Tour Guides’ Tricks vs Historians’ Hang-ups: Lessons for Teaching History

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?

Tour guiding might be a “fall from grace” for ambitious academics, but other employment opportunities – especially at universities or in research – are notoriously competitive and outrageously difficult to attain. So, while the rejection letters pour into my inbox (and until I reluctantly decide to give up on my dream of being a university lecturer), I’ve decided to apply my skills elsewhere. Also, those bills don’t pay themselves.

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.

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Neil Oliver is a prominent archeologist and television presenter in Scotland. Criticised as being too Anglo-Centric by some, it did not stop him from being appointed as President of the National Trust of Scotland in 2017. (Photo credit: BBC)

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.

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Bowed Joseph’s malformed skeleton (on display at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum) shows us the devastating effects of childhood malnutrition in the 18th Century.

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’ 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).

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The largest monument in the world dedicated to an author, the Scott Monument, was built in 1844.  (Photo Credit)

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.

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Various cultural representations of Scotland have perpetuated the identity (myth?) of the “Highlander,” including films such as Highlander (1986), Braveheart (1995) and TV series Outlander (2014+). Perhaps it’s no wonder this image of Scotland still prevails today.

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.”

 

 

 

 

Hidden Edinburgh: The World’s First School for the Deaf is in my back Garden

A few times a week, I walk down a quiet path through Edinburgh’s residential Southside. This well-used and well-maintained path follows the foot of the Salisbury Crags and offers a magnificent, up-close view of Holyrood Park. It’s also a stone’s throw from my flat.

This path borders one of the largest council-built estates in southern Edinburgh called “Dumbiedykes.” (Pronounced as dumm-ee-dykes). While this is a strange name, I had once been told that it derived from the fact that there was once an old school for the “deaf and dumb” nearby. (Of course, no one in modern PC language would ever call it that nowadays).

A tall stone wall separates this walk path from Queen’s Drive, the road that skirts the Salisbury’s Crags and is annoyingly closed every Sunday or during major events to all road traffic. (Often due to royal events at nearby Holyrood Palace, an inconvenient reality for us plebs who live so close to royalty).  Thus, a walker such as myself must walk along this wall when using the path. Here’s a crude representation:

Dumbiedykes Chelsea

Upon closer inspection of this marvellous stone wall, you begin to notice the remnants of fireplaces, walls, and numerous inexplicable nooks and crannies that have no logical order.

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Can you spot the fireplace? Can you spot the commemorative plaque?

Every time I pass this wall, I try to imagine the stone cottages or stables that might have been attached to it so long ago.  Of course, just like so many other parts of Edinburgh’s dark grimy history and confusing urban landscape, I merely shrug my shoulders and continue my walk.

 

Not today, I vowed myself. Not today! 

After an afternoon of researching my local area, learning about this deaf school, its founder, and discovering British Sign Language’s status in Scottish society,  I thought a blog post would be a perfect forum for my findings.

Who founded this “deaf and dumb” school? When? And, why? 

Born in 1715 in South Lancashire, Thomas Braidwood studied at the University of Edinburgh and began a career in education to the children of wealthy families. At his home in Edinburgh’s Canongate, Braidwood privately instructed local students and especially enjoyed teaching mathematics. However, this changed in 1760 when a wealthy Leith wine merchant, Alexander Shirreff, asked Braidwood to teach his 10 year old deaf son, Charles, how to write.

Evidently, Braidwood was eager for the challenge. In 1764, he founded Braidwood Academy just south of the Royal Mile along a street called St. Leonards. The building, which came to be known as “Dumbie House,” was the very first (private) school for deaf children in Britain and, some claim, in the world.

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This drawing (1885) depicts Dumbie House (later named Craigside House), and it can also be seen on 1820s maps from Historic Environment Scotland.

Despite Braidwood’s good connections and enthusiasm towards this untapped educational market, Charles Shirreff (who would become a celebrated painter and portrait miniaturist) was his only pupil. However, soon enough, Dumbie House welcomed other wealthy pupils, including astronomer John Goodricke (1764-1786), Governor of Barbados Francis McKenzie (1754-1815, also Clan Chief of Highland Clan McKenzie, British MP, and a botanist with the Royal Society of London), and Scottish biographer John Philip Wood (1762-1838).

Remarkably, Braidwood became a pioneer in sign language. During the mid-18th century, deaf education mostly comprised of teaching how to speak clearly enough to be understood. But Braidwood’s new technique was unusual; he combined the vocal exercises of articulation with lip-reading and, for the first time, hand gestures that we recognise today as sign language. This combined system became the forerunner of British Sign Language (BSL).

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Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) suffered from poor health himself having contracted scofula (a form of tuberculosis) as a child. Despite hearing loss and bad eyesight, Johnson had a remarkable career as a writer. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, he is the second-most quoted Englishman in history.

Braidwood Academy also received attention from famous contemporaries. Sir Walter Scott mentioned Braidwood Academy in Heart of Midlothian (1818) and even the famous author, Dr. Samuel Johnson, described the school after a short visit en route to the Western isles: “There is one subject of philosophical curiosity in Edinburgh which no other city has to show; a College for the Deaf and Dumb, who are taught to speak, to read and to write, and to practise arithmetic, by a gentleman whose name is Braidwood. It was pleasing to see one of the most desperate of human calamities capable of so much help: whatever enlarges hope will exalt courage. After having seen the deaf taught arithmetic, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides.”

