When writing a history of Scotland, how do you decide what to leave out and what to include?Far more than a research monograph, writing a history of Scotland compounds problems of what to leave out and what to include. Sins of omission tend to outweigh sins of commission. Initial notions that I could rework lecture notes from over four decades teaching Scottish history were soon jettisoned. The explosion of scholarship, both disciplinary and interdisciplinary, meant that what may have sufficed in the 1970s certainly did not in the 2010s. The intellectual spine of the book is firmly set in the historical discipline with written records accorded primacy over theoretical approaches. Historical understanding is greatly enhanced by archaeology in the medieval period, by social sciences in the early modern period and by literary criticism in the modern and contemporary period. At the same time affiliated historical disciplines in art and architecture, economics, law and religion give greater depth and colour to the general narrative.
Interdisciplinary approaches are particularly vital for the early Middle Ages where there is a pronounced paucity of historical records. Archaeology from the ground up serves as a practical check to a top down historical focus on social elites. Place name evidence is also invaluable in tracing settlement patterns as well as social structures, commercial exchanges and religious observances. Nevertheless, there is a danger of interpreting such evidence in a diffusionist manner that presumes greater influence on Scotland from the south and the west rather than from the east and north. Moving into the later Middle Ages, cultural and gender studies are having an increasing impact on historical analysis. But this had tended to over-emphasise elite history headed up by kings, queens and the church. A lack of Latin among the current crop of historians may account in part for this development, but not for the declining interest in the forensic scrutiny of under-used written records, such as monastic rent-rolls, which give a less elitist perspective on life in the fields, mines and salt-pans, and fishing-boats of Scotland.
Image credit: Dunnottar Castle by Eduardo Unda. Available on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY 2.0.
Such transoceanic engagement requires particular emphasis to three approaches. A History of Scotland has to focus on integration rather than isolation, notably with respect to longstanding and revitalised ties to Scandinavia and continental Europe, notwithstanding Union and Empire. Any history of Scotland must seek to integrate domestic and colonial developments. Scotland was not exempt from the inflation which afflicted all of Europe following the discovery of gold and silver in South America in the sixteenth century. The Union of 1707 was shaped by commercial networking overseas no less than by party politics in Edinburgh and London. Retreat from Empire and the increased centralisation of the British State did much to fuel the rise of the nationalist movement now ensconced as the Scottish National Party (SNP), the party of government in Scotland.
Any history of Scotland must seek to integrate domestic and colonial developments.