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Significant Scots
John Fordun


FORDUN, or DE FORDUN, JOHN, the celebrated author of the "Scotichronicon," was probably born about the middle of the fourteenth century, and at the village of Fordun, in Kincardineshire, from which he seems to have taken his name. Walter Bower, the continuator of his history, speaks of him as a simple man, who never graduated in the schools. It would appear, however, that he possessed sufficient learning to fit him for the profession of a priest, and the composition of a Latin history, as these two various kinds of labour were then practised. He was a priest of the diocese of St Andrews, and a canon of the church of Aberdeen, where he is said to have resided at the time when he composed his history. This great composition was in progress, as he himself informs us, in the reign of Richard II. of England, which extended between the years 1387, and 1399; and this, vague as it is, is one of the few dates that can be supplied respecting the life of the chronicler. The work produced by Fordun, though deformed by the superstitious and incorrect ideas of the age, is nevertheless a respectable production, fully qualified to bear comparison with the works of the contemporary English historians The merit of the author is increased in no mean degree by the motive which prompted him to undertake the composition – a desire of supplying the want of those historical monuments which Edward I carried away to England. To quote the quaint words of a monkish writer: [As translated by Mr P.F. Tytler, in his "Lives of Scottish Worthies," article Fordun.] "After the loss of these chronicles, a venerable Scottish priest, by name John Fordun, arose, and feeling his heart titillated and effervescent with patriotic zeal, he applied his hand boldly to his work; nor did he desist from the undertaking until, by the most laborious study and perseverance, traversing England and the adjacent provinces of his own country, he had recovered so much of the lost materials as enabled him to compose five volumes of the delectable gests of the Scots, which he drew up in a sufficiently chronicle-like style, as they are to be found in the great volume entitled the ‘Scotichronicon.’ In this undertaking it is impossible to refrain from bestowing great praise upon the industry of the author. For, adverting to the fact, that to commit all the records of past ages to the memory, is the attribute of God rather than man; he, upon this consideration travelled on foot, like an unwearied and investigating bee, through the flowery meadows of Britain, and into the oracular recesses of Ireland; taking his way through provinces and towns, through universities and colleges, through churches and monasteries, entering into conversation, and not unfrequently sharing at bed and board with historians and chronologists, turning over their books, debating and disputing with them and pricking down, or intitulating in his descriptive tablets all that most pleased him in this manner, and by pursuing indefatigable investigation, he became possessed of the knowledge which was before unknown to him, and collecting it with studious care in the revolving sinuosities of his parchment code, like rich honeycombs in an historical hive, he, as I have already premised, divided them into five books of elegant composition, which brought down the history to the death of the sainted king David."

The result of Fordun’s labours is, that we possess an account of several ages of Scottish history, which otherwise would have been in a great measure blank. The two first of the five books into which he divides his work may be laid aside, as relating only to the fabulous part of the history; the last refers to the period between 1056, and 1153, and is a valuable piece of history. Posterior to the year last mentioned, Fordun has only written detached notes, which, however, are themselves of no small value for the facts which they contain. When the venerable canon found himself too infirm to continue his labours, he committed the materials which he had collected to Walter Bower, who, as noticed elsewhere, became abbot of Inchcolm in 1418, and by whom the work was brought down to the year 1436. The Scotichronicon was afterwards copied in various monasteries, and has accordingly been handed down in several shapes, each slightly different from the other, under the titles of the Book of Scone, the Book of Paisley, and other denominations. Finally, the earlier part formed a substructure for the amplified work of Hector Boece, and the elegant one of Buchanan. The work itself has been twice printed, first at Oxford, by Hearne, in five vols. 8vo. and afterwards at Edinburgh in one volume folio, with a preface by Goodal; but a translation is still a desideratum in Scottish historical literature.


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