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date: 04 December 2020

Introduction: The Study of Modern Scottish History

Abstract and Keywords

This book explores the history of modern Scotland from the Renaissance and Reformation periods rather than the previous conventional starting points, such as the Union of 1707 or the later seventeenth century. It demonstrates that there are long-run social, religious, and intellectual forces that shaped the modern Scottish nation which cannot be fully understood without reaching back in time to the sixteenth century. The book also examines the existing trend towards the internationalization of Scottish history by including articles on emigration, immigration, and empire. Contributors are historians in their respective fields, such as geography, political science, literature, and sociology. There are also articles on environment, myth, family, criminality and violence, gender, contemporary society, and economy.

Keywords: Scotland, Renaissance, Reformation, emigration, immigration, empire, family, gender, economy


The commissioning of The Handbook of Modern Scottish History as one of the first in the History series to be published by Oxford University Press confirms the current academic health of the subject. In the past few decades, there has been an outpouring of cutting-edge research; undergraduate classes in Scottish History attract large numbers of students; and public interest in the nation's past has never been higher, as confirmed by the impact of television and radio programmes, as well as features that regularly appear in the print media. In the words of the Historiographer Royal in Scotland, published in 2007: ‘Scottish history is pretty vigorous; a structure that was rickety and thinly painted a generation ago is reinforced and much more thickly painted now. It is, as a subject, more deeply understood.’1 Nevertheless, as indicated below, some weaknesses endure.

T. C. Smout's positive assessment would have been impossible in the later nineteenth century and for several decades thereafter. In 1980 Marinell Ash published her important book, The Strange Death of Scottish History. She argued that by late Victorian times ‘a general interest in Scottish history had ceased to be the mark of broadly educated Scotsmen and had come instead to be seen as the mark of a narrow parochialism most Scots wished to abandon’. Instead, that period, she suggested, saw Scots embrace ‘the emotional trappings of the Scottish past—its symbols are bonnie Scotland of the bens and glens and misty sheiling, the Jacobites, Mary, Queen of Scots, tartan mania and the raising of historical statuary’.2 Twenty years before Ash's critique, George Elder Davie, in his even more (p. 2) influential polemic, The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century (1961), condemned the Scots for ‘a failure of intellectual nerve’, and made the point that at the very time when nations throughout Europe were becoming increasingly ‘history minded’, the Scottish people were losing a sense of their past as the universities were ‘emphatically resolved … no longer to be prisoners of their own history’.

Equally, Bruce Lenman, in his 1973 survey of the teaching of Scottish History in the nation's universities, could conclude that the subject ‘was ignored by the Scottish education system by 1850’, while conceding that there had been some bright spots amid the scholarly darkness in the publications of Thomas McCrie, the biographer of John Knox (1811) and Andrew Melville (1819), Patrick Fraser Tytler, whose nine-volume History of Scotland (1828–43) covered the period from Alexander III to the Union of the Crowns, and Cosmo Innes, the distinguished scholar of Scottish medieval institutions.3 These works, however, were devoted to the history of the nation before the Union of 1707. There seemed precious little interest in the more modern period.

Indeed, and more generally, with the exception of Alexander Fraser Tytler, Professor of Universal History and Roman Antiquities in Edinburgh University from 1780 until 1802, and Cosmo Innes, himself Professor of Constitutional Law and History, there had hardly been any teaching of Scottish History in Scottish universities from the time the first History chairs were established in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Innes assumed his professorship in 1846 after it had been in abeyance for several years. In the hope of reviving interest in Scottish history he first charged no class fees and the numbers who attended grew considerably. As soon as fees were imposed, however, the audience fell to a small handful.4

This virtual irrelevance of Scottish History in the universities in the Victorian era poses a fascinating puzzle. After all, in the Age of Enlightenment the Scots had a European-wide reputation as pioneering historical thinkers and writers: ‘Hume and Robertson stood alongside Gibbon in a triumvirate which had transformed British and, indeed, European historiography.’5 Adam Smith was also arguably the world's first-ever economic historian. The Scots literati made signal contributions to the methodology of historical study through their elaboration of the stadial theory of development describing how human society moved from the stage of hunter-gatherers to that of farmers and cultivators, and thence to the age of commerce. This was a powerful critique of the dominance of narrative history with its continuum of events, uninterrupted by any structural discontinuities. In this way the Scots later influenced some future intellectual developments from historical sociology to Marxist theory.6

(p. 3) The Enlightenment historians were followed by Sir Walter Scott, the world's first best-selling historical novelist, who, through his Waverley series and Tales of a Grandfather, had invested the Scottish past with magical appeal, not only in Britain but throughout Europe and North America. Scott correctly surmised in the introduction to Waverley (1814): ‘There is no European nation, which in the course of half a century or little more, has undergone so complete a change as the Kingdom of Scotland.’ This economic and social transformation, together with the political tensions that it generated, massively expanded the readership for his poetry and novels because they satisfied the nostalgic emotional needs of the propertied classes in a world experiencing unprecedented change from tradition to modernity. So, in the words of one commentator: ‘Sir Walter Scott probably did more for Scottish history in this period than all the Scottish universities put together.’7 Scott was also a potent force in the establishment of the great historical clubs, the Bannatyne, Maitland, Abbotsford, and Spalding, which were active in all the cities of the country apart from Dundee and did an enormous amount of work publishing original Scottish historical sources. But all this creative and editorial activity took place outside the formal structures of Scottish school and university education. Also, the publishing clubs had a short-lived existence. Most were in decline by the mid-nineteenth century and all soon ceased their activities in the decades that followed. Others only arose with the formation of the Scottish History Society in 1886.8

