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Response to Review no. 1098

I welcome the opportunity to respond to Professor Broun’s spirited review of my book. In recent years we have more than once discussed some of the issues he raises here, and although I have found his arguments unfailingly constructive and polite, I have not always found them convincing. In my response to his review I’d like to address a couple of his criticisms in particular.

Professor Broun’s review has as its central critique the argument that my exploration of the interactions between the Gaels and Europeans in the period that Geoffrey Barrow famously called the ‘Anglo-Norman era’ of Scottish history is grounded in a paradigm that is outdated; problematic, too, in that it privileges notions of ‘ethnic opposites’, ‘ethnic polarity’, and ‘cultural differences’, rather than emphasizing cordial cooperation among noblemen and property holders in the shaping of new concepts of law, of new ideas about wealth and privilege and new avenues of political opportunity. Equally seriously, he assumes that the conceptual framework that contrasts traditional Gaelic practices with the innovations of the English and European aristocracy inevitably portrays the former as ‘old and conservative’ and equally inevitably associates the latter with ‘change and progress’. While I may have been guilty of both charges in the 2005 work that he cites in his second paragraph, such assumptions do not, in fact, inform Land, Law and People in Medieval Scotland and I have, in fact, been much influenced here by the admonitions proffered by a former student, Matthew Hammond, in the very article that he cites.

In favouring the terms ‘Gael’ or ‘native’ over the older ‘Celtic’, and in using the more general terms ‘European’ and ‘English’ rather than ‘Anglo-Norman’ to refer to the settlers, I conform to a convention now current in much Scottish historiography. Here, there is general agreement that the last of these terms mistakenly identifies the aristocratic incomers of the 12th and 13th centuries as solely of English, post-1066 provenance. The word choices I have made are not, moreover, as freighted with judgment as Professor Broun reckons. Conservatism understood as a predilection for preserving the traditional in the face of change is not synonymous with backward-looking ; if it has come to be regarded as regressive or reactionary, then that is a consequence of modern political correctness that is as unfortunate as it is inaccurate. Many of the long-established native lords of 12th- and 13th-century Scotland were reactionary – notably the several groups of rebels who, well into the 13th century, sought to unseat the descendants of Malcolm III and Margaret precisely because (as some chroniclers observed (1)) they felt threatened by a loss of the influence over the person and policies of a king who cultivated close ties to England. These men, at least, saw some of the changes taking place around them as ‘anti-Gaelic’. But not all great landholders did, and Broun is correct to point out that Donnchad earl of Mar (d. c. 1244) – and, he might have added, Donnchad (d. 1204) and Máel Coluim I (d. 1228) earls of Fife – were at once Gaelic-speakers and ‘thoroughly “Europeanised”’. That said, it is noteworthy that the aforementioned earls of Mar and Fife should have demonstrated a keen preference for the ‘traditional’ when they chose personal names for their heirs, and when the former put off building fortified stone castles in the English style (with which he was familiar) for a very long time.

