More used to talking about war than fighting one, TV historian Neil Oliver says lately he has felt like he’s in ‘the Ypres Salient in the First World War’, fighting skirmish after skirmish.
The area in Belgium was the scene of some of the Western Front’s fiercest battles and, recently, the 53-year-old presenter has found himself under repeated attack from certain quarters for a show of support for under-fire public figures, including Harry Potter author JK Rowling and academic David Starkey.
Two weeks ago, the shrapnel flew once more when he spoke of his ‘mortification and heartbreak’ that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his family appeared to have cut short their holiday to Applecross, in the Highlands, because they may have ‘felt unsafe’.
His comments sparked an outcry from SNP and pro-independence activists who believed the dig was aimed at them.
Oliver, pictured with wife Trudi and his children, has faced ‘vindictive, personal’ attacks yet refuses to be ‘shouted down by the mob’
Last night, Oliver, whose TV hits include Coast and Vikings, said: ‘I feel as if I’m in this entrenched position in a war of attrition.
‘Since 2014, I’ve been a lightning rod for the nationalists because I spoke up in favour of the United Kingdom.
‘It’s become an article of faith now that if you’re truly Scottish you would vote for independence and therefore if you’re in favour of the continuation of the United Kingdom then you are not Scottish.
‘That’s just become a binary position that’s being pushed by a section of the population. But I grew up British and Scottish. I never gave it a second thought.
‘The two terms are interchangeable to me and I never thought I was making any kind of political statement in any of it.
‘Now the way the situation has evolved, everything is political and you don’t get to be Scottish and British. It’s one or the other.’
He added: ‘With Boris Johnson, no one except him and his own people know why he left Scotland early to return to London.
‘But there was certainly a perception that he’d been scared or chased out of Scotland and I thought ‘I don’t want even that suggestion about this country’.
‘Whether it’s true or not, it was being asserted by some and there was a bit of celebration going on in some quarters because I was seeing it on Twitter about the fact he’d upped sticks and gone.
‘There were also all these people at the Border with their hazmat suits shouting at English tourists.
‘There’s constantly banners up in various places – ‘England out of Scotland’ and ‘Tory Scum’ and there’s no doubting there is an atmosphere here in which English people or people who vote Conservative are being told they’re not welcome.
‘When I was growing up, there was always that kind of jokey anti-Englishness that went on at the time of rugby and football matches but I never felt there was any depth to it.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, fiancee Carrie Symonds and baby Wilfred (pictured) left their Highland holiday early
‘Now there is a perceptible sense in which Scotland is declaring itself in some quarters unwelcome to certain people and I just thought that was appalling.’
Oliver, who lives in Stirling with his wife, Trudi, and three children, is due to step down later this month as president of the National Trust for Scotland after three years in the post.
The announcement – greeted gleefully by his critics as a sign he’d been hounded out – came after he found himself inadvertently dragged into the Black Lives Matter row over a racist comment made by fellow TV historian David Starkey during a radio interview.
Three days before the show aired, Oliver ‘liked’ a pre-publicity tweet by interviewer Darren Grimes and replied: ‘Tell him I love him, by all means.’
When Starkey’s offensive comments – for which he has now apologised – became headline news later that week, Oliver suddenly found himself coming under attack too.
He said: ‘I didn’t know David Starkey, I’d only met him 18 months ago when I hosted an event at the Tower of London as NTS president and I’d found him charismatic and charming.
‘I certainly didn’t know he had any track record of making any remarks that could be characterised as racist.
‘When I saw that tweet from Darren Grimes before he interviewed him saying he might have to tell him he loved him, I responded with that emotion in mind.
‘Three days later the clip went out with his remark and I thought ‘Oh for God’s sake!’. The rest is history but I found myself in a proxy war.’
Speaking about it for the first time, he says he had felt for some time that he could no longer speak freely without his role as NTS president being dragged into the debate and potentially damaging the organisation.
He added: ‘I couldn’t say anything as me. If I am speaking for them or trying to raise money for them, then yes I am the president of the NTS.
‘But I also have another whole part of my life to get on with when I’m not being the NTS president.
‘So, I thought, well the three years is up in October, I’ll just let it go at that point.
‘The Trust can move on, I can move on, they can have another president and I can carry on with the things I want to say advocating the causes I’m in support of without constantly having to be guarded.’
He has also been an outspoken critic of ‘cancel culture’ and the Scottish Government’s controversial Hate Crime Bill, citing it as the latest attack on free speech.
It led to him leaping to the defence of JK Rowling, 55, who has faced a barrage of abuse since June when she was accused of being transphobic after making public comments on gender and sexuality.
There have been calls for her to be ‘cancelled’ and her work boycotted after she mocked an online article using the words ‘people who menstruate’ instead of ‘women’.
