Recently, I’ve started working as a tour guide on Edinburgh’s beautiful Royal Mile. For two hours, come rain or shine, I escort random tourists down the narrow alleyways, onto cobblestoned streets, across graveyards, and into medieval courtyards, regaling them with (hi)stories about Edinburgh’s colourful past. It’s entertaining and challenging work. Guides must be on-the-ball with funny jokes, vibrant vocabulary, and accurate answers to a wide variety of questions for the whole two hours. It’s draining work, but super fun. The time flies by.
Being a tour guide is exciting because of my great love of history, local knowledge of Edinburgh, and previous experiences helping tourists. Also, after spending 10+ years in admin office roles in both Canada and Scotland, I am crystal clear that I’d rather be walking the streets of one of the prettiest cities in Europe than sitting in a stale office staring at spreadsheets. No more spreadsheets, I say! No more! But my education (ie. PhD in modern history) is dismally underutilised in a position that caters to “just tourists.” Surely after so many years of study, I can “do better” than tour guiding?
But I’ve learned there is a vast difference between a tour guide and a historian. Like, wow. And some of the differences are totally refreshing. Others are a little disconcerting. And some are just down right hilarious. Despite starting this job with a somewhat cocky attitude (“Surely it can’t be that much harder than when I taught at a university…”), tour guiding has re-opened my eyes to history and history-telling. And, of course, sufficiently humbled my approach.
Historians and tour guides both earn money from the same skill set: the ability to teach history. Although one researches and lectures in a university, the other guides on the streets, often in the exact place where that history took place. While teaching history unites these professions, their approaches greatly differ. This is why I decided to write this blog. Hopefully, my observations will debunk some myths (or prejudices) we may have about both trades.
1) Story-telling vs (Hi)story-telling
Professional historians will vehemently say that teaching history as a story (or narrative) is not good history. But tour guides rely heavily on stories because they are entertaining. And, because one of the chief goals of tour guiding is to entertain, historical events are often conveyed in a narrative structure (setup, conflict, resolution), as it makes history accessible, engaging and much more memorable.
But stories and histories are not interchangeable. History should not be moralised, narrativised, pushed into little boxes of “good” versus “bad.” As we all know, history is often written by the victors (ie. white, old, wealthy, MEN) and any publication about historiography – the study of writing history – is plagued with lengthy analyses about the inherent bias in historical sources. Today’s students of history undertake meticulous and often painstaking training about how to identify and overcome such biases, so that most contemporary historical research endeavours to be objective, evidence-based and (hopefully) self-aware and self-reflective.
And yet, it is worthwhile noting that some students of history, like Michael Conway, perceptively argue that it is not until a student engages in historiography that they begin to realise that history is not a single overarching description, but instead a conflict-ridden zone of historians/scholars bickering endlessly about all aspects of history. This, Conway argues, is actually more compelling: “History is not indoctrination. It is a wrestling match. For too long, the emphasis has been on pinning the opponent. It is time to shift the focus to the struggle itself”. But let’s get back to tour guiding…
When history is told as a story, the goal is often to promote consumption; it (negates that academic battleground that Conway writes about and instead) allows the reader/audience to easily absorb the information without any moral dilemma, ambiguity, or guesswork. But this does not mean that the story is not meaningful or stimulating. In fact, some of my favourite British public historians (such as Neil Oliver or Lucy Worsley) often present history as narratives. Fortunately, they often simultaneously question whether we should accept such interpretations as accurate. By doing so, audiences are given a choice: they can blindly accept such portrayals as conveniently memorable stories, or they can wrestle with the ambiguity and interpret the (hi)story in their own way.
But not all history can be put into a narrative structure. In the event you might disagree, then think of genocide, or slavery, or war. There’s no moral to be learned from the existence of concentration camps. There’s no overarching narrative of tragedy, comedy or redemption within slaves’ experiences. There are no “good” or “bad” soldiers in war. And, because these topics cannot be easily reduced or moralised, they continue to attract revision, debate and controversy among multiple stakeholders: historians, legal and legislative bodies, policy-makers, international organisations, humanitarians, educators, artists, authors, filmmakers, and so many, many more.
On Edinburgh’s Cowgate, I tell the story of Joseph Smith (“Bowed Joseph”), a poor, disabled 18thcentury cobbler who notoriously roused Edinburgh’s poorest segments of society into a frenzied mob (up to 10,000 people) whenever it suited him. The town officials were so wary of Bowed Joseph that they would often consult him before enacting local policies (such as increasing the price of ale). The “story” goes that when Joseph heard that a poor father-of-six had committed suicide after being evicted by an unconcerned landlord, Joseph beat his drum down the street to provoke thousands to storm the landlord’s house, stripping it of all possessions and piling the furniture into a nearby park. As the helpless town guard looked on, Bowed Joseph himself lit the match. The pyre reportedly burnt for hours.
