The clans of attack: Broadcast historian Neil Oliver on remarkable Scottish history behind new three-part TV series

Neil Oliver. (BBC)

IF people like Mafia shows such as The Sopranos, they will love the blood-soaked machinations of Scotland’s clans, according to Neil Oliver.

The historian and broadcaster is fronting a new three-part TV series, Rise Of The Clans, and says it is has fired his passion for the past like nothing else in almost a decade.

“I am so excited, it’s brilliant,” said Neil. “Not since A History Of Scotland in 2009 has anything felt remotely like this.

“People who are interested in the past will know about Bruce, and Mary Stewart’s rise and fall.

“But I didn’t get Scottish history at school and I think there are a couple of generations at least that are adrift of detailed knowledge.

“What’s refreshing about this is that it’s from the point of view of the clans and it tells how they manipulated, or at least had to be taken into account, by the kings and queens.

“The clans were at each other’s throats, so you have Mafia Godfathers circling each other, like in The Sopranos.

“They were always vying for control and trying to get the upper hand by backing the right side in royal disputes.

“You start to see the kings and queens being vulnerable to the Machiavellian behaviour of clan chiefs.

“There was no way a king could rule without giving attention to what they wanted,” says Neil. “It makes it all seem modern as it’s political and there are factions and sides manipulating situations for their own selfish ends.

“Very often no one seems to be thinking about the national wellbeing. It’s all about the clans and the kings being, in essence, just another clan chief.

“It looked for a long time, for example, that Robert was never going to be a successful, independent king and he was very nearly run out of town.”

Bruce’s tale, told recently in Outlaw King, holds timeless fascination according to Neil because of his complexity. He was much more than a quintessential heroic figure fighting for independence; utterly ruthless in the lengths to which he was prepared to go to secure the kingdom, but also tortured by what he’d done and the personal losses he’d suffered.

And that retelling in Outlaw King, as well as the Outlander books and TV series, are finding a global audience.

“Outlander has ensured there is international interest in all things Jacobite,” said Neil.

“I was at Culloden the week before last, on not a nice day, and the visitor centre and battlefield were so busy. You heard accents from all over the world.

“When we were doing the Rise Of The Clans at places like Falkland Palace, Blackness Castle or up in the Gargunnock Hills, we were always hearing that Outlaw King and Outlander had been there filming.

“That has led to a constant stream of tourists wanting to touch base with the places they recognise.”

And the ongoing association with a debate about Scotland’s independence is also feeding into the fascination with the past.

“This is a very dynamic period for interest in Scottish history,” said Neil.

Actor David Paisley plays Robert the Bruce in Rise Of The Clans but Falkirk-born David had no idea whose shoes he’d be stepping in to.

“It’s intimidating to be cast as someone so iconic, one of the most recognisable figures in our history,” said David.

“When I auditioned, though, they sent me a page of dialogue with no indication of who it was.

“I just read the words into a camera, and they cast me, still without saying. I showed up to meet the director on the first day, asked who I was and he told me I was Robert the Bruce.

“That’s when I got terrified, thinking about how I was going to have to appear to lead an army into battle.”

David, who has appeared in Holby City and River City, was soon steeped in the period, thanks to battle re-enactment experts who had worked on the Outlaw King, which had Hollywood star Chris Pine playing Bruce.

They helped to school David in fighting techniques and swordplay.

“It was like all my childhood dreams coming true,” said David.

“You’re running in a field with a stick as a sword, fighting your brothers and now you’re doing that on a much grander scale. I loved it, although they gave me a big rubber sword to keep it safe.”

The first episode looks at how clans rallied behind Bruce and how, after the crushing victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, he rewarded them with land and titles.

The second investigates how Clan Stewart rose to become Scotland’s Royal dynasty with the story culminating with the assassination of King James 1 in Perth.

And the third and final part reveals the plot against Mary, Queen of Scots and the convoluted alliances and betrayals that lead to the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, and her eventual escape to England.

Rise Of The Clans is a change of pace for David who spent two years as Ben Saunders in Holby City and another two years as Rory Murdoch in River City.

“I really didn’t enjoy my time on Holby as I’d moved to London, which is a big, unfriendly city and I didn’t have many friends there,” said David.

“When it ended I was quite happy, whereas I absolutely loved River City because there was so much more of a community feel.”

David’s one big regret over Rise Of The Clans is that his mum, award-winning author, Janet Paisley, didn’t get to see him in it. She died from cancer just last month.

“Two of her novels were historical fiction and she particularly looked at female characters.

“We spoke a lot about it and she was very proud of what I was doing and I was very proud of what she had written.

“I just wish I’d had a chance to show her what I’d done. It would have been great for her to see that but, unfortunately, we didn’t have the time.”

But his mum’s passion and his own research into Bruce and the times ahead of filming, reaffirmed David’s historical interest.

“Scottish history is so rich and so full of interesting stories which intersect with world history,” adds David.

“I found looking at Bruce fascinating as his life was constantly on the line.”

Rise Of The Clans, BBC1 tomorrow, 9pm.