Inaugural Lecture: ‘Rethinking Scottish Origins’

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On 12 November 2013, the Inaugural Lecture for the Chair in Scottish History and Literature was held in the Humanity Lecture Theatre in the main building of the University of Glasgow. Professor Dauvit Broun, who shares the Chair with Professor Alan Riach, presented ‘Rethinking Scottish Origins’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Professor Broun’s lecture was prefaced with an introduction–and heartfelt tribute–by his friend and colleague Professor Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh. Professor Ó Maolalaigh listed a litany of positive adjectives to describe Professor Broun’s character and scholarship, from ‘indefatigable’ to ‘innovative’. The humility of Professor Broun (or ‘Davie’ as he is affectionately known) was especially noted, and Professor Ó Maolalaigh felt this Gaelic proverb summed up Davie’s self-effacing nature:

“It is the heaviest ear of corn that most lowly bends its head.”

Professor Ó Maolalaigh’s assessment was immediately proven correct when Professor Broun began his lecture by deferring to the scholarship of his predecessors, Professor Archie Duncan and Professor Ted Cowan. He hoped to follow their lead by maintaining a focus on the ‘people at large’, rather than just the elite, of Scotland. The merits of interdisciplinary approach were plainly obvious, as across the lecture Professor Broun touched on every single Subject area within the School of Humanities: History, Celtic & Gaelic, Classics, Philosophy, Archaeology and HATII.

The crucial period for the formation of Scotland as we now know it (a single country and people) was the thirteenth-century. Professor Broun rejected the ‘top-down’ process of the formation of France as envisioned by Collette Beaune in her book The Birth of an Ideology. For Scotland, he championed an approach based on unconscious expressions of identity from various levels of Scottish society.

Before the 13th century, Scottish identity was in flux. A charter from the 1180s identifies Scotland as a land of laws and customs distinct from its neighbour, England. During the reign of Henry II of England, there was a growing sense of what it meant to be Scottish, and this was often in contrast with England. Bucking the trend in England which saw a development of royal authority in this period, baronial power in Scotland grew steadily across the 12th and 13th centuries. Following this, Professor Broun agreed with Steve Boardman’s assertion that people were Scottish (or English) based on their allegiance, not their language, i.e. obedience to the Scottish king made one Scottish.

This growing sense of ‘Scottishness’ was made more tangible by the extension of royal authority in the 13th century, as the king became a guarantor of property for his subjects. This was concurrent with a massive increase in economic activity, with the money supply in Scotland potentially tripling between c.1247–51 and  c.1278–84, from c.£50,000-c.£60,000 to c.£130,00-c.£180,00. (In both England and Ireland, this increase was much more modest). As Royal burghs were established, they became dependent on the king, and property rights became inextricably linked with royal authority. King Alexander II and III made deliberate efforts to expand Scotland through new ‘features’ of identity, such as king-lists and Alexander III’s inauguration, helping to proclaim a new sense of ‘Scotland’. All of these developments coalesced to form a stronger sense of Scotland, and ‘the Scots’.

The inauguration of King Alexander III (drawn in 1440s).

However, at this point, Professor Broun went back to the drawing-board, and began to ask further questions about the earlier period (particularly the 12th century). What did it mean to be Scottish before the 13th century? From incidental references in chronicles and other sources, Scotland seems to have been envisioned as a landmass stretching from north of the Forth to the River Spey and to Drumalban in the west. Essentially,an area that encapsulates Fife, Strathearn, Gowrie, Atholl, Agnus, Mearns, Mar and Buchan. However, as we shall see, the royal authority of the Scottish king was frequently recognised in other areas.

An assize by William I (previously discussed by Alice Taylor) states that individuals in a property dispute could be summoned from across Scotland, including the West Highlands. The sole exception was that no one was expected to cross the Forth, beyond Stirling, reinforcing the ‘north of Forth’ location. In De Situ Albanie (1165-84), Scotland is not described as a fixed geographical entity, apart from a definite southern border at the Forth. In section 3 of the text, Argyll is not included in the domain of Scotland, yet in Section 4, Argyll is included but Caithness is not. The text also states that the Firth of Forth is called Scottewatre ‘because it divides the kingdoms of the Scots and the English’.

In Matthew Paris’ map of Britain (c.1250), Scotland is depicted as an island only attached to the rest of Britain by a bridge over the Forth. When describing the location of Bannockburn, Walter Bower, writing much later in the 1440s, states that ‘the bridge over the Forth at Stirling lies between Britain and Scotland, forming the border of both’. Furthermore, in the Hereford Mappa Mundi (c.1300), Scotland is ‘virtually an island’.

Matthew Paris’ map of Britain (c. 1250).

It seems the River Forth was the only universally recognised boundary of Scotland, and it may have been considered a real geographical barrier.

Professor Broun noted that many of these sources were not necessarily representative of the ‘people at large’, so he looked to incidental uses of ‘Scot’ or ‘Scotland’, and attempted to gather them together. He theorised that if these terms were used in passing, unconsciously, they were being taken for granted by contemporaries. (This idea formed the crux of the philosophy in the lecture). From these references, he gleaned that Moray, Argyll and Lothian were all consistently considered outside of the bounds of Scotland. Furthermore, Professor Broun found place-name evidence of Scots in Argyll. Names like  ‘Coir’ an Albannaich’ (‘Corrie of the inhabitant of Scotland’) suggest a Scot in Argyll was at one time considered notable and distinctive.

At this point, Professor Broun looked to the Philosophy of the Mind to emphasise the importance of this evidence. Drawing upon a dizzying array of philosophical concepts, he outlined the idea of  unconscious or ‘background’ assumptions of identity, as explored by scholars like Zdravko Radman and Susan Stuart (of HATII). These ‘non-verbal patterns of thinking’ are unavoidably present in all conscious expressions of identity; if the historian could tap into these ideas, the assumptions held by contemporaries, and indeed by ourselves, could be discovered.

In relation to this study, the incidental, unconscious references to ‘Scotland’ present a clear conception of the country, even in the earlier period. Professor Broun argued that the expression of Scottish identity was not a ‘top-down’ process, because it was not invented by ‘royal features’ like King Alexander III’s inauguration. Instead, the extension of royal authority reinforced an existing idea of what it meant to be Scottish, and this idea was often taken for granted by the ‘people at large’.

With a final flourish that brought this fascinating lecture to a close, Professor Broun proposed that History’s supreme act was to offer a glimpse at undercurrents of assumptions, and thus make ‘the unthinkable, thinkable’.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our lecture series continues next week, 19 November, with Dr Sìm Innes’ ‘Hector or Conall Cearnach: Heroic Choices in MacMhuirich Poetry’. This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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