- D. E. R. Watt
Fordun, John (d. in or after 1363), chronicler, was a compiler of historical works relating to Scotland which, after circulating for some eighty years, came to be incorporated in the 1440s in the more extensive Scotichronicon of Walter Bower. It has been assumed at least since a statement of William Camden in the early seventeenth century that Fordun took his name from the parish of Fordoun in the Mearns, Kincardineshire; however, contemporary evidence for this is non-existent, and he may equally well have taken his name rather from the lands of Fordun near Auchterarder in Perthshire. No family or local connections are known with others of the same surname who are found c.1330 either at Dundee or in the royal household.
Bower (who knew an older man who had known Fordun) records that he was an undistinguished priest, not a product of any of the schools. A scribe copying Bower's book in the early 1450s describes Fordun as a chaplain of the church of Aberdeen; as such he was of too humble status to have left his name on any record there. His literary achievement was thus all the more remarkable. The explanation may lie in his putative Perthshire birthplace, which would have made it more possible for him to have had an upbringing that included some understanding of Gaelic than if he had belonged to the Mearns. Perhaps he even had inherited knowledge of Gaelic traditions as the descendant of a hereditary Gaelic learned professional kindred.
Bower suggests that Fordun was stimulated by the comparative lack of chronicles and records with information about Scotland's past (supposedly the result of Edward I's deliberate policy of destruction), and believes that Fordun travelled extensively throughout Britain and Ireland, making notes from books of annals which he found in many different places and recording his discussions with historians and chroniclers. Fordun certainly preserves factual information on a larger scale than in any earlier surviving Scottish chronicles, and embellishes his writing with literary references in a way that is remarkable in a self-educated man.
To W. F. Skene in 1871 belongs the credit for a successful effort to identify the manuscripts which contain Fordun's writings without the changes and additions made by Bower. Skene's edition (in which all but one of these manuscripts are described) has, however, come to be regarded as untrustworthy in the detail of many readings, in the uneven collation of the various texts, and in its misleading pattern of presentation—he had to relegate three long sections to appendices since they would not fit this pattern. The problems are formidable, and no revised text has yet been produced, not least because none of the seven surviving manuscripts date from Fordun's lifetime, so that all of them appear to contain elements of corrections and additions made by copyists as they decided in various ways how to combine the different elements which they found in manuscripts to which Fordun's name was attached.
Fordun gave no titles to his writings. (Eighteenth-century editors caused two centuries of bibliographical confusion by attaching the title Scotichronicon to his work, when that title belongs only to the work of Bower.) Following the lead of Skene we can identify two separate works. One he called Gesta annalia and the other Chronica gentis Scotorum. The annals comprise a single series of 231 notes on items of relevance to Scottish history from the time of King Alfred of Wessex (c.900) to 1363 (or 1385 in some manuscripts). Each note is an assertion of fact, with only the occasional more expansive passage of argument or explanation, usually without indication of the sources being used. The chronicle is quite elaborately constructed: each of its five books is divided into numbered chapters with rubrics. Mentioning many sources as it goes along, this much more literary work starts with the age-old myths of Scota and Gaythelos as the eponymous founders of the kingdom of the Scots and runs down to the death of King David in 1153. In two manuscripts there is a tailpiece of fifteen chapters in similar style, on the Saxon lineage of St Margaret (d. 1093) from Cedric of Wessex in 495, to round the chronicle off (probably identified wrongly by Skene as part of an intended sixth book left incomplete).
Two copyists who did not include this tailpiece attempted instead to join the chronicle and annals into one by deleting the first forty-one items in the annals relating to the period before 1153, presumably on the grounds that Fordun had already adapted them for incorporation in the chronicle; but the other scribes kept the two works distinct. Four of the manuscripts came to contain in addition a collection of documentary texts of historical importance for the Scots in their struggle against English domination (including a version of the famous declaration of Arbroath of 1320). There are no allusions to these texts in the annals for the period, and so it is an open question whether Fordun was responsible for collecting them or whether it was later copyists who attached them in different ways to manuscripts containing his two genuine works.
These are difficult to date. The annals may have been collected over an extensive period. If Fordun did travel extensively south of the border, it is likely to have been in the years following 1357, when after a long period of hostility the English government was willing to grant safe conducts to ordinary Scottish visitors. Then it is noteworthy how, having given detailed information in the annals about dramatic events in the spring of 1363, Fordun fails to mention David II's visit to Westminster in November of that year. This suggests that he had given up work by then and that the mere five extra items covering the events of the next twenty years which are found in some of the manuscripts of the annals were the work of later copyists, as were certainly some items inserted at earlier periods.
On balance it is likely that the chronicle, which overlaps chronologically with the annals, was the more developed work, ranging as it does over a much wider spread of sources. When it reaches back to the origin-myths, it may well have been constructed partly from sources surviving in both Ireland and Scotland. It is a matter of debate how far Fordun included materials which had already (perhaps long before) been synthesized into the form in which he presents them and how far it was he who was the synthesist. But there is nothing in the chronicle to suggest when Fordun worked on it. It seems best to abandon Skene's view that he lived until between 1384 and 1387, and to prefer 1363 or soon afterwards as his date of death.
As a man of his time Fordun illumines the cultural heritage of mid-fourteenth-century Scotland in the way that he supports the authority of duly established kings, provided they took the trouble to heed advice. The internal quarrels of the magnate families he regarded as disastrous. He revels in the freedom that the Scottish nation had won from hostile English aggression. This is seen in the story that he chooses to tell and in the way he tells it. For this he deserves the respect of historians for the eleventh century onwards, if not before, and also for his presentation of the origin-myths to back up his point of view. His work needs to be read as a whole to understand his approach. His attitude was one that was welcome in the Scotland of his day and for at least 150 years afterwards, for his works were not regarded as superseded by Bower's grander enterprise of the 1440s. At least three and perhaps more of the manuscripts containing them were copied later in the fifteenth century. Though modern scholars who study the early centuries of Scottish history are understandably cautious to the point of scepticism regarding his version of events long before his time and have to bear his prejudices in mind, they often have little or nothing else to go on. Early Scottish history without Fordun is literally unimaginable.
- Johannis de Fordun Chronica gentis Scotorum / John of Fordun's Chronicle of the Scottish nation, ed. W. F. Skene, trans. F. J. H. Skene, 2 vols. (1871–2)
- W. Bower, Scotichronicon, ed. D. E. R. Watt and others, new edn, 9 vols. (1987–98)
- G. Camdeno [W. Camden], Britannia, sive, Florentissimorum regnorum, Angliae, Scotiae, Hiberniae, later edn (1607), 712
- RotS, 1.808ff.
- M. Drexler, ‘Attitudes to nationalism in Scottish historical writing from Barbour to Boece’, PhD diss., U. Edin., 1979
- D. Broun, The Irish identity of the kingdom of the Scots (1999)
- H. Utz, ‘Traces of nationalism in Fordun's Chronicle’, Scottish Studies, 4 (1986), 139–49
- R. Mason, ‘Kingship, tyranny and the right to resist in fifteenth-century Scotland’, SHR, 66 (1987), 125–51
- R. J. Goldstein, ‘The genealogy of Scotland: John of Fordun's Chronica gentis Scotorum’, The matter of Scotland: historical narrative in medieval Scotland (1993), 104–32
- G. Burnett and others, eds., The exchequer rolls of Scotland, 1 (1878)