Obituary: Professor Gordon Donaldson

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Gordon Donaldson, historian: born Edinburgh 13 April 1913; Lecturer in Scottish History, Edinburgh University 1947, Reader 1955, Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography 1963-79 (Emeritus); Historiographer to the Queen in Scotland 1979-93; President Scottish Ecclesiological Society 1963-65, Scottish Church History Society 1964-67, Scottish History Society 1968-72, Scottish Record Society 1981-93, Stair Society 1987-93; Editor, Scottish Historical Review 1972-77; FBA 1976; FRSE 1978; CBE 1988; died Kirkcaldy 16 March 1993.

GORDON DONALDSON was the most erudite historian of Scotland of this age - or any other age.

Other scholars defer to Donaldson's encyclopaedic knowledge and indeed it is characteristic that Donaldson, with Robert S. Morpeth, should have edited A Dictionary of Scottish History (1977) running to 230 pages with an average of 25 names a page. Ask Donaldson about any character in the chronicles of our turbulent Scottish land, from the time of the Norsemen to the Wee Frees, and he would chat about their strengths and foibles as if he knew them personally and had gossiped away in their company - Duns Scotus, Mary Queen of Scots, Lord Rosebery and all. Donaldson was their candid friend and knew them well.

The son of a postman in the northern isles, Donaldson grew up by the sea. When my wife and I used to visit his bachelor Fife home in Dysart, a 17th-century Pan Ha' apartment in the Dutch style, we were shown any new acquisition to his ever-growing collection of etchings of sailing vessels and early steamships. 'With my experience of childhood in Orkney and Shetland, I cannot pass my old age without the sight of the sea and ships,' he said. It was the love of the sea that made him a great maritime historian and provided much of the material for his great work Life in Shetland under Earl Patrick (1958).

After attending the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and Edinburgh University, where he obtained First Class honours and many prizes, Donaldson went to London University and had the good fortune which he treasured all his life to be taught as a postgraduate student by Professors JE Neale (English history), AF Pollard (constitutional history), RW Seton-Watson (international history) and AJ Toynbee. He returned to Edinburgh with health problems that ruled out war service and worked in the Scottish Record Office where he learnt much of his skill as an unparalleled reader of difficult early-medi

eval and late-medieval manuscripts. I have never seen any other with Donaldson's ability to read difficult Scottish family documents.

His first successful publication after becoming a lecturer in Scottish history at Edinburgh University in 1947 was The Making of the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637 (1954). He was rewarded by being made a Reader in 1955 and then Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography. During this period his next great success was The Scottish Reformation (1960). The opening paragraph encapsulates Donaldson's sardonic approach to history:

John Knox called his great work The History of the Reformation of Religion, but his ablest opponent, Ninian Winyet, was no less concerned for 'Reformation of doctrine and manners'.

Donaldson outlines the demands for reform which had come from Scottish laymen. In 1541 a Scottish parliament which legislated against 'heresy' also passed an act 'For reforming of Kirks and Kirkmen'; the impulse to pass that act is to be related, argued Donaldson, to King James V's exhortation to his bishops a short time before, to reform their manner of living; and that exhortation in turn was prompted by a performance of the earliest version of Sir David Lindsay's Thrie Estaitis, a satire which had as its sharp and persistent theme the need for Reformation. It was partly due to Donaldson that the Thrie Estaitis became the centre of successive Edinburgh Festivals under the directorship of Rudolf Bing.

Donaldson's next important work was Scotland - James V to James VII (1965). There are many delicious passages. I quote:

By dying in his bed, at peace alike with his subjects and with foreign powers, and passing on his royal authority, unimpaired, to a son of adult years, James VI did something done by few of his predecessors. Under his peace, lairds and burgesses had become wealthier, life was less precarious for the poor, inroads had been made on the political influence of the nobility; there were everywhere signs of vitality.

Serious historians would point to Donaldson's expertise in ecclesiastical history as his greatest claim to scholarship. In 1954 he published The Making of the Scottish Prayerbook; in 1960 Scotland, Church and Nation; at the end of his life Scottish Church History (1985) and, finally, The Faith of the Scots, his magnum opus, published in 1990. He told me that one of the great influences of his life had been a friendship with Dom David Knowles, formed after he had been a guest lecturer in Cambridge in 1958.

Donaldson played an exceedingly active life in Scottish society. He was a member of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland from 1964 to 1982. Those of us who have been members of the Scottish Record Society know that he was the driving force behind the movement to put in order the Scottish Records Advisory Council in the 1960s and 1970s. His work for the Scottish Church History Society was outstanding. Until he was dogged by ill-health Donaldson continued to work on the contemporary history of Scotland and the book of which he himself was proudest was Scotland: the shaping of a nation (1974). In 1979 he was appointed Historiographer to the Queen in Scotland, an honorary appointment dating back to 1681.

Gordon Donaldson delighted in being asked questions about the French and Norwegian connections with Scotland, and he more than anybody else resurrected the serious study of the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland, and loved being asked obscure questions about the French. He was a great expert on my late constituent Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots. He was cynical about the French who took advantage of the Scottish connection and the Scots who took advantage of the French connection. He wrote that

Scottish notables who might have shown some disposition to maintain the pro-English and reforming cause were judiciously treated; in 1550 they were taken to France . . . so that they might be subjected to indoctrination and exposed to French offers, and the report was that the King of France had 'bought them completely'.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments