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"Why do you think that historians present such contrasting views of events in your period of study? Discuss with reference to specific key events."

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot


Synopsis:  This essay describes the differences between primary and secondary sources in the study of history.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

It is important to point out that there are two categories of Historian who have written about this period. The first of these is the contemporary historian who I take to mean, either, one who lived in the period or, one who had direct access to witnesses and documents of the events.

This category of historian, such as Fordun, provides an essential part of our historical knowledge for they had access to documents and witnesses which do not exist today. However, they do have drawbacks as documenters because their view of history was based on the experience that they had, the knowledge which they possessed about the facts and the bias which affected their judgment. Examples here can be drawn from the later fourteenth century historians who had to paint the Comyns in as bad a light as possible.

The second category is the more modern historian who is hampered in the pursuit of his task by the lack of documented evidence now available. There are other aspects of the modern historian which could affect their historical judgment; for example, their social standing and political viewpoint. The experience of the historian and the knowledge which he possesses are also factors; for example, the ability to read Medieval texts.

I feel that the job of the medieval historian nowadays is becoming more difficult, as essential documents crumble and knowledge is lost. This causes differences in opinion as people try to use guesswork to fill in gaps in our historical knowledge. Moreover this situation has generally been getting worse, although many documents which were not known to exist have turned up and caused historians to look afresh at certain events. An example of this is the discovery of the newsletter from Berwick which had been copied into the register of Abbot John Whethamstede of St.Albans.For instance, how does a historian evaluate the work of a 17th Century historian who used documents which we do not posses anymore?

In order to answer the question we can look at two events in particular: the Battle of Bannockburn and the dispute regarding where Bruce spent the Winter of 1306/7. There are many different versions of these events which are based on a few sparse sources, these being Barbour's "The Bruce", references in the Chronicle of Lanercost, the Chronicle of Guisborough, an English newsletter from Berwick and the Chronicle of the fourteenth Century historian John of Fordun

These documents are all that suffice in order for the historian to write a detailed history of the period. There are of course other primary sources such as letters, Papal Bulls, Petitions, Acts of Parliament, Accounts and charters from which to base history; for, as Stevenson in "Documents illustrative of the history of Scotland, 1286-1306" so rightly pointed out " It must not be assumed...that these two classes of historical materiel are to be regarded as antagonistic the one to the other. Each possesses recommendations in which the other is defective; and it is by the union of the two (where that is possible) that perfection is attained".

It is clearly possible therefore that differing points of views can be formed depending upon how much reliance is placed on each of these sources and, in the case of the newsletter, which edited copy of it is used.

The first event which bears examination is the Battle of Bannockburn. Here we have an event which while being of the greatest historical importance is still the subject of debate. The questions surround the site of the Battle and the movements of the English forces prior to it. The general opinion of modern historians is that the English, having been discomfited earlier in the day by Moray and Bruce, moved their cavalry over the Bannockburn into the Carse with some, although not all, of the foot soldiers. However, this theory is only a relatively recent one, after it was confirmed by geological survey that the area of the Carse was not an impassible marsh as had been promulgated by W. Mackenzie and Morris. Indeed references in Barbour, Scalacronica and the Chronicles do refer to a "hard field". This was taken by W. Mackenzie to mean an area much closer to the Forth and Cambuskenneth although this view is not now accepted.

The second problem concerns where Bruce spent the winter of 1306 after his defeats at Methven and Dalry. All the Sources agree that Bruce left Scotland for the Western Isles, from where he disappears from both English and Scottish knowledge until he returns in the Spring with an army from the Southwest. Most historians base their views on Barbour's poem which states that Bruce spent the winter on the Island of Rathlin, halfway between Scotland and Ireland. In his book "The Scottish Wars of Independence" Dr. Evan Barron went into great detail on the 'Rathlin mystery'. In his opinion it is unlikely that Bruce spent the entire winter on Rathlin as it is too small an island for the presence of a large number of Scots to remain unnoticed by the English. (Notice here is drawn to the fact that the Chronicle of Lanercost, compiled just over the Border, states that Bruce "was lurking in a remote island"). Barron put forward the idea that Bruce sailed to Orkney and Norway during the winter before returning via Rathlin. However G.W.S. Barrow in "Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland" disagrees with this view to the extent that he discounts the idea that Bruce sailed to Norway. He says that Bruce may have spent the winter in Orkney planning the fermentation of revolt which simultaneously erupted in the North and Southwest when Bruce returned to Carrick Indeed it may be the case that the Queen and the other Royal ladies were trying to escape to Orkney and meet Bruce there when they were captured.

The main reasons for differences between historians is the interpretation of the sources which are available to them. These sources, many of which are made up from compilations of eye-witness reports are in themselves interpreted and edited. This fact also goes against the modern historian, as there are many documents which were used by the earlier historians which do not survive today and this precludes any detailed and incontrovertible histories being written.

Ewan Innes, October 22 1989