William Ferguson: An appreciation

FOR William Ferguson, who has died at the age of 96, all historians should start with the facts, because these were the fundamental building blocks of any historical analysis; and it was essential that, as far as possible, the historian should endeavour to uncover, reveal and discover as many as humanly possible pertaining to a particular historical period or person.

In terms of explaining the past, the primacy of archival evidence was his guiding principle, a somewhat old-fashioned approach that has clearly stood the test of time.

Bill’s scholarship was exact, his writing precise and shorn of ambiguity or vagueness, while his integrity demanded that his conclusions be voiced irrespective of, as he put it, ‘fashionable present-day conceits’.

Bill was born on February 19, 1924 to Samuel and Agnes Ferguson, at Muirkirk in Ayrshire, their second child of five. The bairns around there were born with their boots on; just along the road was Glenbuck, home of the famous football team, the Glenbuck Cherrypickers which disbanded in 1931.

We used to tease Bill about the name but the village manufactured an estimated 50 professional footballers as well as managers Bill and Bob Shankly. They earned their name because most of their players started off in the mines where one of the jobs was ‘cherrypicking’ the good coal from the ‘stanes’.

The village has now disappeared. They were hard men in East Ayrshire where you had to be into football which Bill played at Balliol, Oxford. Growing up in Muirkirk and later Glasgow, where his dad, an engine driver, worked at Springburn, Bill learned the virtue of hard graft. He was the first of his family to go to university (Glasgow) and then to Balliol, where we have to wonder how many folk spoke Ayrshire.

As one of us wrote in his festschrift, ‘there is a streak of Anti-authoritarianism in most Ayrshire folk, a dour, even grudging, suspicion of rulers, administrators and posers in presumed positions of power’. Bill read that with approval.

He planned to study medicine but was called up during the war as a naval medic. He told his son that after a mere year at medical school he always had to look up a book before he treated anyone. At war’s end history beckoned, which put him on the road of book reading (and writing) for life.

Because of the heavily empirical – or fact-based – nature of his writing, his work has a longevity that has proved remarkable. His first book, Scotland: 1689 to the Present was published in 1968 and was the first serious analysis of post-Union Scottish history, setting the template for how to maintain the national dimension in the Scottish past when it has ceased to be an independent state.

In particular, Ferguson was able to demonstrate the survival and adaptation of a distinctive Scottish political and religious culture in the new environment of the Union settlement, at a time when the dominant trend in history and the social sciences was to emphasis the growing assimilation and integration of Scotland into the British ‘Nation State’.

The power of his analysis and his eloquent articulation of Scottish society’s distinctive evolution as a national entity within the Union was of fundamental importance in shoring up the intellectual case that Scottish history did not stop in 1707 as many at the time claimed, though h had quite a few wrangles with his editor.

His 1977 study of Scotland’s Relations with England: a Survey to 1707 appeared at the height of the first devolution/independence campaign in the seventies and provided a much-needed historical corrective to lazy assumptions regarding the origins of the Union.

The traditional 19th century Whig idea that the Union could be explained by the far-sightedness of early 18th century Scottish and English politicians who realised that their combined efforts would pave the way for the expansion of the British empire was replaced by an equally determinist economic account which embodied the much repeated narrative of ‘too wee and too poor’ to survive on its own.

Ferguson’s detailed reconstruction used the actual correspondence of the leading political figures of the day and showed an absence of political principle, far-sightedness and noble intentions, but rather the all-too-conventional and grubby motivations that have driven politicians throughout the ages.

His conclusion that the Union was the ‘greatest political job’ of the 18th century may still have its detractors, but few would dispute his argument that politics and political debate was the primary driver behind the Union in 1707.

In 1998, he published The Identity of the Scottish Nation: An Historic Quest. an intellectual tour de force that examined the history of the construction of the idea that the Scots and Scotland were a distinctive nation and people with a long pedigree that stretched back to the time of legends and was constantly added to and updated to the present time.

Few historians would have had the confidence to attempt such an ambitious undertaking and it is a testament to Ferguson’s scholarship that he was able to shape and mould such a diverse and disparate range of sources that spanned centuries into a coherent account that told the story of how from the beginning of time, the Scots constructed and reconstructed their national identity.

As was the case with all his work, he was not bound by convention. He demanded a high standard of knowledge from his readers and eschewed what he regarded as frivolous diversions into historiographical or methodological debate, and although much applauded by some, this very much went against the grain of trends in the subject of history.

He was driven by a scholarly integrity that could drive editors and publishers nuts. His book on Anglo Scottish relations was supposed to cover the period after 1707, but on closer inspection, he believed that existing work on the period before was 1707 was inadequate, and therefore it was more important to cover the earlier period.

This was a change of plan that his publisher, John Tuckwell, only discovered when the manuscript was delivered. He had a disdain of the notion of publication for its own sake and would leave finished articles in his drawer until he was certain that they were worth publication.

Bill had an impish sense of humour and as a committed supporter of Scottish independence he took a copy of the Sun newspaper on the day it came out in support of the SNP in the early nineties into that now-vanished bastion of unionism, the Edinburgh University Staff Club, where the spectacle of a member of staff reading a tabloid and supporting Scottish independence, would cause double consternation – triple, if they looked closely and found that Bill’s colleague, Prof Geoffrey Barrow had contributed a column on ‘1603 and how we were robbed’.

Ever an eye for a choice quote and sometimes a barb that caught a well-deserved tender spot, Bill's prose was colourful and crafted and it becomes very self-evident after just a few pages that the reader is in the hands of one who enjoyed creating carefully constructed arguments and thought deeply about the use of language to best effect.

Working with Bill was a pleasure and a privilege. His advice to a young lecturer was to change topic if the students seemed bored. Every morning he scoured the papers for the latest evidence of the idiocy of the great and the good, especially politicians. He spent a substantial chunk of his life in the National Library where he had many friends. The family often had summer holidays in the Wigtownshire Machars, about which he raved to those less impressed, by that offshoot of south Ayrshire.

He never seemed to quite realise why visitors to the university might wish to meet him. If they had questions the answers were in his books and articles. Yet he greatly enjoyed conversation and suitable lubrication in the old Edinburgh University Staff Club or some of the nearby pubs. Indeed, once you knew him, he was one of the greatest conversationalists you could ever meet.

He left Scottish History in a much better place than he found it. He is survived by his wife Olga, his children Donald, Ken, Katrina and wee Olga and grandchildren Isla, Morven, Sammy and James.

Edward J. Cowan

Richard J. Finlay