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Writing Scotland's History

by Allan I. Macinnes 16th July 2019

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.
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Image credit: Dunnottar Castle by Eduardo Unda. Available on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY 2.0.
Power and its exercise through state formation and confessional differences demarcated the Middle Ages from the early modern period in Scotland as in the rest of Europe. The opening up of the Americas, Africa and Asia to global adventuring expedited the transoceanic movement of peoples, goods and ideas. The rise of political economy from the mid-seventeenth century pointed the way towards modernity. Diets were fundamentally changed, slavery brutally exploited and capital repatriated to enhance public life, expand commerce and promote industry. The growth of consumerism not only fostered global awareness, but altered priorities for class and community interests. Scotland became incorporated with England into the United Kingdom from 1707 and they were jointly associated in the expansion and maintenance of the British Empire.

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.
Above all, an account of Scottish history must marry policy to process. The Reformation in Scotland in the mid-sixteenth century was not just about the pursuit of salvation in a godly commonwealth. It also led to deformation with respect to the visual arts, the built environment and the persecution of witches. Scotland became a European force for Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. But its practical record of improvement with respect to town and country planning, education and literacy, poor relief and social welfare was rather mixed. The suffragette movement, the key role of women in rent strikes and trade unions as in national and local government in the course of the twentieth century has redressed the patriarchal bias of history. But such redress is not always progressive. Elite Scottish women were prominent beneficiaries from the compensation awarded for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. Political leadership by women as British prime ministers were signal influences on the ruthless deindustrialisation of Scotland in the 1980s and in the current evolving shambles of British withdrawal from the European Union against the expressed wish of the majority the Scottish population.
Featured image credit: 'The Return of Mary Queen of Scots to Edinburgh' (1870) painted by James Drummond. In the Public Domain and available on Wikimedia Commons.