Prof Rosalind Mitchison

Professor Rosalind (Rowy) Mary Mitchison, historian

Born: 11 April, 1919, in Manchester

Died: 20 September, 2002, in hospital in Edinburgh, aged 83

ROWY Mitchison was the most refreshing of Scottish historians, a scholar of extraordinary range, boundless energy, forthright opinions, and a most lucid pen. She was a gifted teacher whose tutorials are affectionately remembered by her former students, including Gordon Brown, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer.

She was born to academe. Both her parents and also both grandparents were university teachers. Her father was Murray Wrong, who taught mathematics at both Toronto and Oxford. And she married into academe. Her mother-in-law, Naomi Mitchison, was wont proudly to boast late in life that she had given birth to a quarter of a ton of Fellows of the Royal Society, and one of that weighty output was Murdoch, who became Professor of Zoology at Edinburgh University.

They moved to Edinburgh in the early Fifties, when Murdoch was appointed lecturer, and no doubt the combined influence of place and family directed her interests towards Scottish history. But she was already an established historian, having read mathematics and history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and taught as an assistant lecturer for three years (1943-46) at Manchester in Lewis Namier’s department - an experience she valued all her life. Later, she taught again as assistant at Lady Margaret Hall, and after coming to Scotland, in the history department at Edinburgh and at Glasgow.

She used to say that she had received her school education as the only girl in a boys’ school, and perhaps the experience stood her in good stead in the world of male-dominated university departments, where, in those days, there was a lot of unthinking discrimination and little security for women. She needed, at times, all her good humour to survive.

In 1967, however, at the age of 47, she was appointed lecturer in economic history at Edinburgh University, a department that provided her with a congenial base for over three decades. She was promoted to reader, and then to a personal chair in social history in 1981, and ultimately became professor emeritus. But she remained busy at her desk on research projects, until hampered by ill health and poor eyesight in her eighties. Rowy was unquenchable.

She arrived at Edinburgh having already published, in 1962, an excellent biography of Sir John Sinclair, father of the Statistical Account of Scotland. In the next 40 years she wrote, in whole or in part, or edited, another ten books, and was the recipient of an excellent festschrift. She received honorary degrees from two universities and, belatedly, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1994.

The book which received the widest readership was her splendid History of Scotland, immensely readable, scholarly and lively, first published in 1970 and still regarded as easily the best single-volume history available. In one sense it followed a conventional pattern, starting with an invitation to survey the scene from Stirling "the brooch that holds together the two parts of the country" and proceeding through the medieval and early modern centuries with a focus largely on politics, but later on social and economic affairs. It is laced with memorable observations and sharp remarks: for example, the Act of Union "was a bold and decisive step, calling for courage on the part of the Scots and generosity on the part of the English. Within a remarkably short space of time, both nations changed this approach, the English to meanness and the Scots to regret".

It was writing that provoked disagreement from some, but it could not be ignored. Take a comment on the Highlands before the Clearances: "At what level, for instance, could the nearly two thousand inhabitants of Assynt hope to live?" She had a good way with awkward questions and not everyone was pleased, but at a blow she removed popular Scottish history from its romantic fixations on Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie and focused it on the real world of hard political decision and economic reality.

Rowy wrote other general books, including a volume on the 17th century in the Edward Arnold New History of Scotland, and a social history, Life in Scotland, which was brief but was immensely enjoyable and now too little read. She also played her part in the scholarly enterprises of the day, editing with Peter Roebuck a volume on Scottish-Irish comparisons, another on nationalism in northern Europe, and yet another with Tom Devine in the "People and Society in Scotland" series. She was an assiduous supporter of local history in her home county of East Lothian, and served a term as chair of the Scottish History Society.

But her most original work came as a direct consequence of her involvement with the Edinburgh economic history department. She had already published an important article on grain prices, but now became involved, at a more prolonged level, in historical demography. Professor Michael Flinn in the Seventies led a team to explore for the first time the population history of Scotland. It is hard to remember how novel such co-operative efforts were among historical scholars in those days, but Rowy was a team player.

She was assigned command of the 18th century, and she was the first to analyse Webster’s pioneering census of 1755 by bringing to bear the Princeton life tables, and to track the birth rate by minute study of a handful of parish registers. This was all technical stuff, but of the highest importance to understanding one of the basic structures of our history. It was this close study of demography that led her to appreciate as no-one had done before the potential in the systematic use of Scottish kirk session records for understanding the lives of ordinary people. Much of the final stages in her research career was spent on exploring their extraordinary richness.

Part of this work was a study of illegitimacy, carried out in collaboration with Leah Leneman, who tragically predeceased her. Alike in their sympathy for the women who were the main subject of their study, in their eye for telling detail and their ability to tell a good story, they made the ideal intellectual partnership. Sex and Social Control, later republished in two parts as Sin in the City and Girls in Trouble, is an extraordinarily vivid book: as the authors remarked, "in few other records can the voices of the common and fallible citizens of both sexes be heard". It is of first importance to those interested in how ordinary people lived, loved, moralised, accepted and evaded responsibility.

Her work on the kirk sessions also contributed to her final book on the Scottish poor law, published when she was over 80, but in her mind for perhaps 30 years in the sense that her first articles on the subject date back to the Seventies. It is a corpus of work that transformed our understanding of early welfare in Scotland, and exploded a lot of myths, especially those perpetrated by early 19th-century lawyers and ministers seeking an excuse to change the system they had inherited. Those like Thomas Chalmers, tempted to be economical with the truth, did not suspect posterity would set a Mitchison on their trail.

It was always a source of wonder to Rowy’s friends how she combined all this energetic scholarship with being the mother of four very lively children, the wife of a loved, distinguished and demanding husband, and with the ability to be the hostess with the mostest. The annual bonfire parties, always called orgies, over which she and Murdoch presided with immense aplomb, were anticipated for weeks by the children and the grown-ups invited: the scale, the excitement, the fun were quintessentially Mitchison. Considering the adrenaline and the gluttony, it is surprising that anyone ever got to school, or to work, the next day.