Neither the great figures of the Enlightenment nor the mesmerizing historical narratives of Scott, the Wizard of the North, saved Scottish history from academic irrelevance. Pre-1707 Scottish history received a critical pounding from eighteenth-century Enlightenment writers as a subject not worthy of serious study. It was depicted simply as a tale of feudal faction, political turbulence, religious fanaticism, and economic backwardness, in stark contrast to the constitutional, ‘civilized’, and material progress of England in the medieval and early modern centuries.9 The only ‘usable past’, therefore, was English constitutional history, and the English parliamentary experience became the template against which all other British political developments should be measured. Whig Anglo-British history inevitably became the favoured choice. The Enlightenment writers saw themselves as scholarly citizens of the world and such figures as William Robertson and Adam Ferguson came to regard Scottish history as parochial if picturesque. David Hume began a History of Great Britain (1754), which was concerned with the seventeenth century. As it moved back to the sixteenth century it became a History of England. Likewise, John Millar, a major influence on the development of modern sociology, established his reputation with An Historical View of the English Government (1787).

Ironically, the flowering of Scottish culture in which these writers played a prominent part ought to have given the lie to the idea of a backward and uninteresting Scottish (p. 4) nation. In the nineteenth century, however, the very influential English scholar, H. T. Buckle (1821–1862), forcefully attacked this possibility by describing these earlier Scottish intellectual activities as mere brief and ephemeral aberrations that had faded away before 1800. The Scottish norm in Buckle's view remained a long Scottish history of feudal backwardness and ecclesiastical tyranny.10 It was a perspective shared by most Scottish authorities at the time. Even Sir Walter Scott's fictional recoveries of the Scottish past could not withstand the intellectually devastating firepower that marginalized the national history as a fit subject for educational purposes. Indeed, his very success and the appeal of his dramatic and colourful tales helped to steer interest in the Scottish past into the intellectual dead end of ‘historical kailyards’ and romantic appendages.11

At root, perhaps, was the problem of the overwhelming dominance of uncritical unionism in Scottish politics before 1870. George Chalmers in his monumental Caledonia of 1807–24 was typical of that time in seeing 1707 as a liberation for the Scots, a sine qua non of their material and moral progress out of superstition and poverty.12 In several European countries mid-nineteenth-century nationalism spawned an historiographical revolution. This was not the case in Scotland. As Colin Kidd has suggested: ‘Between the mid-eighteenth century and the emergence of the Scottish question in the 1970s there was no credible, sustained or widely supported Scottish critique of the Anglo-Scottish Union, and as such no call for an articulate ideology of Anglo-Scottish unionism.’13

For much of the Victorian era in particular, Scotland seemed to enjoy the economic benefits of union and empire without either political interference from outside or the erosion of national identity. Much of the day-to-day administration of Scotland through the burghs, public boards, and courts of the Church remained in Scottish hands. Semi-independence was also guaranteed by the incomplete union that allowed the Scots to retain national powers over private law, the established Church, and education. Through imperial opportunities they not only exploited an abundance of middle-class and professional careers but experienced an enormous boost to national confidence as Scots came to be described in the public prints as natural empire builders. There were some sensitivities aroused, however, especially when the notion of Scotland as a full and equal partner in union seemed threatened (as with the foundation of the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights of 1853) or the Irish were thought to be obtaining unfair advantages at Scottish expense. For the most part, however, a nationalist challenge to the status quo failed to develop because there was no intrinsic political or economic rationale for it to emerge in Scotland.14

(p. 5) 2

It might be thought, however, that history was more on the side of Scottish History from the 1880s. Before that decade unionism has rightly been considered ‘banal’, in the sense employed by Michael Billig, in relation to nationalism, i.e. a political category so omnipresent and unquestioned that no explicit articulation of its importance was required.15 This changed in the 1880s. As ‘Englishness’ was redefined to incorporate a more populist concept of ‘England’, so these terms started to become increasingly used rather than ‘Britain’ and ‘British’, to the considerable displeasure of some of the Scottish political elite.16

Other factors brought Scottish issues onto the British political agenda. The fear in Scotland that resurgent nationalism was securing preferential treatment for Ireland was one issue. Then there were administrative reforms that were carried out, ostensibly at least, to help the Union function more effectively. These measures included the revival of the office of Secretary of Scotland, the establishment of the Scottish Office in London and a Scottish Standing Committee, within the Westminster Parliament, to consider all Scottish legislation.

The political context behind these initiatives was a movement for Scottish Home Rule within the Union. A Home Rule Association was founded, between 1886 and 1914, and seven Home Rule motions were presented to Parliament. This new impetus for constitutional change came within an ace of success in May 1914 when a Home Rule bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons. The outbreak of the First World War killed off the opportunity for the legislation to reach the statute book. Nonetheless, this political dynamic implied a more serious interest in specifically Scottish matters, which might plausibly be expected to have an impact on a revival in the history and culture of the nation.

Running parallel with these political changes was a widespread concern in influential circles that the Scottish universities, undeniably world-famous in the eighteenth century, were now declining into mediocrity. In the mid-nineteenth century the Indian civil-service examinations became open to public competition. The tradition of Scottish service in India had been long and very rewarding for the landed, professional, and mercantile classes of the country, a crucial mainstay of gentry and middle-class careers.17 Scottish failure in these new examinations therefore ‘amounted almost to a trauma in these sections of the Scottish community which had long traditions in India or who aspired to enter this lucrative career’.18 More generally, complaints now abounded that (p. 6) the products of Scottish universities,  had to go to England for advanced training because of their generalist education, that Scottish universities grossly neglected research studies, and that the teaching curricula had hardly changed in three hundred years. Some of the most wounding criticisms came from James Donaldson, rector of Edinburgh High School and editor of the Educational News, the journal founded by the Educational Institute of Scotland. Donaldson lamented in 1882: ‘The Scottish universities are schools with curricula fixed nearly on the old Reformation programme’, and argued that ‘an educational revolution’ had taken place in the nineteenth century and with it had come much greater ‘competition for distinction in science, scholarship, theology and all the higher intellectual pursuits’. In this context, however, the ‘Scotsman has to fight with bow and arrow against men armed with rifles and cannon. He is the handloom weaver of the intellectual world.’19

Because of the depth of concern a whole series of reform proposals came thick and fast in the later nineteenth century. An Act of Parliament in 1889 established an executive commission under the Court of Session judge, Lord Kinnear, which passed no fewer than 169 ordinances. These included a compulsory entrance examination, changes in arts, law, and medical degrees, including Honours courses. An entrance examination was in place by 1892 and meant that the common age at entry moved upwards from fourteen or fifteen to seventeen, which was facilitated by the introduction of the new leaving certificate for secondary schools. As late as the 1870s, only a small number of Arts students actually took degrees but, by 1914, there had been a transformation with most university students in Scotland now aiming to graduate. New chairs were founded and professorships in English History and Political Economy at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow promoted. Was this to be a new dawn for Scottish History, with the establishment of professorships in the discipline of History backed by state support for the first time in Scotland?20

The omens indeed seemed good. Sir William Fraser, clerk to Cosmo Innes and an eminent Edinburgh lawyer, left funds to create a Chair in Scottish History, later founded in 1901, in the University of Edinburgh. Some years afterwards, in 1913, a second professorship was established at the University of Glasgow, from funds realized by the 1911 exhibition of Scottish history, art, and industry at Kelvingrove Park.21

It was not an entirely false dawn, even if the skies remained somewhat cloudy for some time to come. Certainly, the admiration of Scottish intellectuals, particularly members of the legal profession, for the constitutional history of England, endured. History in the Scottish universities developed much later than in Oxford and Cambridge, and it was therefore perhaps predictable that the focus of these institutions on Whig constitutionalism would become the pedagogic model for the new chairs of History at Edinburgh and Glasgow, especially in the form of medieval institutional history of the type so (p. 7) fashionable in contemporary English scholarship.22 The first Professor of History at Glasgow in 1894 was Richard Lodge, Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, while the new Edinburgh chair went to a Cambridge man, George Prothero:

Thus, the first two chairs of history in Scotland were filled by Oxbridge candidates … Academic history was [for them] primarily the corporate worship of the origins and development of the contemporary parliamentary establishment at Westminster which both the Scottish and English middle classes regarded as the supreme embodiment of their national class and communal interests.23

The persistent anglicization of the curriculum was also fortified by the developing belief that the study of history was not simply to be regarded as a cultural experience but rather as practical study which trained students to be future national statesmen and imperial administrators. These essential skills could only be taught and learned by ‘proper history’, as articulated by William Stubbs's teaching of the constitutional history of England. Stubbs was the Regius Chair of History at Oxford from 1866 and the most influential academic historian of the age.24

It would be most unfair, however, to label the successors of Lodge and Prothero simply as agents of English cultural imperialism in Scotland. Some historians from south of the border did make important contributions to Scottish history. The outstanding example was C. S. Terry, promoted to a professorship at Aberdeen University in 1903, who had an academic background in Cambridge and Durham. He did much in his writings to rehabilitate the pre-1707 Scottish Parliament after the long tradition of negative criticism emanating from the school of Whig historiography.25 Similarly, but at a later date, Richard Pares, who became a professor at Edinburgh in 1945, introduced the remarkable regulation that all students for Honours in history had to attend a survey course in Scottish History, a requirement later abandoned by his successors when he returned to Oxford in 1954.26