The author was expressing her concerns about the SNP’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which will allow a person to legally change their gender without a medical diagnosis.
Despite explaining her fears over the impact of the GRA on women’s rights and access to refuge, she was threatened by hundreds of pro-trans activists accusing her of hatred.
Oliver was one of a number of high-profile personalities who backed her right to freedom of speech – and found themselves rounded on for their support.
Yesterday, he said: ‘I’ve never met her but her books and the films have been in my family’s lives for a long time and my eldest boy listens to the audio books.
‘When I saw her being attacked, it wasn’t so much about what she was saying – although I completely agree with what she said – I felt it was like she was a member of extended family who was being subjected to the most vile, poisonous attack.
‘I just thought to not stand up in support of her would be wrong.’
He added: ‘The lessening of opportunities to feel confident or even safe just freely expressing opinion is not a circumstance I ever expected to live through.
Oliver backed JK Rowling, 55, who has faced a barrage of abuse since June when she was accused of being transphobic after making public comments on gender and sexuality
‘It’s something that’s associated with other parts of the world and other times in history.
‘I never thought in the 21st Century in Scotland or in Britain there would be an atmosphere in which if you said what was regarded as the wrong thing, you’d be shouted down by the mob.
‘If you said a couple of years ago we would be in this terrain now, I would have laughed it off as farcical.’
However, he adds that while his criticism of the Hate Crime Bill and Scottish independence – he described the prospect of a second referendum as a ‘cancerous presence’ – has earned him many enemies north of the Border, it has gained him ‘endless amounts of support’ too.
He explains: ‘I’m fully aware there are many people who share my point of view, it’s just that because of the atmosphere, a lot of them are finding it easier to be quiet.
‘My wife says to me all the time it seems so bizarre that it’s someone like me who’s so high profile in this situation because I’ve never been a political person, I’ve never been a member of a political party and I can’t envisage a situation where I would be a member of one.
‘I consider myself to have very middle of the road views on most things.
‘I’m not an extremist about anything and I find it ironic I’m cast in the role of lightning rod for such high-tempered vitriolic opinion.
‘I haven’t changed my stance or position in any way in the whole of my life and some of the comments directed at me have been poisonous.
‘A lot of it is based around the way I look – I get endless comments about my hair or about my face or the way I walk or the things I do on TV, and a lot of it is just a vindictive, personal attack. I won’t give in to it.
‘The longer it goes on and the more vicious it gets, the more obliged I feel I have to stand up to it.
‘When I feel like I’m being confronted by bullying, I don’t feel I can credibly say to my kids they have to stand up to bullies unless they see me doing it too.
‘I also think it’s important the rest of Britain understands there’s half the country up here and our voices are not represented.’
Last year, before a global pandemic was on the horizon and lockdown was imposed, he found himself writing about the rising tensions he was witnessing across society and looking to the past ‘for answers’.
The result is a new book, Wisdom Of The Ancients: Life Lessons From Our Distant Past, which features a series of historic tales from all over the world and looks at how their wider themes, which include ‘family’, ‘reaching for perfection’ and ‘the courage required to do what must be done’, might be used as learning tools for modern-day lives.
Oliver has condemned the group of Scottish Nationalists who protested on the Border
He says: ‘I wrote this book in search of answers. Our world now seems especially bad-tempered. Temperatures are rising. The news is often doom-laden and filled with hopelessness. Simple peace of mind is hard to find. So, I’ve looked back at the world of our ancestors.’
His journey begins at the Callanish standing stones, on the Isle of Lewis and moves on to the ancient ‘cup and rings’ stone carvings close to his home in Stirling and the Lake District.
It stretches to prehistoric human footprints in Laetoli and the oldest house at Olduvai, both in Tanzania, to the 10th-Century grave of a young Viking girl in Birka, Sweden, as well as sites he discovered while filming his Coast television series in Australia and New Zealand.
He said: ‘There’s a broad sweep.
‘It’s places I’ve written about, talked about, dreamt about and I wanted to share them because in these troubled times where people are under a lot of pressure with work, busy lives, social media, the torrent of data and information and news that people are trying to process all the time, there’s like cardinal codes on a compass still there to which we can hold on to.
‘I realised I got comfort from these stories because they demonstrated the continuing significance in modern lives of ideas like family and home, and the idea of story-telling and remembering things about your own family.
‘I think something like Wisdom Of The Ancients makes old stories relevant for people.’
He added: ‘There are certain recognisable truths that run from four million years ago right through to the present day.
‘These are the distant chords of memory that Abraham Lincoln talked about in his first speech to the American people.
‘They connect us to each other and to the beginning of the human story. I hope the book is encouragement to people to think about the past differently than they have before.’
· Wisdom Of The Ancients is published by Bantam Press on September 17.