A tribute to the late Professor Duncan - one of the foremost Scottish historians

Professor Dauvit Broun pays tribute to his predecessor Archie Duncan as a scholar and teacher who was an inspiration for generations of historians. 

Professor Archie Duncan has died aged 91

Professor Archie Duncan, who died on 20 December 2017 at the age of 91, was one of the foremost Scottish historians in the modern era.

He was one of the last of a generation of pioneers who established Scottish History as a subject of academic research in all its aspects. He was also a scholar ahead of his time, whose restless questioning of his own and others’ assumptions and practices made him one of the most intellectually interesting and complex medieval historians of the 20th century.

The chronological range of his specialist knowledge, stretching across the entire millennium of medieval history, is unlikely ever to be repeated. He achieved ground-breaking work in analysing charters, chronicles, formularies and parliamentary records, translated Barbour’s celebrated Scots poetic narrative of Robert Bruce’s career (published as a Canongate Classic in 1997), and provided new insights into fundamental aspects of medieval Scottish kingship, government, law, and the economy.

‌Archibald Alexander McBeth Duncan was born in Pitlochry on 17 October 1926. His paternal grandfather had a shoe shop there, and his maternal grandfather was a gamekeeper at Errol.

Most of his childhood was spent in Edinburgh, where his father worked as a bookbinder. He was educated at George Heriot’s School, Edinburgh, the University of Edinburgh, and Balliol College, Oxford, where he became a tutor. 
He was appointed in 1951 to a lectureship in History and Palaeography at Queen’s University, Belfast, before joining the Scottish History Department at the University of Edinburgh in 1953.

In that year he published the first significant work on the government of a medieval Scottish king based on a detailed study of 367 documents issued in the name of Robert Bruce. He continued work on this project for most of his career, culminating in his monumental Acts of Robert I, King of Scots, 1306–1329, published in 1988. Not only had he identified more than 200 further documents, but the volume included the equivalent of a monograph on Robert Bruce’s government and administration, transforming our understanding of the mechanisms and practices that underpinned the rule of the hero king.

As a lecturer in Queen’s University, Belfast, he had also established himself as a pioneer in Scottish social and economic history, particularly through his work on burghs. Although his research and publications gravitated towards the Middle Ages, he maintained a lively interest in all aspects of Scottish history. One of his earliest articles was on an aspect of trade between the Clyde and the Baltic in the 1730s and 1740s, published in 1950.

In 1962, still only 35 years old, he was appointed Professor of Scottish History and Literature at the University of Glasgow—a chair established in 1913 and occupied exclusively by historians, despite its title. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1979 and a fellow of the British Academy in 1985.

He retired in 1993, setting a record that is unlikely ever to be beaten as the longest serving holder of a chair in Scottish History. He played a leading role in the life of the University of Glasgow, elected Dean of the Faculty of Arts and, in 1978, Clerk of Senate. During his spell as a university administrator he established a new department (Scottish Literature) and a new faculty (Social Science). By the time he retired he had expanded the Department of Scottish History to seven members of staff, the largest number in any university.

He was, above all, a scholar and teacher, and an inspiration for generations of historians. As a teacher he was passionately committed to opening up Scottish history to anyone who would take a lively interest in it, urging schoolchildren, students and the informed public to follow him in taking nothing for granted and engaging with the subject anew for themselves.

He was a pioneer in the 1980s in teaching early medieval history in an interdisciplinary and comparative course he shared with follow University of Glasgow colleagues Leslie Alcock, a pioneering archaeologist of Early Medieval Britain, and Patrick Wormald, a medieval historian who redefined the history of Anglo-Saxon England.

As a scholar, Archie Duncan made a wealth of fundamental sources accessible for the first time - especially royal documents, legal collections, and burgh records. Much of this was at the hard core of the discipline. For over 60 years he performed the essential and forbidding task of publishing and analysing texts that could only be made intelligible through a deep understanding and complete technical command of the material.

One of his most remarkable books, however, was not a scholarly edition but what was intended as a textbook—albeit a textbook like no other. Scotland: the Making of the Kingdom, published in 1975, was a wide-ranging exploration of Scotland’s development as a kingdom and society up to the 1290s in over 600 pages.

Other history books written on this scale are based on a well populated field of research. However, there was no such body of work for him to draw on. For large parts of the book he had to start from the raw medieval sources themselves. The sections on medieval society and economy remain the most compelling work on these aspects of the period to have been published.

Another exceptional book was his The Kingship of the Scots. Succession and Independence 842–1292, published in 2002. Most books published long after retirement represent the culmination of views first developed decades earlier - especially on such a fundamental and well-trodden topic. For Archie Duncan, by contrast, retirement gave him the opportunity to rethink the subject from scratch, resulting in a panoply of new insights and fresh research.

His restless intellect was his most inspiring quality, leading to a sometimes shocking capacity to question assumptions and undermine long cherished views of the past. In an age when scholars usually aimed to find enduring certainties through their research, he instinctively saw history as a ceaseless dynamic of fresh insights and discoveries, and expected his own work to be caught up in this process - a process he typically led.

It was not unusual for students to repeat what they had read from one of his publications, only to be told by him that he had changed his mind. His unquenchable intellectual vitality was fuelled by a tendency to challenge cosy complacency and disrupt convention that some found difficult to deal with. The result, however, is not only a legacy of fundamental scholarship that will be used by generations to come, but an innovative and open approach to history which is more in tune with the 21st century, leaving the study of medieval Scotland in a position to grow and develop in ways he might not have foreseen, but would have encouraged and challenged in equal measure.

Professor Duncan’s wife Ann predeceased him. He is survived by his children, Beatrice, Alastair and Ewen, and by six grandchildren. His service of thanksgiving was held on 12 January at Bearsden North Church, where he was an elder.

This obituray was also published in The Herald newspaper on 12 January 2018. It has been kindly reproduced with the permission of Professor Dauvit Broun, Professor of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow.

First published: 12 January 2018

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