Ronald Cant and the Establishment of Scottish History Teaching at the University of St Andrews

Blog post written by Sarah Leith, former Mlitt student and starting her PhD at St Andrews in September


Photo reproduced with the kind permission of the Strathmartine Trust, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Today, Scottish history enjoys its rightful place as part of the history curriculum at the University of St Andrews: first and second year modules delve into Scotland’s past; there are honours courses devoted to the nation’s history; a Scottish Historical Studies MLitt is offered, and there are numerous PhD students researching a wide variety of Scottish topics. However, it was not until around the mid-twentieth century that Scotland’s first university offered the serious and permanent study of this subject to its students. Flying the flag for Scottish history at St Andrews University during this time was the historian Ronald Cant. Having been appointed mediaeval history lecturer in 1936, the historian almost immediately began his mission to single-handedly secure the study of Scotland’s past at this university. Although characteristically modest and unambitious, Cant was a pioneer who fought a long and lonely battle to gain recognition for his subject, with a Scottish history chair finally being created in 1974, the year of the historian’s retirement.

The neglect of Scottish history by Scotland’s most ancient university at first seems surprising. Why would a university so steeped in history deny its students the opportunity to learn about its home nation’s past? In fact, history courses as we know them were only properly introduced to the Scottish universities during the late nineteenth century. (1) For its part, Scottish history was generally disregarded, usually being dismissed as insignificant and lacking academic rigour. (2) In contrast, English constitutional history was promoted as training for British citizens, and this subject dominated the history curricula of Scotland’s universities. (3) With Scottish history lacking the usability of its English equivalent, courses labelled British history were really English history courses in disguise. (4)

Admittedly, Scottish history chairs had been founded at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow during the early years of the twentieth century and as a result, Scottish history was a permanent fixture of their curricula. However, these Scottish history courses were optional, while compulsory English history and also European history were therefore, the most studied subjects. At the University of St Andrews, meanwhile, Scottish history was taught sporadically to very small numbers of honours students by history lecturer John Duncan Mackie and ecclesiastical historian James Houston Baxter, with the subject largely disregarded for most of the 1930s.

By 1938 there were signs of change at St Andrews University. Soon after his appointment, Cant created recurrent Scottish history modules, and a decade later he  persuaded the University Court to create a Scottish history lectureship. Cant held particular interests in Scottish architecture and Scottish political thought, but he also had an enviable breadth of knowledge; the topics of his lectures ranged from Scotland’s Middle Ages to the Scottish Reformation and beyond. (5) While Donald Watt, the editor of Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon, arrived at the University in the 1953, Cant remained the only lecturer in Scottish history until the appointment of Marinell Ash as his assistant in 1968. Appointed Reader in 1954, Cant’s efforts to establish Scottish history teaching at the University of St Andrews were never fully recognised as he was never promoted to a Professorship. Attitudes towards the subject, nevertheless, had begun to change during the 1960s. A chair of Scottish history at the University of St Andrews was eventually created and awarded in 1974 to Cant’s own friend and former student Geoffrey Barrow.

Although another man was awarded this prestigious chair, Ronald Cant must be praised for his successful efforts, in the face of hostility, to secure the study of Scottish history at Scotland’s most ancient university. It was Cant who, step by step, sought and achieved the deserved and belated recognition for his subject and maintained its permanent presence, throughout the mid-twentieth century, within St Andrews University’s history curriculum.

(1) Robert Anderson, ‘The Development of History Teaching in the Scottish Universities, 1894-1939’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 32 (2012), pp.50-73, p.50.

(2) Bruce Lenman, ‘The Teaching of Scottish History in the Scottish Universities’, Scottish Historical Review 52 (1973), pp.165-190, p.179.

(3) Robert Anderson, ‘University History Teaching, National Identity and Unionism in Scotland, 1862- 1914’, Scottish Historical Review 91 (2012), pp.1-41, p.16.

(4)  T.M. Devine and Jenny Wormald, ‘Introduction: The Study of Modern Scottish History’ in T.M. Devine and Jenny Wormald (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History (Oxford, 2012), pp.1-15, p.13.

(5) Barbara E. Crawford, ‘Obituary: Ronald Gordon Cant’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 130 (2000), pp.1-5, pp.2-3.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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