THERE are no doubt a few readers of The National who think that I harp on too much about Scottish people not knowing enough about their history.

But as I sat down to watch the first episode of the new series of University Challenge last week, I saw a perfect example of what I’m talking about. The University of Glasgow thoroughly trounced Lancaster University by 230 points to 95, which pleased me a great deal, but in the course of the programme Jeremy Paxman asked three bonus point questions about the death of philosophers.

Glasgow, which had two Scots in its quartet, correctly answered questions about English philosopher Francis Bacon and Frenchman René Descartes before Paxman asked this: “Who died, quote, ‘cheerfully after fending off the pressing queries of Boswell about an atheist’s attitude to death’?” (The quote is from the Oxford Companion to Philosophy.) To my amazement, Glasgow hummed and hawed for a while before answering Spinoza. What? The Dutchman who was dead more than 60 years before Boswell was born?

You could hear the derision in Paxman’s sneer as he answered “no it’s David Hume”.

The host was no doubt thinking the same as me – died cheerfully, James Boswell, atheist … all these clues? The Scots should have known it was Hume, the greatest Scottish philosopher of them all and the nation’s most renowned atheist. It’s what I often say – we Scots often know more about other people’s history than we do of our own, and The National and myself are even more determined to do something about it, and soon.

And while I am on a rant, how come Glasgow with its 28,000 students gets the same chance to win as mere colleges at Oxford and Cambridge – five of the last six winners were Oxbridge colleges with fewer than 1000 students each. You might argue that having many more students gives Glasgow and last year’s series winners Edinburgh a greater chance of winning, but that’s not the point – why is there not just one team representing Oxford University and one team representing Cambridge University?

University Challenge giving them unfair representation is the proof that the BBC is complicit in promoting the English Oxbridge establishment cabal that later today will get us an Old Etonian buffoon in No 10 who may well become the first Prime Minister of England, I sincerely hope.

Now to some serious recent Scottish history, and a tale that has resonance in 2019.

As you know, I am always on the lookout for subjects to write about, and I was absolutely delighted when Hazel Godfrey wrote me a special e-mail.

She began: “First of all I want to say how much I enjoy your articles in The National. These, along with Alan Riach’s exploration of Scottish writers, some of whom I had never heard of, have added a great deal to the development of the paper.”

Flattery will get you everywhere with me, so I took Godfrey’s suggestion seriously.

She told me: “I went to a play called Sea Changes written by Jim Brown, who is a member of Liz Hare’s WEA scriptwriters’ course in Edinburgh, and put on at the Dockers’ Social Club in Leith as part of the Leith Festival by the Citadel Arts Group.

“The play is about the SS Explorer, a steam trawler and fisheries research vessel, one of the last ships designed and built by Alexander Hall of Aberdeen in 1955, and operating in the North Sea out of Leith and Aberdeen. It has been in the Edinburgh Dock in Leith for the past 22 years and is beginning to be restored by the SS Explorer Preservation Society. “Alongside the play there were tours of the ship, which is in the process of being made watertight before major renovation is undertaken. In addition there was a Q&A at the end of the performances, with men who had worked on the ship in the 50s, 60s and 70s – the cook, an ship’s officer, and a chief scientist – which was very interesting.”

By coincidence, Liz Hare had already written to me about the play, but I was on holiday at the time and unable to help.

Hare told me: “I thought this story might be of interest both to people in Edinburgh and Leith, and the wider country.

“The SS Explorer is a neglected ship and Citadel Arts Group, a Leith-based theatre company, aims to put that right!

“Our play, Sea Changes specially written for Leith Festival, tells the story of the Explorer from the point of view of young Sean, a crew member fresh out of Aberdeen’s Craiginches jail. Sometimes it proved difficult to find a crew and prisoners were given the chance to serve the last few months of their sentence on the ship. It wasn’t an easy option.

“How do we know that? Citadel Arts Group have been collecting memories of men and women who worked on the Explorer as crew, officers and scientists. They told us some fascinating stories. The Explorer was responsible for some cutting edge marine research which uncovered early evidence of global warming back in the 1960s. She even did a bit of spying on the side. Her radio operator was listening in to Russian submarines through devices dropped into the ocean north of Norway.

“There were plenty of amusing anecdotes too. There was the crew member who wore a wig – for no particular reason – and when he caused an explosion in the galley by leaving gas running then lighting it eventually, his wig was blown right off. Ship’s cook Jim Yorkston told us how the ship nearly sailed without him as he indulged in that last pint in an Aberdeen pub. He had to sprint along the quay and land on deck with a flying leap! These stories have been compiled into an illustrated book and provided the basis for Jim Brown’s script for Sea Changes.”