Professor Broun further argues that an interpretive framework that privileges cultural differences is based on the outmoded belief that ‘a people (“race”, indeed) by definition had its unique culture, customs and character ‘, and further, that modern scholarship no longer takes for granted that people are culturally and socially distinct. I would point out, first, that a ‘people’ is not necessarily a ‘race’. I suggest also that the demise of markers of cultural distinctiveness will come as rather surprising news to a very large number of humanist scholars the world over, not least to those who, like me, practice their craft in Canada. Here, we grapple daily with the consequences of decisions made long ago to acknowledge formally the existence of a distinct society made up of several million Francophones. The latter insist that the cultural characteristic that most deeply sets them apart from the rest of Canadian society is language. So, too, must the Gaels of 12th- and 13th-century Scotland have considered themselves a ‘distinct society’. Yet, what makes the study of this period so fascinating is actually the extent to which native Gaels and incoming English and European settlers worked together, despite their differences, to forge a society that accommodated a host of customs, mores and practices of both the traditional and novel sort. As Professor Broun has noted, if in a different context, notable points of encounter are the hundreds of perambulations that took place across the length and breadth of the kingdom. Put simply, many of these could not have taken place at all without the cooperation of ‘European’ suitors to shrieval courts and the willing testimony of Gaelic-speaking recognitors. As I have argued in the book, other such sites of encounter took place in many other contexts, with the consequence that there developed among the native land holding elite a new reliance on the evidentiary weight of written documents in the context of litigation, a hitherto limited appreciation of the potential of heraldic imagery to express familial identity, and a new understanding of the legal obligations inherent in deeds that were authenticated by waxen seals. Likewise, among the English and European incomers, there developed a willingness to trust the local knowledge of native landholders in the curial setting, a readiness to appropriate for their own benefit the labour of a large population of un-free persons and a veritable enthusiasm to use ties of kingship, formal and informal, as the basis of novel relationships in the constructions of affinities. As several chapters in my book show, collectively, extant charter materials offer clear and unmistakable evidence of the meeting of different and distinct traditions, an encounter that was occasionally fraught but was by no means inevitably antagonistic.

A second of Professor Broun’s criticisms concerns my treatment of the Gaelic landholding ranks of 12th- and 13th-century Scottish society: he suggests that my work ‘seems also to contribute to a wider assumption that Gaels were predominantly associated with nativi – the peasantry tied to an estate’. His conclusions here are based on a misinterpretation of my arguments. In my study of perambulations, for example, I argue quite clearly that ‘the work involved in marching and meting fell overwhelmingly to the native freeholders of Scotland’ (p. 56), and I cite here in support of my findings a recent article by Alexander Grant (2); likewise, in the chapter on un-free peasants I write, first, that the witness lists of some extant charters ‘offer … sure evidence of the survival, in the newly settled regions, of an order of free tenants, fulfilling their obligation to perform suit of court and, more generally, to bear witness to noble acts’ (p. 156); secondly, that a significant number of Gaelic tenants ‘were able to negotiate favourable arrangements with the incoming aristocracy which enabled them to function much as they had before the twelfth century, as free, independent farmers’ (pp. 155–6); and, finally, of an impression of ‘some continuity in tenurial conditions at the upper levels of rural society’ (p. 158). Each of these passages (and many others in that same chapter) makes a careful distinction between the landed and the ‘lowliest members of the peasant population’ (p. 159).

There are one or two other observations in Professor Broun’s review with which I might take issue, but I’d like to end this piece on a positive note. I am very pleased indeed that he should have found innovative and informative my exploration of friendship as a perspective from which to understand the period. In many respects this was the most difficult portion of the book to write, for it required that I move beyond the (for me) comfortable and well defined confines of charter clauses and charter witness lists. The medieval notion of amicitia drew heavily on a range of intellectual traditions, chief among them canon and civilian law. Scholars of English and European history have studied these in exhaustive detail, but Scottish historians have only recently joined their ranks (the notable exception here being the exemplary work of Hector MacQueen (1)). Research on the related idea of neighbourliness that I have undertaken since completing Land, Law and People confirms Professor Broun’s appeal for the adoption of new paradigms from which to examine the medieval period in Scotland. The effort is both promising and rewarding., and I look forward in my future work to offering more of the insights that he has so generously praised in his review of my book.


  1. See, for example, the comments about the malevolent influence of Henry II over King Mallcolm IV in Joannis de Fordun Chronica gentis Scotorum, ed. W. F. Skene (2 vols, Edinburgh, 1871–2), i, p. 256.Back to (1)
  2. A. Grant, ‘Lordship and society in twelfth-century Clydesdale’, in Power and Identity in the Middle Ages: Essays in Memory of Rees Davies, ed. H. Pryce and J. L. Watts (Oxford, 2007), pp. 98–124.Back to (2)
  3. H. L. MacQueen, ‘Canon law, custom and legislation: law in the reign of Alexander II’, in The Reign of Alexander II, 1214-49, ed. R. D. Oram (Leiden, 2005), pp. 221–51.Back to (3)