When I was researching my last book about suicide in historic Britain, I had to find out how Scots investigated sudden or suspicious death: what was the Scottish equivalent of the well-known English coroner? One of the first hits that I got from an internet search engine about ‘Scotland coroners’ is the following statement from pathologist and crime writer Bernard Knight: ‘The office of Coroner is a uniquely English institution … Scotland, of course, never had coroners’. Yet I knew from my thirty years as an academic historian that this was untrue. This provoked my curiosity and I started rooting around in the archives.
So what did you find out?
Scottish magistrates or ‘procurators fiscal’ investigated unusual deaths, but they did so in private. In contrast, English coroners’ inquests were public, participative events involving a jury of local men. Both systems wanted to know if a crime had been committed, but they followed quite different procedures.
That still leaves Scottish coroners: what did they do?
Scottish coroners were judicial functionaries who presented criminals for trial and seized their assets. They were court officers who dealt with living miscreants rather than the suspicious dead. They only stopped working for the criminal courts around the time of Union with England in 1707, because judicial procedures changed.
So the big difference is between Scotland and England?
Well, yes and no … Because Scotland had different laws (and still does) the investigation of death was handled quite differently. However, coroners in the north of England (and in Wales, by the way) were very similar to their Scottish counterparts until the Tudors assimilated these peripheral regions into the English state. They held inquests into deaths, but they also worked as agents of criminal justice and even as administrators. I think that the north of England was for centuries socially and culturally similar to Scotland. Part of that was the way law and order was maintained.
So your book has implications for the current debate on regional devolution and even Scottish independence?
I think so. In one sense my findings bring out how distinct Scotland’s past was from that of England. For example, the roots of Scottish coroners lie in Celtic officials of the Middle Ages. The path of their development between 1300 and 1700 was quite different from what happened with coroners over much of England during that period. But similarities between the countries are just as intriguing as differences. What I learned is that national frontiers are important in many ways, but they often draw arbitrary lines, which meant little to people in the past and which may be exaggerated for us by a concentration on politics. I think the people of north (and west) of Britain always have had different social and cultural priorities from those in the south and east. To me this is the fundamental division within Britain: not any political dividing line between Scotland and England.