Yet, well into the twentieth century, the intellectual orthodoxies remained unfavourable both to the expansion of research and teaching in Scottish history. Since history had come to be regarded as an important and relevant training for future statesmen, civil servants, and imperial administrators, English constitutional history was preferred since it outlined the history of the state in which students were citizens of the United Kingdom rather than Scotland: ‘What sort of school for statesmen was the history of a stateless nation? Though rich in heroic characters and dramatic episodes, Scotland's past appeared to lack a whiggish plot.’27

In some respects, the first two Scottish History professors, Peter Hume Brown and Robert Rait, at Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively, swam against this tide. Both (p. 8) published extensively. Hume Brown produced among other books a three-volume general history of Scotland. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, a sign that high-quality academic work was now being done in Scottish history.28 Rait was an expert on the Scottish Parliament but also wrote for the general public, with The Making of Scotland in 1911 and a popular History of Scotland in 1914.

But this was not yet an entirely new era. Academic researchers in Scottish history before 1945 were still few and far between, not least because of the premium that the Scottish university system in general at the time placed on teaching rather than original scholarship. Hume Brown's syntheses (1899–1911) remained the standard university textbooks as late as the early 1960s, a half-century after they first appeared.29 The creation of separate chairs in the subject did in part reflect its relative neglect in general history teaching, but the development was ambiguous because it threatened to isolate Scottish history from mainstream advances in the discipline as a whole.30 Moreover, most of the new scholarship that was published still tended to concentrate on pre-Union Scotland. To all intents and purposes it seemed that only the ‘independent’ nation was a worthy and proper focus for academic research. Modern Scottish history remained a Cinderella subject and a tradition that took a long time to die. The first modernist was finally appointed to the Edinburgh chair as late as 2005. Glasgow did only slightly better. Of the six holders of the established Scottish History chair there to date, George Pryde in the 1950s was the only appointment to break the long line of medievalists and early modernists. When J. D. Hargreaves delivered his inaugural lecture as the new Burnett-Fletcher professor at Aberdeen in 1964, he was able to claim that the history of Scotland since 1707 was less studied than that of Yorkshire.31 Remarkably, William Ferguson's Scotland: 1689 to the Present, which appeared in 1968, became the first ever book-length study of the last three hundred years of Scottish political and social history written by an academic historian.


Scottish research historians in the universities of the early 1950s numbered around fifteen and the expertise of most of them lay in the centuries before 1700. The subject was taught at the undergraduate level in the four ancient Scottish universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St Andrews, but attracted few students and had a low profile. There was a tiny number of PhD scholars: as late as 1966 only three research degrees in Scottish history were completed in the UK as a whole. Professional Scottish historians felt marginalized and defensive, never being really certain whether their (p. 9) colleagues in the mainstream of the history discipline regarded them as intellectually respectable. The two Professors of Scottish History in the later 1950s, George Pryde at Glasgow (died 1961) and William Croft Dickinson at Edinburgh (died 1963), were austere scholars of high quality but their publications were unlikely to have much resonance in the world outside the universities. Scottish history had a reputation for being solid but dull, incapable of competing with the exciting momentum being achieved in so many aspects of European, American, and British history at the time.32

Nonetheless, important seeds were being sown. Croft Dickinson re-established The Scottish Historical Review, the main journal in the subject, which had ended publication earlier in the century. There was institutional expansion in social and economic history, soon to have a powerful impact on modern Scottish history in general. Queen's College, Dundee (still part of St Andrews) appointed a professor in this emerging field in 1955, with other chairs established in Glasgow in 1957 and Edinburgh in 1958. Books of genuine quality began to appear on the modern period, with new and exciting perspectives reflecting the advances in the subject outside Scotland. The works of Henry Hamilton on the Industrial Revolution and Malcolm Gray on the Highlands, both of Aberdeen University, were especially distinguished. But perhaps the most stimulating, and a portent for the future, was Laurance J. Saunders's Scottish Democracy 1815–1840: The Social and Intellectual Background (1950). Saunders was not a member of a history department but held a chair of constitutional law at Edinburgh. Nevertheless, he produced a text of innovative and perceptive research, written in clear and appealing prose, on one of the seminal periods of economic, social, and intellectual change in modern Scottish history. D. W. Brogan of Cambridge, reviewing it for the Scottish Historical Review, commented fulsomely that the book ‘represents both original and penetrating research and a very high degree of synthetic power; and was such a model of clarity and organisation that the critical reviewer is baffled in the performance of his duty’.33 Saunders had eloquently demonstrated the range of fascinating questions that had never been raised, far less answered, about the recent Scottish past. Here, indeed, it was implied, was a subject full of intellectual challenge and exciting cultural relevance.

Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s, historians of modern Scotland achieved more in two decades than their predecessors had done in two centuries. The four-volume Edinburgh History of Scotland, written by Archie Duncan, Ranald Nicholson, Gordon Donaldson, and William Ferguson, gave twentieth-century Scots a professional account of their past from the earliest days to the 1960s. Hume Brown was now finally superseded. R. H. Campbell's Scotland since 1707 (1965) steered the nation's scholarship towards economic history, the key intellectual dynamic of the 1960s and 1970s. A few years later, T. C. Smout's A History of the Scottish People 1560–1830 (1969) extended the breadth of the subject into such social issues as demography, social class, culture, and the life experience of ordinary people. Written in luminous prose, it became a best-seller, even attracting (p. 10) generous praise in the TLS from that notorious Scotophobe, Hugh Trevor Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. Smout's book opened the eyes and expanded the ambitions of an entire generation of undergraduate and graduate students. It became a catalytic force in the study of modern Scottish History.

It was indeed an exciting period, not least for the current editors of this Handbook who lived through it. Looking back, it is possible to detect that significant forces were at work. First, the Whig interpretation of history, which had cast such a pall over the study of serious Scottish history for generations, crumbled and eventually became extinct under the assaults of English scholars such as Herbert Butterfield and Lewis Namier. No longer was Scottish historiography imprisoned within a narrative of defective and inadequate development.34 Second, the Robbins Report in 1964 advised a programme of unprecedented general expansion in British higher education. The results were truly historic. The ancient universities in Scotland grew exponentially in staff numbers, and the new universities of Strathclyde, Dundee, Heriot-Watt, and Stirling soon gained royal charters. All hired more historians than ever before (even the more technically orientated Heriot-Watt for a time). A substantial number of these scholars had expertise in economic or social history. Third, to fill the new posts, apart from a few Scots, historians mainly trained at English universities and at the cutting edge of the discipline were recruited in significant numbers to Scottish academic positions. The bulk of these again were economic and social historians. For them transfers of intellectual interest were reasonably straightforward: studying trade in Hull could easily lead to an examination of the commerce of Glasgow, while poverty issues in Leeds and Liverpool might lead on to consideration of social welfare in Dundee and Edinburgh. Moreover, the study of economic and social history was not fixated with Westminster and its doings. As a result, Scottish history was not only liberated from the old constitutional rut but became embedded within the mainstream of generic European scholarship, where issues very relevant to Scotland—peasant life, rural transformation, emigration, urbanization, industrialization, and much else—were commonplace.

The greatest impact of this scholarly invasion was experienced at Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Strathclyde. The list of the major figures involved was an illustrious one: Michael Anderson, FRSE, FBA; John Butt, FRSE; Neil Buxton; Sydney Checkland, FBA; Baron F. Duckham; Michael Flinn; Gordon Jackson; Clive Lee; Edgar Lythe; Rosalind Mitchison, FRSE; R. J. Morris; Peter Payne, FRSE; Christopher Smout, FRSE, FBA; James Treble; J. T. Ward, to name but a few. Many of the current crop of modern Scottish historians in post benefited from the stimulating teaching and innovative research of this notable generation. In areas of economy and society, at least, Scottish scholarship began rapidly to catch up with the subject elsewhere.

At the same time, the context of Scottish politics was changing. The rise of the SNP from the 1960s, the devolution agenda, and the pollsters’ conclusions that in terms of identity ‘Scottishness’ seemed to be gaining on ‘Britishness’, provided for a new, public interest in Scottish history. At the start, much of this was satisfied by popular writers (p. 11) such as John Prebble and Nigel Tranter. But academic historians soon made their presence felt in the print, radio, and television media.35 These political changes above all lent the modern era a relevance and credibility outside the academic domain that it had previously lacked. Many Scots developed a new hunger for understanding the connection between the Scottish past and the Scottish present. Ironically, this appetite for knowledge among adults was partially stimulated by the basic failings in their own school education where, for the most part, Scottish History until more recent times had remained marginal and taught in what one informed observer termed a ‘deadly fashion’.36

The result of this transformation was a veritable historiographical bonanza. Key works were published in the history of commerce, banking, industry, business, transport, industrial archaeology, and much more. Then the pendulum started to swing to social history in the 1980s and 1990s, with leading-edge research in demography, urbanization, poverty, social class, and much else. Specialist groups were founded in economic history, labour history, history of education, Scottish Catholic history (established long before the revival in the late 1940s), and industrial archaeology. Modern Scottish history came to be situated in a comparative context with a series of Irish–Scottish conferences and their accompanying publications from 1977 and other related innovative work. Large-scale collaborative research projects also developed, often generously funded by external agencies, notably at Aberdeen in Irish–Scottish studies, Stirling and St Andrews in environmental history, St Andrews in the history of the Scottish Parliament, and Edinburgh in diaspora studies. The subject seemed to have developed towards a new intellectual maturity. But what of its current weaknesses?37

In an article published in 2007, T. C. Smout was unambiguous, and in response to that question, voiced concern that the gains in research may mean little to scholars outside Scotland; that still too many Scottish historians fail to attempt to relate their work to issues in the international historiographical agenda, so continuing the old accusations of introspection and parochialism; economic history, formerly the catalyst, now virtually disappeared into oblivion; and, he added, that in environmental history, gender studies, modern political history, and cultural history the interest in Scotland, though increasing, remained underdeveloped.38

In addition, however, an even more important challenge is the failure thus far to trigger intensive debate, the clash of ideas, in key areas of study, without which the subject cannot renew itself. The Union of 1707 on its tercentenary in 2007 did cause some vigorous discussion and, from time to time, the Highland clearances do still stoke debate in the public prints, though usually along worn ruts and pretty predictable and routine lines of argument.