Historically speaking, we know very little about Joseph Smith. Born into abject poverty sometime in the mid 1700s on Edinburgh’s Cowgate, he developed rickets at a young age. He had strong, massive arms and short, bowed legs. We know this because upon his death in 1780 (falling from a coach after gambling at the race track in Leith), the University of Edinburgh’s prestigious Medical School acquired his deformed skeleton. Today, it’s displayed at the Anatomical Museum, which coincidentally was the only reason that I knew that Joseph Smith existed at all!
What the points of telling you all this? This is bad history, but a great story; the tale of an underdog who used his power for social justice. But – I would argue – stories like these teaches elements of history without the tourist even realising it. For example, the audience learns about Edinburgh’s brutal poverty, childhood diseases of the 1700s, the strength (and fear) of the mob to provoke political change, rioting as a commonplace practise of 18thC Scottish culture, existing class tensions between landowners and tenants – these are all historical themes that this story illustrates.
But I’ve practically sold my academic soul. I have compromised my formal objective, evidence-based study of history with an engaging narrative chiefly devoid of tangible facts, in order to achieve my manager’s goal: to entertain tourists about Edinburgh’s “history.”
2) Telling Entertaining (Hi)stories
Training for this job was mostly self-directed. I was not given a script, but simply told the appointed “audition date” I would give a two-hour tour of the Old Town to my manager. I was allowed to speak about anything, and was invited onto other guides’ tours to see their routes and topics. Considering this company is one of the highest rated on Trip Advisor (the chief reason I applied with them), I was surprised at this somewhat laissez-faire, trusting approach.
Although studying “all” of Scottish and Edinburgh’s history was slightly daunting, this worked perfectly for me. I have learned that both historians and tour guides are only as good as the knowledge they possess. Breadth and nuance of historical insight is entirely dependent upon that person’s work ethic and willingness to learn. Taaa-daaa – maybe tour guides and historians aren’t so different after all!
After my audition, my manager’s feedback was hilarious (…well, in retrospect): “Chelsea, you must use less dates. Tourists do not care if it happened in 1861, just say ‘mid-1800s.’ Of course, always know your dates in case anyone asks, but stop being so precise! Your groups don’t want a history lesson!”
My inner pedantic academic and pride as a “proper educated historian” shrivelled into a little lifeless ball of death. I laughed but was disconcerted. How can years of pushing for flawless historical accuracy (including memorising dates) be considered a weakness? I walked away from my audition a little bruised. My ego a little weakened. But then, it dawned on me. Could it be that imprecise teaching (the greatest faux pas of any educator) could be considered a strength here?! Could it be that extraneous pedantic detail was actually not necessary in guiding? Could it be that just the interesting, engaging, enjoyable parts of history are actually the focus?
A great relief settled inside me and that lifeless ball of death sprung alive again. Of course, tour guiding is about entertainment, and formal history is about education. Both can go hand-in-hand but are not identical. While History with a big H is important, we all know that aspects of it are tediously boring, even to historians: Economic history of immediate post-Confederation Canada? Not interested. Technical capabilities of British naval vessels in the Napoleonic Wars? Sorry, don’t care. Another biography of Winston Churchill? Please dear God, no.
Thus, I’ve learned that tour guiding isn’t just about using stories to tell history, but instead, to tell entertaining history. It’s like being given cream for your coffee, instead of weak milk. It’s like getting a filet mignon instead of rump steak. It’s like eating the centre of the cinnamon bun first, rather than the crusty outer edges. (ps. I like food analogies).
3) Questioning Impact and Legacy Without All the Pedantic Detail
As you’ve noticed, telling Edinburgh’s and Scottish history in entertaining, bite-size pieces are the trick of the two-hour tour guiding trade. But when I asked my manager if I could end with a question, instead of an amusing anecdote, he considerately listened and nodded his head. He simply said that so long as it was concise and clear, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work.
The need to understand and interrogate the legacy or impact of history details/facts/events/persons is a cornerstone of every good historical study. History conferences are full of scholars squabbling over the minutiae of history. Even if it’s very technical details (i.e. the Spitfire only had 14-18 seconds of ammunition), those details can have significant impact upon larger events (pilot performance, casualty rates, future combat airplane design, and so on). That’s why details are so very important to historians, even if it makes them look like pedantic, over-obsessed nerds. If those details are inaccurate, misinterpreted, or false, then the larger context and the enduring legacy can also be questioned.
