The east coast of Scotland always seemed to be on the receiving end of bother, be it from Vikings, Germans or just the English. Dunbar, where I grew up, had a castle which was besieged numerous times, including the time when Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar, dusted down the battlements with a handkerchief after the English fired cannonballs at them. Across the Victoria Harbour is the Battery, built on Lamer Island on the threat of a Napoleonic invasion which never materialised. Not so far away is Lauderdale House, once a noble residence, later part of a barracks. Much of the coast towards Edinburgh, and indeed all the way up towards Aberdeen and Peterhead, is scattered with concrete anti-tank blocks and guard huts dating from the Second World War. Inchgarvie, the island which sits right under the Forth Bridge, was fortified from the 16th century and to this day still looks like a fort, with its last military use in the Second World War too.
The tank traps always fascinated me. John Muir Country Park near Dunbar still has loads of them, on the tide line and deeper into the woods at Hedderwick. I recently walked through the Country Park as far as Tyninghame – story of that here – and the tank traps survive right up to the path, with one or two abandoned guard huts along the way, uniform in red brick as the blocks sit in austere grey concrete. When I was a kid it made far more impact on me than the inevitable modern history pish I got at school. Don’t get me wrong, I think we should learn about the First and Second World Wars. We should know about the Holocaust and everything else, particularly in this political climate. We are bound to repeat our mistakes if we don’t learn from them. But history teaching should go beyond the Victorians and Hitler, far beyond. It should also be beyond the classroom, in museums and just walking around, embracing the local, national and international.
My love of history came, and still comes, from my surroundings. I grew up in one of the most historically significant areas in these islands. I went to primary school in a part of Edinburgh near the port of Leith and itself interesting for a castle, a factory water tower and a mausoleum. I live in a part of Glasgow that was farmland until not so long ago and has a castle nearby. The city itself has thousands of years of past to explore. History not only helps us learn from past mistakes but gives us a rounder picture of the present too, how we got here and how we carry ourselves. I study it too and even while my current OU module on early modern Europe is dry as anything, I can still glean enough interesting nuggets from it.
In history, as in all things, context is key. The tank traps that are scattered along the coastline are now well-weathered from a few decades worth of rain, snow and the ever constant wind. More than a few are life themselves, covered in moss and lichens. The peacenik in me rather likes that.