School of History, Classics & Archaeology

Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh

Scholars connected with the University of Edinburgh have been interested in Scotland’s past ever since the University’s foundation in 1582.

In the beginning...

In previous centuries history was one of the things that all well-educated people needed to understand, but it usually had a more directly non-historical purpose than it does today. Scholars were mainly interested in the past as a means to understand public affairs, to understand God’s purposes in the world, or to understand their own identity. ‘Scottish’ history was often a means of explaining Scottish identity.

The University of Edinburgh was founded for the dual purposes of providing a broad humanistic education and of training Protestant ministers. One of the very earliest graduates of the University, Robert Johnston (c.1567-1639), wrote 'A Latin History of Scotland' that covered the minority of James VI. Much better known is the massive 'History of the Kirk of Scotland' by another early graduate, David Calderwood (c.1575-1650), a Presbyterian minister whose polemical purpose was shouted from every page. A more humanistic work by another early alumnus of the University was the encyclopedic 'History of the Earldom of Sutherland' by the courtier Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun (1580-1656).

The 18th century

New standards in history were set by the Edinburgh graduate James Anderson in his Historical 'Essay Shewing that the Crown and Kingdom of Scotland is Imperial and Independent' (1705). This was written for an immediate political purpose during the negotiations that culminated in the Union of 1707, but took a sophisticated and critical approach to record sources rather than assuming that all previous statements about the past were straightforwardly factual.

The University’s first Professor of History was Charles Mackie, who held the post of Professor of Universal History between 1719 and 1765. His lectures paid particular attention to ancient Rome and to Europe up to the Reformation, but he also lectured on the history of Scotland, urging the importance of accurate chronology.

William Roberston
William Robertson

William Robertson, one of Mackie’s students, wrote an acclaimed 'History of Scotland during the Reigns of Queen Mary and James VI' (1759), and later became Principal of the University. It was he who commissioned the present Old College building (begun in 1789), and he is commemorated today by the William Robertson Wing, headquarters of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology. Robertson also published histories of America and of the Emperor Charles V, some of the most influential historical works of the 18th century. By profession, though, Robertson was a Church of Scotland minister, much occupied with high-level ecclesiastical politics. History was not yet an entirely distinct subject.

The 19th century

HCA Walter Scott
Walter Scott

Scottish history, like history in general, became a distinct subject in the 19th century. Its greatest initial influence came from Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), the renowned poet and novelist, who himself studied at the University of Edinburgh. Scott communicated his ideas about Scottish history through the most successful historical novels of his time - perhaps the most successful of any time. It may be a paradox to suggest that academic history could flow from imaginative literature, but Scott’s novels were not only based on a deep knowledge of Scotland’s past; they also gave compelling reasons for studying that past further.

To take just a few of these novels: 'Waverley' (1814), about the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, set the tone with its subtitle - '’Tis Sixty Years Since'. Scott was aware of massive changes that had taken place in the recent past, so that another Jacobite rebellion was inconceivable. His novels were thus windows into an older world. 'Old Mortality' (1816) dramatised the struggles of the radical Presbyterians of the later 17th century. 'Rob Roy' (1817) refurbished the myths surrounding the Highland outlaw of the early 18th century, but contained a valuable historical introduction. 'The Heart of Mid-Lothian' (1818) was to some extent a portrait of Edinburgh at the time of the Porteous Riot of 1736. Scott evoked medieval Scotland in 'The Fair Maid of Perth' (1828), set in the 1390s. This book also returned to a familiar theme - the place of the Highlands in the history of Scotland as a whole.

Manuscripts and publications

Scott was also a notable editor of ballads and literary and historical documents. He fostered the establishment of historical publishing societies that would produce scholarly editions of the original sources of Scotland’s past. Many of the works published by the Bannatyne Club (1823-67) and Maitland Club (1829-59) remain standard sources used by Scottish historians to this day.

black and white etching of David Laing seated reading a book, with many more books piled on a table
David Laing

Even before Scott, there was already some teaching of Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh. Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747-1813) was its professor of ‘universal history’ - Scott attended his lectures - and Tytler included the history of Scotland in his teaching. His son, Patrick Fraser Tytler (1791-1849), an alumnus of the University, wrote (at Scott’s prompting) an eight-volume history of Scotland that is still worth consulting. Another connection with the University came with the antiquary David Laing (1793-1878), who collected hundreds of valuable manuscripts concerning medieval and early modern Scotland, and edited many of them for publication. On his death he bequeathed his manuscripts to Edinburgh University Library, where they remain as an important archive.

The Scottish History Society

The Scottish History Society was founded in 1886, continuing and extending the tradition of publishing primary documents. It was innovative in having an interest in social history, and in seeing Scottish history as continuing into recent times; until then, most historians had assumed that Scottish history ended with the union of parliaments in 1707, or even with the Union of Crowns in 1603. One noted historian of Scotland at this time was David Masson, Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh from 1865 to 1895. He edited 14 volumes of the 'Register of the Privy Council of Scotland' and was the first Chairman of Council of the Scottish History Society (1885-1907).

The 20th century and the Chair of Scottish History

It was the University of Edinburgh that first made Scottish history a fully academic subject, when in 1901 it established a Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography. This was the fruit of a bequest by Sir William Fraser (1816-1898), a lawyer and genealogist who had made a fortune from researching and publishing the family papers of the Scottish aristocracy. The holders of the Fraser Chair have all been in the forefront of the discipline, and the first six of them are discussed below.

The two most recent Fraser Professors,  Sir Tom Devine (2006-2012) and Ewen Cameron (2012 to date), have their own pages on the School’s website.

Modern themes: women and social history

HCA Rosalind Mitchison
Rosalind Mitchison

Two of the pioneering women in Scottish history, Annie I. Dunlop (née Cameron) and Marguerite Wood, gained their PhDs from the University of Edinburgh, in 1924 and 1925 respectively. Both women went on to careers in archives, and published scholarly editions and other works that are still being used by researchers.

Rosalind Mitchison was perhaps the first influential woman historian of Scotland to hold an academic post in the University of Edinburgh. She was mainly a social historian, publishing widely on agriculture, population, poor relief and other topics. Her lifetime work, 'The Old Poor Law in Scotland: The Experience of Poverty, 1574-1845' (Edinburgh University Press) was the culmination of a career-spanning interest and considered a great contribution to the field of Social History.

Her colleague for many years in the Department of Economic and Social History was T. C. Smout, author of perhaps the most influential work of Scottish social history ever written, 'A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830' (1969).

As an academic subject, Scottish history is constantly changing, but always with an awareness of its own past. There is no doubt that this past has been particularly distinguished at the University of Edinburgh.