Historiography of Scotland

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The historiography of Scotland refers to the sources and critical methods used by scholars to come to an understanding of the history of Scotland. Scottish historiography begins with Chronicles of the Picts and Scots, many of them written by monks in Latin.

The first to adopt a critical approach to organising this material was also a monk, Andrew of Wyntoun in the 14th century. His clerical connections gave him access to sources in monasteries across Scotland, England and beyond, and his educated background perhaps fuelled his critical spirit. Nevertheless, he wrote his chronicle in a poetic format and at the behest of patrons. He begins his tale with the creation of angels. Nevertheless, his later volumes (closer to his own time) are still a prime source for modern historians. The critical spirit was taken forward by the Paris based philosopher and historian John Mair, who weeded out many of the fabulous aspects of the story. Following him, the first Principal of Aberdeen University, Hector Boece further developed the evidence-based and critical approach. Bishop John Lesley, not only a scholar but, as a minister of the Scottish Crown, with unrivaled access to source materials, laid the foundations for modern historiography.

The disputes of the Reformation sharpened critical approaches on all sides, while the humanistic concern for ancient sources saw particular attention being devoted to the collection, conservation and organisation of historical evidence. George Buchanan was perhaps the greatest of the Scottish humanists. The importance of history to all sides in religious disputes led to divergence of views, but also further developed techniques of analysis during the 17th Century. This was also a time of an increasing demand by governments for data - statistical, administrative and legal - on their realms. This was another motor for systematic evidence collection and analysis. Many of the Scottish jurists - Lord Stair - contributed to the development of modern Scottish historiography.

The 18th century saw itself as the Age of Reason and in this climate of Enlightenment, seemingly measured approaches were taken both by those who maintained a distinctly religious approach - such as Principal William Robertson - "The history of Scotland, during the reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI. (London : 1759)" - and those who sought to escape from that perspective. Among the latter, the greatest was David Hume, in whose work we can see the beginnings of modern historiography. No doubt limited by his own perspective, and by the still limited evidence available, he nonetheless set out a picture of the development of Scottish history which still convinces many today. This century was also the century which saw the beginnings of a local archaeology, though this was still regarded somewhat of a personal eccentricity.

The fact that Hume's "History of Great Britain" was very quickly renamed "History of England" is indicative of a change of focus that happened follow the Treaty of Union (1707) with England. Thereafter, a particularly Scottish historiography languished - whether in a romanticised nostalgia for a lost identity, or in continuing religious polemics. Scottish History became a sub-chapter in English history. Even so great an historian as Lord McAuley wrote only a "History of England".

This began to change in the 1960s. With the expansion of Higher Education, new Universities were established and with them new departments of history, some specialising in Scottish history. This allowed new attention to be paid to the particular geographic, demographic, governmental, legal and cultural structures of Scotland and to relate these to the wider European context, as well as those of Great Britain and its Empire. The distinctiveness of Scottish historiography now lies in its object of study rather than its approaches - though no doubt earlier historians can be glimpsed looking over their shoulders to events in England