I am so sorry I missed the play last month, but now I hope I can add to Hare’s tale, which continued: “The Explorer is an important part of Scotland’s maritime heritage. Twice almost scrapped, this marine fisheries vessel is now moored in Leith’s Edinburgh dock where she is being restored by volunteers of the SS Explorer Preservation Society.

“As John Dunn, distinguished marine biologist who worked on the Explorer in the ‘60 and ‘70s writes: ‘She made a massive contribution to the conservation of fish stocks and to the understanding of the seas round our island. The story that can be told on board this ship is one that needs to be part of the education our children receive today.”

The National:

I understand that Citadel hopes that their play has raised the profile of the campaign to save this ship as a floating museum and educational resource. All I can say is that if Liz and Citadel or the SS Explorer Preservation Society put on the play again, or if they want me to give a talk on Scottish shipbuilding in general, I would be happy to do so – and I am going to write more about great Scottish ships over the next three weeks.

SS Explorer truly was a great Scottish ship and thoroughly deserves her place on the official UK Register of Historic Ships whose work I absolutely admire and commend to you.

Here’s a brief history of the Fisheries Research Vessel (Steamer) Explorer, who was not large in shipping terms but made a contribution far outweighing her tonnage – she displaced 1386 tons on departure.

She was launched in Aberdeen on June 21, 1955, by Lady Rachel Stuart, wife of the then Secretary of State for Scotland, James Gray Stuart, later the first Viscount Stuart of Findhorn.

A shade over 200ft-long, Explorer was one of the last steam-driven trawlers ever built and is said to be the last one still afloat.

With 36 berths plus two sickbay berths, Explorer’s crew and the scientists she carried enjoyed far more comfort than an ordinary fishing trawler, but then she was anything but ordinary.

Explorer made her maiden voyage in 1956 as the research vessel of the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, part of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland. She had a riveted steel hull and a triple expansion engine made by Alexander Hall – the last steam engine of that kind made in Aberdeen.

For the next 28 years, Explorer toured all the fishing grounds where trawlers and other fishing boats worked. These included the North sea and north-east Atlantic, the waters off Greenland, and the Barents and White Seas of Russia, She had numerous adventures, including sailing into dangerous Arctic ice-fields, and one particular voyage nearly ended in disaster.

As the SS Explorer Preservation Society tells the tale: “In the early 70s, on returning from a voyage in Icelandic waters, the Explorer encountered severe storm conditions. While heading into the storm, a large sea broke over the bow and a lump of green water struck the casing with such force that it stove in the bridge front, breaking all the windows and flooding the wheelhouse.

“The ship shuddered with such an impact, but thankfully, even with the weight of water on deck she rose in time to ride over the following wave.

“The crew in the wheelhouse at the time were wet and stunned, some had been swept off their feet, but all had the presence of mind to keep the Explorer’s head into the wind, further reduce speed, heave-to and assess the damage.”

That damage was not fatal, and Explorer was able to continue her work which was assisted by a computer – one of the first to be installed on a working ship anywhere. The work of the Explorer was vital – the reports that issued from the ship dictated fisheries policy and were absolutely vital in conservation of species such as herring and cod. As the society explains: “The Maritime Laboratory has, for many years, monitored the main fish and shellfish stocks exploited by Scottish fishermen, and has studied the design of working both existing and novel fishing gears. The laboratory has also assessed changes, both natural and man-made, in the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic in general, and of the seas off Scotland in particular. In turn, these environmental changes – sometimes, for example, showing up as changes in current patterns, sometimes as changes in pollution levels – are studied in terms of their impact on fish and shellfish stocks, and the mechanisms by which these effects take place investigated.”

Until 1984, it was the Explorer which did all this work, but her systems were becoming out of date and it was going to be too expensive to refit her. What happened next is told by the Historic Ships Register.

“She was withdrawn from service in 1984 and sold to breakers from whom she was rescued by Aberdeen City Council for restoration. She lay dormant for many years as the council tried unsuccessfully to find her a berth adjacent to the City Maritime Museum.

“In 1994, the council proposed she should be scrapped but a local group formed a Preservation Society and she was saved once again. Under the auspices of her new owners she was moved to Leith for restoration work. An eviction order was served by the Forth Ports Authority in 2000, but a reprieve was granted and the vessel remains at Leith.”

The SS Explorer Preservation Society is working hard to keep this great Scottish ship afloat. They deserve all our thanks.