Dumbie House eventually boasted 20 students, including women (Jane Poole, for example, set a major legal precedent when a court accepted her last will as valid, even though she had communicated her wishes to the drafter exclusively by fingerspelling as she was both deaf and blind – a massive victory for legal rights of the disabled in Britain). By 1780, Thomas Braidwood moved to London to begin a new school in Hackney. Notably, his three daughters also became teachers for the deaf and continued to practise his combined approach to new generations of pupils. Dumbie House continued to operate as a school until it was shut in 1873 and Dumbie House was demolished in 1939.

But Braidwood’s Influence Spreads Across the Seas….

Another very important Braidwood Academy pupil was Charles Green. Born deaf, Charles was the son of fourth-generation American and Harvard graduate Francis Green (1742-1809). Just prior to the American Revolution, the Green family moved to England and in 1780, Charles was enrolled at Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh.

Francis watched his son learn how to communicate orally, but was astonished at the speed of which sign language could allow his son to communicate with other students. He was so impressed, apparently, that Francis published a book anonymously that praised Braidwood’s work called “Vox Oculis Subjecta: A Dissertation on the most curious and important art of imparting speech, and the knowledge of language, to the naturally deaf, and (consequently) dumb; With a particular account of the Academy of Messrs. Braidwood of Edinburgh” in 1783. “Vox Oculis Subjecta” translates to “voice subjected to the eyes.” Francis wrote in the introduction that:

 “Man as a social being has an irresistible propensity to communicate with his species, to receive the ideas of others, and to impart his own conceptions.”

The first half of Vox Oculis Subjecta surveys the natural capacity of humans for language (quoting various famous authors extensively), and then describes Braidwood’s methods. As Braidwood himself never wrote about his own teaching practises, Green’s Vox Oculis Subjecta (1783) is invaluable record of deaf education.

Although Charles tragically drowned at age 15 while fishing, Francis continued to take an interest in deaf education. According to historians Melvia M. Homeland and Ronald E. Homeland, in the 1790s, Francis visited Paris and London to see how other institutions taught deaf students to communicate (The Deaf Community in America: History in the Making, p. 31). He eventually returned to the US. Before his death, he not only advocated through his writings for free education to all deaf children in America, but in 1809, had collected the names of 75 deaf individuals in Massachusetts (the first ever census of the deaf) with plans to start a school.

In 1812, just three years after Francis Green’s death, Col. William Bolling, who was a sibling to some Braidwood Academy’s pupils who studied alongside Charles Green, and himself a father of two deaf children, attempted the first US school for the deaf. Even Thomas Braidwood’s grandson, John Braidwood II, who had moved to America by then, assisted with the school. Although the school closed in 1815, it just two year later when another educationalist, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, successfully started what is considered today to be America’s first school for the deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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This road sign, which serves history more than a practical purpose and is just meters from the remnants of Dumbie House, has a great deal more meaning for me now.

So What? 

It seems rather odd that such an instrumental school for deaf education and British Sign Language is so little acknowledged. When I stride past its demolished foundations and the fireplace in the stone wall, I note that its commemorative plaque was not installed there until 2015 (admittedly with a great turn out by the Lord Provost, British Deaf History Society, Deaf History Scotland, and multiple Scottish officials). But this delayed promotion of deaf history is inconsistent with the remarkable work of Edinburgh’s numerous charities and societies (Historic Scotland, National Trust, Old Edinburgh Club, Lost Edinburgh, etc) that are outstanding in their ability to conserve, protect and promote local history…

So perhaps my perception of Braidwood Academy’s neglect speaks to some of the larger attitudes towards disability. Of course, during the 18th Century, deafness – like all disabilities – was poorly understood and it wasn’t until institutions like Braidwood Academy that some began to realise that intellect was not affected by disability. Being deaf was certainly not synonymous with being “dumb.” Compounding this ignorance was the issue of class. Initiallly, only the rich could afford to educate their children at Braidwood Academy. Fortunately, in 1792, the London Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb Poor at Bermondsey, became the first public Deaf school in Britain. Again, Braidwood’s influence was also felt there too – it was one of his previous employees, Joseph Watson, who founded it.

British Sign Language (BSL) was not recognised as an official language by Westminster until 2003.  Ironically, Braidwood Academy’s Dumbie House is just half a mile from where the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act was passed unanimously in 2014 by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament – giving BSL the same legal protection as languages such as Gaelic. In Scotland today, an estimated 12,500 people speak BSL. However, in Wales and Northern Ireland, BSL has no legal status or protection.

While I’m pleased that BSL is legally protected and that a commemorative plaque was mounted on the original foundations of Braidwood Academy,  I do not believe that deafness, or disabilities in general, are given the recognition they deserve. But Braidwood’s remarkable influence on language, teaching and disabled rights is at least an excellent starting point for repositioning deafness as a critical aspect of Scotland’s broader history.  As Ella Leith, secretary of Deaf History Scotland, said at the unveiling of the plaque in 2015:

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“It’s partly about pride for the deaf community in seeing their history recognised, but also about raising awareness among hearing people that Scotland’s heritage should include deaf people too. Their heritage is as much part of Scotland as general heritage.”