Professor D. E. R. Watt

Scottish medieval historian of humanity and meticulous accuracy
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The Independent Online

Donald Elmslie Robertson Watt, historian: born Aberdeen 15 August 1926; Lecturer in Medieval History, St Andrews University 1953-65, Senior Lecturer 1965-77, Professor of Scottish Church History, St Andrews University 1977-88 (Emeritus); FRSE 1988; married 1959 Helen Younie (two daughters); died Perth 18 April 2004.

D. E. R. WATT was one of the most industrious and productive Scottish historians of his generation.

He was a leading member of a small group of medievalists who came together in the late 1950s to plan the production of a number of essential tools without which the writing of monographs and full-scale surveys would be postponed to the Greek calends. Among these tools were securely dated fasti of the senior clergy, lists of heads of religious houses, a scholarly edition of the 15th-century Scotichronicon of Walter Bower, comprehensive collections of the charters, letters etc, of the Scottish kings from 1100 to 1424, and (though this list is far from exhaustive) an adequate atlas of Scottish history covering the period from the fifth to the 17th century.

It was largely due to Watt's energy and single-mindedness that most of these projects were completed by the late Sixties or earlier Seventies. He was business manager for two editions of the Atlas of Scottish History, the second (in 1996) covering the whole period to 1707.

As a doctoral student at Oxford, Watt worked under the supervision of A.B. Emden, well known for his biographical studies of Oxford and Cambridge graduates, and also under E.F. Jacob, who encouraged Watt to work in the archives of France and Italy. An enthusiasm first kindled in 1950 reached splendid fruition in 1977 with A Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Graduates to AD 1410, which provides rich career details of many hundreds of men, mostly Scotsmen, who obtained a master's or doctor's degree at English and continental universities in the three centuries before Scotland's first university was founded at St Andrews, 1411-12.

The dictionary was very much a solo effort, but Watt excelled in collaborative ventures, of which by far the most ambitious was the nine-volume edition of Bower's Scotichronicon in the original Latin (with an English translation and copious notes). Much of this magnificent production is Watt's own work. He was its prime mover and only he could have raised the necessary funding to see it to completion (1987-98). By the time the work was finished, one feels that Watt had grown quite fond of Abbot Bower.

A further co-operative publication was volume I (Ecclesia Scoticana) in the sixth series of the Stuttgart-published revision of P.B. Gams' Series Episcoporum (lives of Catholic bishops before 1198). It was typical of Watt that (with B.E. Crawford contributing the chapter devoted to the bishops of Caithness) he produced the volume on the Scottish bishops in 1991, well ahead of the remaining British material. All Watt's published work was characterised by humanity, meticulous accuracy and the capacity to be enormously useful for many years to come. In 1999 he received an appreciative Festschrift (Church, Chronicle and Learning).

Donald Elmslie Robertson Watt belonged to an Aberdeen family which (in his father Theodore's time) founded Aberdeen University Press, eventually sold to Robert Maxwell. Born in 1926, Donald was a pupil at the Aberdeen Grammar School. Following three years' war service in the RAF (spent mainly in Egypt), he took his MA in History at Aberdeen University, before going to Oriel College on a Carnegie scholarship for his DPhil.

Watt's teaching career was spent entirely at St Andrews University, where he was appointed Professor of Scottish Church History in 1977. For many years he was an Elder at Hope Park Church.

G. W. S. Barrow