sport – what truth it is that we are all advancing.


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