But would your average holidaying tourist be interested in such details?
No, let’s get real. Tour guides do not have the time to meticulously analyse every detail of Scottish history. For tourists, this would be the opposite of entertaining. Their holidays would be ruined by my tedious obsession with overwhelming empirical details.
Instead, I discovered that tour guides, similar to public historians, can approach it backwards – by deconstructing the legacy as a way to question details. For example, I deliberately end my tour beside the Writer’s Museum (with a view of the Royal Mile and the Scott Monument).
There I discuss Sir Walter Scott, arguably the most influential Scottish citizen to impact modern Scottish identity. But because Scott’s writings showcased Scottish identity in a certain way – Highlands, stags, romance, the wilds of the north – it often failed to include other portions of Scottish society and culture.
This came to a climax (notice my narrative structure!) in 1822 when King George IV visited Scotland, the first official state visit in almost 200 years. Scott, a national celebrity, had been commissioned to plan the festivities and he did not fail to deliver. Notably, Polish conmen (Sobieski Stuarts) sought to benefit from the celebrations, publishing a famous book that claimed that specific tartan denoted a specific Highland Clan. Scottish nobles raced to find their Highland ancestry so they could purchase their kilts in time for the King’s visit. And Scott’s prolific writings (and explicit instructions for the festivities) had impacted locals and foreigners so much that when the King arrived, only a certain type of Scottish person was showcased – the “Highlander”. Bedecked in colourful tartan, this robust, whisky-swilling, haggis-eating, masculine, bearded and kilted “Highlander” came to represent all the Scots.
I thus conclude my tour with a question: Was Scott’s interpretation of the Scots actually an accurate reflection of Scotland’s identity? Or is he responsible for creating a redundant, overused, exploited image of the Highlands? I then humorously remind them to think twice about purchasing tartan scarves on the Royal Mile. Or watching Braveheart.
4) The Irrefutable Power of Location
The most formidable tool in the tour guide’s arsenal is not actually her/his ability to research history (the realm of professors) or to seamlessly present history in a convenient package (the realm of television programs), or even to repurpose history (the realm of public historians). Instead, it is the power of the physical location of historical events and legacies that allow tour guides to instil, showcase, mobilise, present, investigate, question, and explore history. By walking the same street that Bowed Joseph roused his mob, or by seeing the same views that JK Rowling saw when she wrote the first Harry Potter book, or by tasting haggis as Robert Burns would have tasted when he wrote “Ode to a Haggis,” the tourist is imprinted with so much more than just a history lesson. They themselves smell, taste, see, hear and thus participate in history in a way that no book, no TV show and no lecture can equal. It’s exponentially more powerful, more visceral and more resonant.
To my surprise, tour guides are often the only educational resource for tourists following a tight travel itinerary (I’ve checked with the tourists on my tours!). This means that tour guides are as vital to teaching history to the public as any other formally trained historian, curator or television educator. Although I travel a great deal, and have experienced amazing tours in places where history unfolded (the rise of the Third Reich in Munich, or discussing the Battle of Berlin steps from the Reichstag), I’m not sure I fully appreciated the role of tour guides in orchestrating and teaching history until now. Tour guides have an invaluable role in researching, selecting and presenting the physical locations of historical events, legacies and people to retell history. And by refocusing the audiences’ attention upon the location, tour guides revive history more authentically than can be created even in the most competent lectures, or among the most vibrant imaginations.
In 1774, one of my favourite Enlightenment authors, Voltaire, was dissatisfied with how scholars studied and wrote history:
“People are very careful to report what day a certain battle took place… They print treaties, they describe the pomp of a coronation, the ceremony of receiving the Cardinal’s hat, and even the entrance of an ambassador, forgetting neither his Swiss soldiers nor his lackeys. It is a good thing to have archives on everything that one might consult them when necessary… But after I have read three or four thousand descriptions of battles, and the terms of some hundreds of treaties, I have found the fundamentally I am scarcely better instructed than I was before.”
Voltaire proposed a solution that was rather innovative, especially for his time. Instead, he suggested that we should focus on location, artefacts, art and theatre to learn history:
“A lock on the canal that joins two seas, a painting by Poussin, a fine tragedy, are things a thousand times more precious than all the court annals and all the campaign reports put together.”
As founder & owner of a cultural tours business in Singapore and a keen, albeit amateur, historian (& erstwhile docent in 3 of our museums) I read your blog with great interest, & identify with so much of what you’ve said! Can I sign up for more? My email address is: email@example.com. Thx! Jane Iyer (www.janestours.sg)