Ask the historians - who is the most underrated figure in Scottish history?

In our occasional Ask The Historians series, we ask four experts a key question about our country’s past and people.

Poet Allan Ramsay, magnate and nation builder Lord Strathcona, military leader Andrew Murray - who died after the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 - and Lord Advocate George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh have all been suggested as the most underrated figures in Scottish history.

Today, we ask our panel to share their thoughts on “who is the most underrated figure in Scottish history?”.

Professor Murray Pittock, Pro-Vice Principal, Glasgow University

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Allan Ramsay (1684 – 1758)


There are many candidates for the most underrated figure in Scottish History. Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was one until recent years; Duns Scotus (1265-1308) is another, with his radical views of human freedom and political choice, which very probably fed into the Declaration of Arbroath; James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) is a third.

Allan Ramsay has a statue dedicated to him on Princes Street, Edinburgh, just in front of the house he built in the 1730s which now forms the centrepiece of Ramsay Garden.

A plaque was recently erected to him at the Allan Ramsay Hotel in Carlops, near where he set his pioneering ballad opera, The Gentle Shepherd.

Today he is remembered if at all as an inferior predecessor of Robert Burns. Yet not only did Burns model himself on Ramsay, in everything from his Scots to the language of his prefaces via his tavern poetry to his song-collecting, but Ramsay is so much more than this.

His writing on and in Scots safeguarded its future as a literary language: he was apparently the first to call it ‘Doric’. Ramsay opened the first subscription library in the British Isles in 1725, bringing opportunities for reading to women (for which he was attacked) and others who could not afford booksellers’ prices.

He was to the forefront in promoting Scotland’s first art school, the Academy of St Luke, in 1729. He developed season ticket, touring and early bird ticket prices for the theatre, and paid to establish the first permanent theatre in Scotland. He was the first writer in Scots to reach a British market and the first to collect songs in Scotland on a systematic and large-scale basis.

He struggled all his life to make Edinburgh a cultural capital in the aftermath of Union. The cultural, poetic and lyric side of Scotland we inherit today was largely forged by him. And to cap it all he was cheerful too.

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Dr Iain MacInness, Senior Lecturer in Scottish History, University of Highlands and Islands

Andrew Murray of Avoch and Petty (died 1297)

Military leader

Murray led rebellion in northern Scotland at the start of the First Scottish War of Independence (1296-1328) and overthrew the English settlement of the region in 1297.

He combined his forces with William Wallace and his men in the south, became co-Guardian of the kingdom, and was arguably the tactical mastermind behind the Scottish victory at Stirling Bridge in the same year. His death at or soon after this battle, coupled with the growth in later years of the ‘Braveheart’ legend, meant that Murray was subsumed by Wallace’s shadow. He deserves greater recognition, although the planned statue by Malcolm Robertson (‘Brothers in Arms’) to be erected in Stirling, may go some way to redressing this balance.

Similarly underrated is Murray’s son, also Andrew Murray (of Bothwell). Leader of Scottish forces during the Second War of Independence (1332-1357), he became Guardian of Scotland in 1335 and led a series of counter-offensives to retake Scottish territory and castles from the hands of the English and their Scottish allies.

He won a victory at Culblean (1335) and helped turn the tide of the war in the patriots’ favour at a key point in the conflict. So successful were his efforts that he recommenced offensive raids into the English north to take the war once more to England. Like his father, his premature death may have denied him a lasting legacy, but both father and son deserve greater recognition than they are often afforded.

Professor Marjory Harper, Chair in History at Aberdeen University

Lord Strathcona

Philanthropist, businessman, politician, nation builder

In September 1906 two of the most influential Scottish emigrants to North America both found themselves in Aberdeen. On Wednesday 26th Andrew Carnegie was made an honorary doctor of laws by the University of which he was to become Rector five years later. On Thursday 27th, Lord Strathcona, the University’s Chancellor (and former Rector) hosted 2,500 guests at an extravagant banquet to celebrate the royal opening of the imposing new frontage to Marischal College earlier that day.

The menu included turtle soup, prepared from 90 turtles specially imported from the West Indies and sent north from London by train.

While Carnegie’s memory still resonates on both sides of the Atlantic, Strathcona’s fame has faded with the passage of time, at least on his native shores.

In his day, however, he was regarded as one of Canada’s nation-builders, not only that country’s pre-eminent businessman and financier, but also an astute politician, who - as plain Donald Smith - played a key role in the birth and development of the new Dominion.

A native of Forres who spent his early adulthood as a fur trader in the snows of Labrador, Smith rose through the ranks of the Hudson’s Bay Company to become its Governor, showing an uncanny ability to manipulate networks and always be in the right place at the right time. In the 1880s, along with his Dufftown-born cousin George Stephen (whose achievements are much less remembered), he bankrolled the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, a feat which ensured Smith remained a Canadian icon well into the twentieth century.

In 1896, Smith came to London to take up the post of Canada’s High Commissioner. When he was ennobled a year later, his Scottish-Canadian identity was reflected in his choice of title - Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal - and between then and his death in 1914 he built a mansion in Glencoe and purchased the island of Colonsay. Like Carnegie, he disbursed millions of dollars in charitable donations and bequests, but while he has not been obliterated from public memory, he has - unlike his Dunfermline-born counterpart - not remained a household name in his homeland.

Dr Allan Kennedy, history lecturer and consultant editor of History Scotland magazine, University of Dundee

Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh (1636/8-1691)

Lord Advocate and politician

He may not be the most underrated person in Scottish History, but Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh (1636/8-91) is, I think, far more significant that he is given credit for.

If he is remembered at all, it is usually as ‘Bluidy Mackenzie’, the hard-line Lord Advocate who oversaw the harsh pursuit of Covenanters in the 1680s; or for his mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard, which his restless spirit is said to haunt. But even as a prosecutor, Rosehaugh was more complex then he first appears: as he was harrying Presbyterians and condoning the (limited) use of judicial torture, he was also instrumental in drastically reducing the intensity of witch-hunting in Scotland after 1660. And in any case, there was more to Rosehaugh than pursuing criminals.

He was a heavyweight politician who, as a Privy Councillor and twice Lord Advocate, was consistently one of the key movers under both Charles II and James VII. He was, in addition, a skilled lawyer, particularly renowned for his brave, though ultimately doomed, advocacy of the Marquis of Argyll during the latter’s treason trial in 1661.

Rosehaugh also has a significant material legacy in the form of the National Library of Scotland, the foundation of which, in its earlier guise as the Advocates’ Library, was largely his initiative.

But what really makes Rosehaugh stand out is his literary output. A true polymath, he not only wrote numerous commentaries on the business of the Scottish Parliament, but also one of the earliest treatises on Scots criminal law, various works of political philosophy, studies of Scottish History, and a romance entitled Aretina that is generally recognised as the first Scottish novel.

Harsh and unbending, George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh might not be anybody’s idea of a hero, but he should be recognised as one of the major figure of the 17th Century.