Cathryn Spence: Why I Study Scottish History

It often seems that the majority of Scottish historians have had a lifelong fascination with the country. That wasn’t the case for me. Growing up on the east coast of Canada I was generally aware of Scotland – I knew it was part of Great Britain and could probably have found it on a map – but I had very little knowledge of its culture or history. That changed abruptly after my undergraduate degree. I was working at a daily newspaper as a features writer, but was already contemplating going back to school for a Masters degree. To narrow my choice of potential advisors, I contacted a former undergraduate professor who knew my interests (medieval/early modern, women and gender) and asked her advice. She helpfully forwarded a list of names, one of which – Elizabeth Ewan – ‘was doing really interesting research with medieval and early modern Scottish women’. This suggestion seemed fortuitous, as I already had plans in motion to visit a friend who had recently moved to Edinburgh. I applied, and was accepted, to the University of Guelph.

Fortunately, I was able to defer my acceptance to Guelph, as my quick trip to Edinburgh turned into an eight-month adventure. Thanks to the now defunct Working Holidaymaker visa, which allowed Canadians under the age of 25 to travel and work in the UK, I was able to live in Edinburgh and explore the country. As so many do, I fell in love with Edinburgh. As anyone who has been to the city can attest, it is a special place, where remnants of past centuries coexist harmoniously with the modern day. As a new student of the city’s history, this was intoxicating, and living in Edinburgh for those months was certainly the defining period of my twenties, if not my life (which sounds dramatic, but may very well prove true). I returned to Canada inspired, and threw myself into my Masters degree. My research during that degree focused on wills and testaments written by Edinburgh women between 1560 and 1600, and my time spent in Edinburgh allowed me to not only investigate their deaths, but imagine their lives. As my Masters ended and the possibility of a PhD beckoned, I jumped at the opportunity to study at the University of Edinburgh. A scholarship helped defray the rather significant cost of being an international student, and I moved back to Edinburgh, this time for just over four years. There, under the supervision of Cordelia Beattie and Michael Lynch, I used burgh court records, testaments, and tax rolls to examine women’s economic roles in Edinburgh, Haddington, and Linlithgow. After finishing my PhD, I taught at a number of universities – in England, as well as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario – before taking up a permanent position at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, British Columbia. While my teaching has mainly focused on medieval and early modern British and European history, I often find myself using what I have learned as a Scottish historian in my classroom.

Will Sample
This will is that of Agnes Mowbray and is held by the National Records of Scotland (and also available through

One reason I was attracted to Scottish history – and continue to be so – lies in the excitement that comes with researching a developing field. While Scottish history has been the focus of much historical interest over the centuries, up until the 1970s and 1980s major studies tended to focus on its kings, queens, and government structures. In recent decades, however, new questions about Scottish history have been posed. One such focus has been women’s and gender history, the aspect of Scottish history that piqued my interest during my Masters, was solidified during my PhD research, and continues to guide my research today. As a growing number of researchers formulate questions in these areas, new debates and avenues of study have emerged. Speaking at the North American Conference on British Studies in Washington, DC in November 2016 I referenced the discussion among early modern Scottish historians as to whether or not women in Scotland were affected by a system known as coverture (whereby a married woman was legally ‘covered’ by her husband and so would not be named in legal sources) in ways similar to how women were affected by that doctrine in England. I joked that it was exciting to be at a point with early modern Scottish women’s history where we had ‘debates’. It was a joke, but one with a kernel of truth. It is exciting to debate with other historians, and Scottish gender history is, more so now than ever, at a point where there are sufficient researchers and studies to engender lively debate. My colleagues in the study of Scotland’s history – the community of Scottish historians – never ceases to engage and inspire me. I have found it to be a true community, with great friendships and many helping hands. It is a rare gift to have colleagues of this calibre, and it is not a gift I take for granted.

So, why do I study Scottish history? I have no Scottish roots. There were no tartans or dirks on display in my family’s home. I simply stumbled upon a country and a history I loved and have never looked back. And, finding myself in a community of dedicated, dynamic scholars gives me much to look forward to.

Cathryn’s research examines the economic and social history of women in early modern Scotland. Her research interests include urban and economic history, and the impact of gender and socioeconomic status when navigating economic relationships in early modern Western Europe. She is the author of Women, Credit, and Debt in Early Modern Scottish Towns (Gender and History series, Manchester University Press, 2016) and co-editor of the Edinburgh Housemaills Taxation Book, 1634-6 (Boydell, 2014). She has also written several chapters and articles that explore the intersecting topics of Scottish women, credit and debt, and work.

Cathryn teaches courses on: world history to 1900, medieval and early modern Britain and Europe, women and sexuality, and death. She holds a PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh and an MA in History from the University of Guelph. Prior to taking up her position at VIU she held teaching positions at the universities of Dalhousie, Keele, and New Brunswick (Saint John), as well as a two-year SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Guelph.


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