I am a widely published Scottish historian. I’ve written several serious academic monographs but I also write more accessible work for popular journals and the press. I like to think that I’m a lucid public speaker, worth listening to on Scottish issues.
Until recently I was Professor of Scottish History at the University of Dundee, where I’m now Emeritus Professor.
My route into academia wasn’t the traditional one. I left school at 16 – with a single ‘O’ grade – and worked as a shop assistant and semi-skilled machine operator before attending night school and Clydebank College to obtain university entry qualifications.
I attended Strathclyde University where, in 1972, I graduated with a BA in Economic History. After that I went on to study for a PhD with a thesis on industrialisation in Ayrshire. This marked the start of a long interest in regional history. I’m convinced that that an appreciation of the diversity of localities is essential to understand the development of modern Scotland. Grand and often portentous sweeping statements read well but mean little.
Thereafter I lectured at Ayr College, became an Open University Tutor and, in 1979, joined the History Department at Dundee. It was at this time that my first books appeared, on John Galt, the acutely perceptive Scottish novelist of early nineteenth century Scotland, and The Scottish Salt Industry: An Economic and Social History, 1570-1850. Separately I wrote papers on Scotland’s coal miners, which challenged conventional wisdom about their allegedly servile status. The testing of long-held assumptions is a feature of my work.
In 1988 I transferred to the University of St Andrews. This was another transformational period in my career, working under Professor T C Smout, now HM Historiographer Royal in Scotland. It was at this time that I began to explore a subject which still intrigues me: the vexed issue of Scotland’s relations with England, with a focus on the Union of 1707, its causes and consequences. This resulted in my The Scots and the Union (2006, 2007) and The Scots and the Union: Then and Now (2014), and many shorter pieces.
This took me into political and more especially social history. The early outcomes were publications that revised prevailing views about the ‘uninflammability’ of the Scots in the face of perceived injustice. They included work on the rumbustious King’s Birthday in Scotland, food riots and other types of popular protest, which appeared in edited books such as The Manufacture of Scottish History and, later, the History of Everyday Life in Scotland.
In 1992 I returned to Dundee and became Head of the Department of History. Under my leadership, History at Dundee was transformed from an ailing department to become recognised, in 2001, as one of the best in the UK for the outstanding quality of its research outputs and teaching.
I was then appointed Dean of the Arts and Social Sciences Faculty. In 2006, I became Vice Principal at Dundee as well as Head of the College of Arts and Social Sciences. As Vice Principal I instituted and helped implement strategies for improving graduate employability and in 2013 was instrumental in the establishment of Dundee’s Careers and Enterprise Hub.
Throughout, I have carried on with research and writing. Recent publications include Immortal Memory: Robert Burns and the Scottish People (2016), and Pabay: An Island Odyssey (2019).
I’ve been fortunate in being recognised for some of my efforts. In 2003 I was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In the 2015 New Year Honours list was awarded an OBE. I’m also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.