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Articles by Marie Fraser of Canada
T.C. Smout and the Scottish People


I discovered that meeting T.C. Smout is considered, by some, akin to meeting God. The retired Professor of Scottish History from the University of St Andrews was staying with friends in London (Ontario) after being brought over as guest speaker at the University of Western Ontario in 1999. He had kindly agreed to speak to a Scots-Canadian group in Toronto on October 1st on "The History of the Caledonian Forest - Myth and Reality".

Dr T.C. Smout, Alan McKenzie & Neil Fraser
Dr T.C. Smout, Alan McKenzie & Neil Fraser

The mention of Professor Smout within the academic community evokes an awesome response so, when my husband and I were asked to meet the guest speaker at the train station and give him a brief tour of the city before the luncheon, we felt we should learn more about the respected historian and prolific author who is Historiographer Royal in Scotland and Director of the Institute for Environmental History at the University of St Andrews. We later learned that even he was unaware that someone had actually written a book "In Praise of T.C. Smout".

Medieval Scotland Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland (1994) offers the following explanation of Scotland’s early tribal organisation:

"Each social system borrowed from the other so that, in Professor T.C. Smout’s definition, Highland Society was based on kinship modified by feudalism and Lowland society on feudalism tempered by kinship. The difference is most clearly shown by the feudal insistence on succession by the eldest son as opposed to the ancient Dalriadic system of tanistry; amongst the clans the latter continued to be invoked long after general acceptance of primogeniture, thus affecting both Highland heraldry and ‘official’ chiefly pedigrees.

"Historians, though, are cautious about juxtaposing a national ‘clan system’ with the feudal system since this would suppose an ethnic homogeneity which history emphatically denies. Dalriadic Scots, later Irish, Picts, Britons, Norsemen and English all held sway at different times and, along with Normans and Flemings, are represented in the progenitors of the various clans. Thus, the Grants and the Frasers are among those of Norman origin, while the Sutherlands and the Murrays are among those of Flemish origin…."

Professor Smout commented on the dramatic changes to the Toronto skyline since his visit 30 years ago. At the luncheon, he explained, with humour, how the post of Historiographer Royal was copied from European custom, and how the grand yearly honorarium of £600 was reduced over a period of time to £200, then £60, then £25, at which time the recipient suggested it wasn’t worth accepting. The suggestion was, of course, adopted and the appointment (for life) remains unpaid, although it carries great prestige and, he pointed out, it comes with a beautiful scroll presented by The Queen.

Without notes, he then went on to explain how the Scots learned from their experiences in Europe and brought that knowledge back to Scotland which, for its small size and population, has produced more Scots in other parts of the world than ever lived in Scotland [the worldwide population of people with some Scots ancestry has been estimated by some historians as high as 90 million]. He pointed out that the Scots were experienced fighters, having opted for service abroad as mercenary soldiers to European royalty, long before the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, which led to Culloden in 1746. In A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830, he writes: "Life for the tenants and sub-tenants was primitive and grim : nothing could be more misplaced than the glamour with which the fanciful have sometimes invested these strata of Highland society before the ’45."

Many of the officers and men who later joined Highland regiments did so because they were paid for their service. To the surprise of some in the audience, Professor Smout made specific reference to the Fraser Highlanders, whose success in helping to secure Canada for the British was later romanticized by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Major General David Stewart of Garth (1772-1829). There were lots of questions, but no one asked about his prepared speech on the Caledonian forest, which he subsequently presented at the University of Guelph. My husband blamed me for getting him started on the subject of the Scots mercenary tradition, and the fact that we gave him a copy of The Fraser Highlanders before the luncheon. On the way back to the train station, I asked what happened to the Caledonian forest and he replied, with a wink, that it existed for a relatively short period of time and disappeared 5000 years ago!


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