Part of the difficulty is that there lingers a lack of confidence among some historians of Scotland, a need to search for the way to establish their identity and the importance of (p. 12) their subject. This was evident very recently in a fascinating and wide-ranging conference on ‘Whither Scottish History’ in October 2010 sponsored by the Scottish Historical Review. This surely relates to the theme already discussed, the lack of serious scholarship until the second half of the twentieth century. Another convention, a much more pernicious one, also endures: the passion for romance, invented or quasi-real. This is above all encapsulated in the early modern period in the obsession with that lamentable figure, Mary, Queen of Scots, but the equally lamentable Bonnie Prince Charlie runs her a close second. The number of books on Mary is vast. Most are dire. But it is surely the responsibility of professional scholars to try to direct attention away from Mary to the much more fascinating kingdom she ruled (very briefly). Visitors to Linlithgow, for example, should be told of the really important and influential monarch in Linlithgow's story, James V, instead of receiving undue emphasis on the fact that Mary, who hardly ever chose to go to Linlithgow, happened to be born there. Any history can shade into myth, romance, fiction. But it is difficult to think of any other society where the two-year antics of a failed ruler—the only failure in a royal house whose kingship was devastatingly impressive for two centuries—have been allowed such a dominant place in early modern historical discussion.

If Mary, Queen of Scots exemplifies one way in which Scottish historians have spent proportionately too much time on a minor issue, at the expense of infinitely more important and interesting ones, another is the uncertainty about whether Scottish history is indeed a subject in its own right, or whether it will only be of interest if set in a wider context, British or international. Ranald Nicholson, mentioned earlier in this introduction, did indeed write a solid and impressive history of the later Middle Ages. But he was informed by his desire to show that Scotland shone as a notable example of concepts then fashionable among historians of other countries. Thus Scotland's ‘New Monarchy Triumphant’ was—had to be—in the top rank and, as Nicholson argued in a lecture given at Glasgow University, certainly superior to that of England. It was unfortunate that already J. H. Elliott was mounting a convincing critique of the whole idea.39 What Nicholson was doing—and he was by no means alone in this, and not the last to do it—was writing Scottish history that fitted Scotland into the historiographical fashions of other societies. The problem here was that such an approach came up against the problem that Scotland might not be so readily fitted in; in other words, Scotland had to be considered not as an example of something else, but in its own right. As has already been said, the study of pre-1707 Scottish History used to be seriously neglected, as the history of a backward and violent society. What that really meant was that it did not have the precociously developed governmental and bureaucratic system of England, and therefore another fashionable concept, the overmighty nobility, was predictably portrayed even more overmighty and destructive than any other. Only when the premise was questioned—could a kingdom be civilized only if ruled like England?—did it emerge that Scotland was not a pale reflection of England, but a kingdom with very (p. 13) different political and social mores, which actually challenged prevailing ideas, and its history could be used, therefore, to ask a series of different questions.

An offshoot of this problem, and another way in which Scottish historians can be seen to grope for identity, is in that great new fashion, ‘British History’. What this could mean, south of the border, could all too often be English history given the name of British. In Simon Schama's much-praised television series, The History of Britain, Scotland before 1603 was discussed three times: Skara Brae, Wallace and Bruce, and Knox and Mary. It was ever thus, and not only in works published by English historians on, for example, ‘Tudor Britain’.40 It was exactly what courses in the Scottish universities, euphemistically entitled ‘British History’, had done. Small wonder, therefore, that Scottish historians had tried to fight back by insisting on the importance of Scotland. But in the second half of the twentieth century, when the new ‘British’ historiographical problem came into play, that was overtaken by the insistent demand that we all, Scots, English, Irish, Welsh, were British historians now. The late and great Welsh historian Rees Davies determinedly sought to create a British framework for the four societies of the high medieval period. It is questionable whether that really worked.41 But it did look as if such a framework could really come into its own in the early modern period, when Scotland joined the composite monarchy of England, Wales, and Ireland. Surely it would have much to offer Scottish historians, so long at the mercy in this period of Anglocentric interpretations of the union of the crowns of 1603 and its consequences? And in the flood of publications on early modern British history, Scottish historians found themselves welcome guests and cheerfully became engaged, even though gloomy mutterings about Anglocentricity remained.42


