Scots and Scotland in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (www.oxforddnb.com) tells the life stories of more than 60,000 men and women who have shaped British history worldwide. Of these, more than 6000 were born or lived in Scotland, or left their mark on aspects of Scottish life—from politics to sport, industry to the arts.
In October 2009 the Oxford DNB further extended its Scottish coverage with a set of new biographies (including Christian Fletcher and Jean Armour)—together with a feature on the ‘Faces of Scotland’ highlighting major figures from Scotland’s past.
Together these subjects span 1500 years of Scottish history, beginning with the sixth-century St Moluag (said to have arrived on Lismore on a stone ‘like no other’) and concluding with close contemporaries such as actor and comedian Rikki Fulton (1924–2004) and politician Robin Cook (1946-2005).
The Oxford DNB is a subscriber service and the following searches require subscriber access through a public or university library - find out how to subscribe.
Online access is available free via nearly all public libraries in Scotland (and also across the UK). Libraries now provide ‘remote access’ allowing you to log-in free—from anywhere, at anytime—via your public library’s account. More details on free access >
1. Find people
With the online edition of the Oxford DNB you can search for people
- by name (including nicknames, pseudonyms, married names, title names and more)
- by date or date range
- by place of birth, baptism, education, residence (including street, where known), death, and burial
- by ‘profession’ (we have 1300 on offer: from wrestlers to helminthologists)
- by religious affiliation (from ‘Wee Frees’ to Magic Methodists)
This means you can quickly discover
- by what name novelist Leslie Mitchell is better known
- the supposed profession of John O’Groats
- which Scottish sporting heroes were known to many as ‘Slim Jim’ and the ‘Mermaid’
- aside from Adam Smith, who was baptized in Kirkcaldy
- which literary figures come from Aberdeen
- who was born on St Andrews Day, or on your birthday
- which Scottish kings and commoners are buried on Iona
- the identities and claim of the Seven Men of Knoydart
- which engineers were educated in Victorian Glasgow
- who lived alongside Sir Walter Scott in Castle Street, Edinburgh, in 1820
2. Search for words, references, and images
Online you can also search the Dictionary’s 65 million words of text; its listings of individuals’ archives, likenesses, and wealth at death; and its 10,500 portrait images which accompany 1 in 5 biographies, making this the largest published collection of national portraiture. Which means you can also find:
- the number of references to ‘golf’ in the ODNB (633) and to the same term in book titles (28)
- the number of sons (and daughters) of the manse
- which Scottish politician regularly ate fish fingers for Christmas dinner
- how many ODNB subjects have portraits in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery
- who left a ‘parcell of Old Bagpipes’ in his will
- how many portraits by Henry Raeburn are used to illustrate the ODNB (then click on an icon to view the portrait)
3. New biographies published three times a year
Since publication in September 2004, the Oxford DNB has been extended three times each year with online updates published every January, May, and October.
January updates add biographies of men and women who died in the early twenty-first century, while those for May and October add people from the ‘earliest times’ to 2000. Recent updates include a special focus on First World War lives to mark the 90th anniversary of the armistice.
Of the more than 2000 men and women added to the ODNB since 2004, examples include:
- Jimmy Knapp (1940–2001), trade unionist
- David MacDonald (1929-2004), director of the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre
- Murdo Macdonald (1914–2004), Church of Scotland minister
- Elizabeth Dodd (1909-1989), children’s writer and creator of Tammy Troot
- George Bennie (1891–1957), Glasgow inventor and creator of the ‘rail plane’
- Abram Lyle (1820-1891), Renfrewshire sugar refiner and creator of Golden Syrup
- Margaret Sinclair (1925-1925), Poor Clare Nun
- Bessie Williamson (1910–1982), whisky distiller for the Laphroaig distillery
4. Themes for quick reference and research
As well as new biographies, updates have added more than 450 articles to create a new Themes area of the online Oxford DNB.
Themes provide an expanding online 'handbook' to the people who shaped British history worldwide. Themes take three forms—lists, groups, and features—and are useful for quick reference, making connections between people, and as routes into the main dictionary (all individuals mentioned link back to the full biography for further reading).
- Scottish-related content includes lists of Scottish monarchs (842-1707); moderators of the Church of Scotland; Lord Chancellors of Scotland, and Secretaries of State for Scotland
- Scottish-related groups include the Jacobites of 1715 and 1745, the Aberdeen Wise Club, the Scottish Martyrs, the scientists of the North British Network, the Red Clydesiders, and the writers of the Scottish literary renaissance
- Scottish-related features include Dr Michael Penman (Stirling University) on medieval Scottish kingship and Dr Alex Murdoch (Edinburgh University) on the Act of Union of 1707
5. Getting the most from your subscription
- Topical history: regular features linking people in the past to current anniversaries. Examples include the Armistice, Faces of Sgt Pepper, and Football Legends.
- Interactive features: maps and galleries include Lives at sea, Brewers of Britain, and Victoria Cross holders, alongside a regular biography podcast.
- Five lives: 20 unusual routes into the dictionary’s content