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Digging The Historian / Archaeologist

By, Sergio Burns

If pressed I would say I liked his honesty and humility. He had no pretensions, describing himself, simply, as an enthusiast and generalist. An unassuming man who just has a passion for the work he does.

We all know, however, Neil Oliver is much, much more than this. He has written extensively on the history and archaeology of Scotland and the British Isles. Thoughtful, erudite and accessible, he has also presented fascinating television shows on these subjects . A potent and interesting mix for a man with enough insight to see where the many highways of his life converge.

“I literally stumbled upon the archaeology department,” Neil Oliver told me of attending an open day at Glasgow University. “Went in and had a look around. It was one of those love at first sight moments. I just suddenly realised that this was what I wanted to do.”

He didn’t know it then but it was the start of a journey that would lead to a career in television, and programmes including Coast, The History Detectives, A History of Scotland, The Sacred Wonders of Britain, Vikings and Coast, New Zealand.

“I had always known I was interested in history as a way of explaining why the world has ended up the way it has,” he explained. ” I was always…curious about a sequence of events that had led us to where we were. In a lightbulb moment in the archaeology department in Glasgow…I realised that archaeology, because it goes much further back… was like an opportunity to start reading the book of humankind at page one. History only kicks in by the time we were learning to write. The human species has only been writing for about 6000 years and the species is 200,000 years old. The archaeology bit gives you at least a hope of trying to unpick what we were doing for the 194,000 years before we learned to write.”

Born in Renfrew, as a child Neil lived in Ayr and attended Forehill Primary school before the family moved to Dumfries. His father, a salesman who was originally from Glasgow, had looked into the family history and had discovered a connection with Ayrshire. Farmers perhaps, Neil suggests, but nothing, as yet, confirmed. Neil, I had thought, would be a good candidate for Who Do You Think You Are?

Armed with an honours degree in Archaeology from Glasgow University, the young Oliver quickly switched to journalism.

“I loved and continue to love Archaeology,” Neil told me. “I worked as a freelance archaeologist, excavating one site after another for a few years but it was simply…penury.”

He laughed remembering how he could not marry his great love of archaeology with earning a decent living (not at that time anyway).

“That forced me to change tack,” he continued. “I kind of realised in my 20’s that…while it was a fantastic subject…I wasn’t really an academic and I was never going to be a lecturer or attached to a university, and I made the… decision to do something else with whatever limited abilities I had. So, I decided to join a local paper and become a cub reporter and that’s what I did. I did that in Dumfries. There was a privately owned group of newspapers called The Dumfriesshire Newspapers group and I was taken on there on what they used to call a three year indenture, you know where I trained and worked on the job, and I periodically got sent away to Napier College (now Napier University). I qualified and moved on from Dumfriesshire to be the deputy editor of East Lothian Courier.”

For Oliver, combining both skill sets profitably as a broadcaster and writer of all things history, and, of course, archaeological, would come later. Back then he eventually found himself working in London as an editor for the BT website.

“I always had connections back to archaeology and Glasgow University,” Oliver remembered his initial introduction to television. “I still had friends there, and a very good friend of mine, Tony Pollard and I used to meet in the pub, and we would talk about projects and plans that might get us to interesting places in the world. The first one we were ever successful with was a project to go and excavate a battlefield in South Africa, the scene of a clash between the British Army and the Zulu nation 1879… the same war that gave us the movie Zulu, Rourke’s Drift and Lsandlwana. Lsandlwana was the battle before Rourke’s Drift. We went out to excavate that battlefield… the world’s first excavation of that battlefield. I had a very understanding boss at BT, he used to let me take my annual holiday all at once he’d let me clump together my five weeks holiday. I could go off to South Africa to do this thing. So, for a couple of years we were up to this and it just so happened that a television production company in London stumbled across what we were doing because we had a website and stuff, and we used to publish papers about it. They thought it would be a really good idea to have a TV series about digging up battlefields.”

Neil Oliver made his TV debut on BBC Two’s Two Men in a Trench in 2002, where Pollard and Oliver visited British battlefields. Following this Neil Oliver used his journalistic skills to write a tie-   in book for Channel Four series Not Forgotten presented by Ian Hislop, before landing the part as archaeological and social history expert on BBC series Coast in 2005.

“It was purely because Tony and I were just enthusiasts,” Neil says out loud to himself. “We were just big fans of that film (Zulu), we had the cheek to set up a project that let us go out and see it really purely because…we were just fascinated. But the project took root and then it led into other things and changed both of our lives.”

Neil Oliver is now working on a new book The Story of the British Isles in 100 places, and is going out on tour for the first time, which he is nervous and, also, excited about. He starts at Harrogate on October 1, finishing at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on November 20. Beyond this, the man still has ambitions.

“I would love to get to South America,” he confessed. “I’ve been in North America but I have never yet had the opportunity to visit South America. I had a fantastic visit to part of Antartica, seven or eight years ago now and I would love to go back. I am drawn to the south but at the same time I count myself very lucky the places that I have seen. If I could I would love to do the Coast of Canada. I have got a real interest in following that up as an opportunity.”

Neil Oliver has carved a niche for himself as an accomplished author. Though he plays it down, he is also an historian, archaeologist and presenter who has the happy knack of imparting his enthusiasm and passion to his audience. With part of his upbringing spent in Ayrshire, we are not surprised by his success and look forward to his next book, and upcoming tour.

Neil Oliver will be appearing at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on Tuesday, November 20. For all dates check out his website.