Contributors to this volume were asked to respond to the guidelines in the Oxford University Press Handbook series. The Handbooks are designed as works of scholarly reference, addressing the need to ‘stand back’ in order to distinguish the wood from the trees and reflect critically on the state of learning. They are also intended to help shape (p. 14) the field by giving primacy to approaches and issues that seem most likely to lift the debate out of excessively worn historical ruts. The chapters, therefore, seek to give succinct accounts of their subjects and be accessible to readers without specialist knowledge but at the same time, unlike a general synthesis, a conventional reference book or a dictionary, they will try to press the limits of current knowledge and address questions that remain unanswered and the agenda for future research. One of the objectives here is to make those controversies that do exist in interpreting the Scottish past more explicit and more amenable to debate, challenge, and disputation, which are the very lifeblood of any vigorous academic discipline.43

Within these broad parameters we had to make a number of choices as editors. The most important is that we believe ‘the history of modern Scotland’ should be analysed from the Renaissance and Reformation periods rather than the previous conventional starting points such as the Union of 1707 or the later seventeenth century. As several of the chapters in the book will demonstrate, there are long-run social, religious, and intellectual forces that shaped the modern Scottish nation which cannot be fully understood without reaching back in time to the sixteenth century.

We have also sought to encourage the existing trend towards the internationalization of Scottish history by commissioning chapters on emigration, immigration, and empire. ‘Greater Scotland’ arguably needs much attention in light of the long history from the medieval period of the huge numbers of emigrants associated with the Scottish diaspora. In addition, all authors have been advised, whenever appropriate, to make reference to the Scottish historical experience within a comparative framework of reference. We have also been keen to tap into the expertise of other disciplines such as geography, political science, literature, and sociology. All of them have made signal contributions to an understanding of modern Scottish history in recent years. They can often add an important theoretical dimension, still sometimes absent from the strongly empiricist traditions of the subject.

The selection of topics and contributors was especially challenging. There are certain key themes which, of course, had to be included, such as Reformation, the Union of 1707, Industrialization, Enlightenment, the First World War, and the like. But we were also keen to encourage emerging fields. So there are chapters on environment, myth, family, empire, criminality and violence, gender, contemporary society, and economy. We hope that these essays will encourage even more much-needed research into these important areas.

It is one sign of the new energy of the discipline that there are now many more distinguished scholars at work than we could possibly have invited to take part in this project. In the end we used three criteria to decide on the selection of contributors: first, eminent historians in their respective fields; second, younger scholars who by their existing publications are beginning to make fresh and original contributions; third, historians (p. 15) outside Scotland who might be able to see the Scottish experience in a more fresh and interesting light. In fact, sixteen of the authors in the book are based in institutions in England, Ireland, Wales, Canada, and New Zealand. This is itself an indication of the increasing international interest in Scottish history.


Completion of a project on the scale of this Handbook would not have been possible without the help of many people. We are grateful in the first instance to our contributors for their exemplary patience and support during the two-year gestation of the volume, and for their courteous and speedy responses to our editorial suggestions and queries. We also thank the large number of anonymous external reviewers whom we recruited to help comment on first drafts of chapters. Their contributions were invaluable and did much to enhance the overall quality of the final volume. Our editors at Oxford University Press could not have been more supportive. We thank in particular Christopher Wheeler, who first commissioned the Handbook, for his professional advice. Stephanie Ireland, Emma Barber, and Matthew Cotton of OUP were unfailingly helpful and efficient. Richard Mason was a meticulous copy-editor. Last, but by no means whatsoever least, we are very pleased to record our immense gratitude to Margaret Begbie, the anchor of the entire project, who maintained regular contact with contributors, reminded them of various deadlines, and replied with characteristic efficiency and tact to their various questions and concerns.

T.M.D.  and J.W.

June 2011

Further Reading

Anderson, Robert, ‘University History Teaching and the Humboldtian Model in Scotland, 1858–1914’, History of Universities, vol. 25/1 (2010).Find this resource:

Ash, Marinell, The Strange Death of Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1980).Find this resource:

Hargreaves, J. D., ‘Historical Study in Scotland’, Aberdeen University Review, vol. xi (1964).Find this resource:

Lenman, Bruce P., ‘The Teaching of Scottish History in the Scottish Universities’, Scottish Historical Review, vol. lii (October 1973).Find this resource:

Lynch, Michael, ed., The Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford 2011).Find this resource:

Smout, T. C., ‘Scottish History in the Universities since the 1950s’, History Scotland, vol. 7 (September/October 2007).Find this resource:

‘Special Issue: “Whither Scottish History”: Proceedings of the Strathclyde Conference’, Scottish Historical Review, vol. lxxiii (April 1994).Find this resource:

‘Special Issue: “Writing Scotland's History”: Proceedings of the Edinburgh Conference’, Scottish Historical Review, vol. lxxvi (April 1997).Find this resource:


(1) T. C. Smout, ‘Scottish History in the Universities since the 1950s’, History Scotland, vol. 7 (September/October 2007), 49.

(2) Marinell Ash, The Strange Death of Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1980), 10.

(3) Bruce P. Lenman, ‘The Teaching of Scottish History in the Scottish Universities’, Scottish Historical Review, vol. lii (October 1973), 171–3.

(4) Ash, Strange Death, 148.

(5) Colin Kidd, ‘The Strange Death of Scottish History Revisited: Constructions of the Past in Scotland, c.1790–1914’, Scottish Historical Review, vol. lxxvi (April 1997), 100.

(6) Karen O’Brien, ‘Between Enlightenment and Stadial History’, Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 16 (March 1993), 53–64.

(7) Lenman, ‘Teaching of Scottish History’, 171. The most recent study is Stuart Kelly, Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation (Edinburgh, 2010).

(8) Michael Lynch, ed., The Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford, 2001), 315–16.

(9) Colin Kidd, Subverting Scotland's Past (Cambridge, 1995).

(10) M. Fry, ‘The Whig Interpretation of Scottish History’, in I. Donnachie and C. Whatley, eds., The Manufacture of Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1992).

(11) Richard J. Finlay, ‘Controlling the Past: Scottish Historiography and Scottish Identity in the 19th and 20th Centuries’, Scottish Affairs, 9 (autumn 1994), 124.

(12) George Chalmers, Caledonia, 3 vols. (London, 1807–24), vol. I, 866.

(13) Colin Kidd, Union and Unionisms: Political Thought in Scotland, 1500–2000 (Cambridge, 2008), 24.

(14) There is considerable literature on these issues. For an overview and summation see T. M. Devine, The Scottish Nation, 1700–2007 (London, 2006), 285–95.

(15) Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London, 1995), and for the Scottish analogy, Kidd, Union and Unionisms, 23–31.

(16) R. Colls and P. Dodds, Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880–1920 (London, 1986).

(17) See Andrew Mackillop's chapter on Scots in the eastern empire in ‘Locality, Nation and Empire: Scots in Asia, c.1695–c.1813’, in John M. Mackenzie and T. M. Devine, eds., Scotland and the British Empire (Oxford, 2011).

(18) Ash, Strange Death, 150.

(19) Contemporary Review, vol. xli (1882), 150.

(20) R. D. Anderson, Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland (Edinburgh, 1983), 269ff.

(21) Gordon Donaldson, Sir William Fraser (Edinburgh, 1985); Lenman, ‘Teaching of Scottish History’, 177–8.

(22) Robert Anderson, ‘University History Teaching and the Humboldtian Model in Scotland, 1858–1914’, History of Universities, vol. 25/1 (2010), 149–50.

(23) Lenman, ‘Teaching of Scottish History’, 174.

(24) Ash, Strange Death, 149–50.

(25) C. S. Terry, Scottish Parliaments 1603–1707 (Glasgow, 1905).

(26) J. G., D. H., and L. B. Namier, ‘Richard Pares’, English Historical Review, vol. 73 (October 1958), 577–82.

(27) Anderson, ‘University History Teaching’, 167; Kidd, ‘Strange Death’, 99.

(28) ‘The Late Professor Hume Brown’, The Scotsman, 2 December 1918.

(29) Anderson, ‘University History Teaching’, 160.

(30) Lenman, ‘Teaching of Scottish History’, 176.

(31) J. D. Hargreaves, ‘Historical Study in Scotland’, Aberdeen University Review, vol. xi (1964), 237–50.

(32) Smout, ‘Scottish History in the Universities’, 45; Lenman, ‘Teaching of Scottish History’, 178–9; Finlay, ‘Controlling the Past’, 135.

(33) Scottish Historical Review, vol. 31 (April 1952), 82–4.

(34) Kidd, Union and Unionisms, 169.

(35) Smout, ‘Scottish History in the Universities’, 49.

(36) Lenman, ‘Teaching of Scottish History’, 179.

(37) For example, R. A. Houston and I. D. Whyte, eds., Scottish Society, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, 1989).

(38) Smout, ‘Scottish History in the Universities’, 49–50.

(39) Ranald Nicholson, Scotland: The Later Middle Ages (Edinburgh, 1974). J. H. Elliott, Imperial Spain, 1469–1716 (London, 1963), ch. 3.

(40) Thus The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor and Stuart Britain, ed. John Morrill (Oxford, 1996); this is a remarkable example of Anglocentric history under the name of Britain, simply because the editor is a historian who has a notable claim to be genuinely ‘British’. It is an indication of the extent of the problem.

(41) For example, Rees Davies, The Matter of Britain and the Matter of England (Oxford, 1996), and The First English Empire (Oxford, 2000).

(42) The list of ‘British’ books is a very long one. In the interests of space, only two will be cited here. R. G. Asch, ed., Three Nations—a Common History? England, Scotland, Ireland and British History c.1600–1920 (Bochum, 1993), and Glenn Burgess, ed., The New British History: Founding a Modern State, 1603–1715 (London, 1999). Footnotes and, in the second work, a section on Further Reading, provide plenty more examples.

(43) For reviews of the recent historiography see ‘Special Issue: “Whither Scottish History”: Proceedings of the Strathclyde Conference’, Scottish Historical Review, vol. lxxiii (April 1994), and ‘Special Issue: “Writing Scotland's History”: Proceedings of the Edinburgh Conference’, Scottish Historical Review, vol. lxxvi (April 1997).