Grant Gray Simpson, who died aged 89 on 14 December 2019, was the last member of a group of scholars who transformed the academic study of Scottish history in the second half of the twentieth century. Together with Geoffrey Barrow, Archie Duncan, Athol Murray, Bruce Webster, Donald Watt and many others, Grant helped lay the groundwork for what proved to be a revitalisation of Scottish historical scholarship. A meticulous researcher and an expert on the medieval parchment record, Grant was the inspiration to the production of scholarly editions of some of the most important collections of documents illuminating key periods in Scotland’s historical development. His research guides and training tools made original records more accessible to specialist and generalist alike. They constitute a monument to his passion for and commitment to scholarship, teaching and learning.
Grant was born in Mosspark, Glasgow in August 1930. He began attending Hutchesons’ Boys Grammar School at the age of 11. Grant was fortunate to have been a Sixth Year pupil the year Hutchesons’ introduced History into their curriculum for the first time; fortunate, because Grant was the only candidate for Higher and he had one-to-one teaching with the new history master, Mr James Whyte.
After coming third in the Glasgow University Bursary Competition, Grant began his university studies in 1948. He took courses in Moral Philosophy, Greek and English before settling on History as his major subject. He graduated in 1952 with an MA(Hons) in History. A burgeoning career in academia was clearly beckoning, though that did not develop until a mid-life career change.
While at university, Grant began a life-long friendship with Professor Lionel Stones. It was Lionel who ignited his interests in the thirteenth century, in palaeography and who encouraged Grant to get involved in his first archaeological excavations.
After his graduation from Glasgow, Grant undertook two years National Service as an Administrative Pilot Officer in the RAF. His longest posting was at RAF Cosford, where he supervised the welfare of 125 Boy Entrants. Unlike many of his generation, he did not look back on National Service as a waste of two years. As well honing his talents at good leadership, he also learned skills of good followership: loyalty to the chain of command, assuming duties without need for instruction, and cultivating an attention to detail and a dependability that were evident throughout his life.
After leaving the RAF he applied for a number of posts, including one at the Government Communication Headquarters, Cheltenham. In the end, though, he accepted an appointment as Assistant Keeper in the organisation at that time known as the Scottish Record Office (SRO) in Edinburgh, now the National Records of Scotland, the principal repository for Scottish historical documents. He took up the post in 1954. In Edinburgh, Grant rapidly established himself as a well-known figure in the capital’s scholarly networks. Grant’s archival cataloguing years in Register House offered him the chance to become thoroughly familiar with Scottish historical documents in all their forms. He played a major part in the thorough re-indexing of the SRO’s substantial library and, more enduring still, in introducing a modern reference system to the archives themselves, one that current archivists have been able successfully to transition into the digital age.
Grant’s early years at the SRO introduced him to several like-minded historians and archivists and deepened his passion for the study of history. In November 1957 he and two colleagues, John Imrie and Thomas Ian Rae, successfully organised a scholarly conference on the antiquarian Sir James Balfour of Denmilne (c. 1600 – c. 1658). The conference was first of its kind in post-war Scotland and it attracted speakers and participants from all over the UK.
In the success of that gathering lay the germ of the group that later became known as The Scottish Medievalists. An initial meeting in January 1958 was attended by Grant, Geoffrey Barrow, Archie Duncan, Bill Scott, Ranald Nicholson, Athol Murray, Ian Cowan, Thomas Ian Rae, Hamish Scoular, Bruce Webster, John Durkan, Donald Watt, Sandy Anton, Leslie MacFarlane and, in absentia, Al Brown. The Scottish Mediaevalists, now the largest and most important gathering of Scottish historians of the pre-reformation period, continues to meet in annually in January more than sixty years later.
Among the first (and most daunting) of the decisions enacted by that small meeting was the launch of a comprehensive collection of all the written acts of the kings of Scots between the 1124 and 1424, the Regesta Regum Scottorum. Grant was assigned the acts of Alexander III, the Guardians and John (i.e. the period between 1249 and 1296) and immediately set about drafting a handlist of extant materials. Grant devoted much of his career to completing a meticulous edition of these records, with those of Alexander III appearing eventually in 2013, in collaboration with a former PhD student, Cynthia Neville.
Grant’s commitment to the study of history and historical sources led him to begin part-time doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh under the supervision of W Croft Dickinson (who died in 1963) and Gordon Donaldson. He completed it 1966 with great distinction being awarded (jointly) the Hume Brown Senior Prize in Scottish History the following year. His thesis on the great Anglo-Scottish baron Roger de Quincy immediately became a model that all subsequent historians of the Scottish nobility have sought to emulate.
His particular interest in the archives of medieval local communities led him to publish fine scholarly studies in the Scottish Historical Review, the Innes Review, the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and Archives. His expertise as both archivist and historian made him a sought-after member of the Scottish History Society, which he served as Assistant Secretary from 1956 to 1962 (and, later as Secretary, 1962-1969) and he was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in December 1954, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1966 and the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1967 (and, between 1974 and 1976, served as a member of its Council). Grant’s rare ability to collaborate successfully with both historians and archivists also brought him to the close attention of his own seniors. In 1969 the University of Aberdeen approached him informally to offer him the newly created post of University Archivist. However, it was not for the university library that Grant left the SRO in 1969, but rather for a whole new career in the University’s Department of History.
Grant found his calling at Aberdeen and cemented there his reputation as a leading records scholar, palaeographer and historian. In his undergraduate courses he injected a freshness and dynamism into a department that until then had concentrated its efforts largely on the post-1707 era. His Honours Options included an introduction to historical documents and palaeography, taught in conjunction with the University’s archivist, which provided the fundamental skillsets that enabled many of his undergraduate students to progress to postgraduate research. Palaeography, intellectual history and humanist scholarship provided the core strands of his pioneering Special Subject course on King James VI, which allowed him to draw together the several strands of his own personal historical enthusiasms in a single programme of study.
To his postgraduate students, Grant was that rarest of gifts: not merely a learned supervisor, but more important still a friend who welcomed them into his office, his home and his life, an accomplished scholar ready and willing to share his wide ranging knowledge of Scottish history, and a mentor deeply committed to their intellectual development.
Grant’s lifelong dedication to his students was matched by a strong sense of responsibility to the university community. He undertook a number of administrative responsibilities including serving on the University Senatus, the Faculty of Arts Committee and the University Chapel Committee.
The challenges associated with such work in no way diminished his curiosity as a researcher and it was in his Aberdeen years that Grant produced some of the scholarly works for which he will be remembered most. These included a magisterial two-volume survey of the record sources relating to a key moment in the history of Scotland, Edward I and the Throne of Scotland, 1290-96: an edition of the Record Sources for the Great Cause, edited with E. L. G. Stones and published in 1978 by Oxford University Press, and Volume 5 of the Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland in H.M. Public Record Office, London, 1108-1516, a comprehensive summary of thousands of documents of interest to historians of Scotland, which he edited with James D Galbraith and published in Edinburgh in 1986. To this period, too, belongs the best-known and the still hugely popular work, Scottish Handwriting 1150–1650: An Introduction to the Reading of Documents, first issued in 1973, and republished and reprinted several times since then. This slim volume quickly established itself as an indispensable guide for all students of Scottish (and indeed English) palaeography, and it remains in high demand.
Grant’s close relationship with the administrators of the Mackie Bequest to the University of Aberdeen, with its focus on Scotland’s international relations, provided the context for an Honours course on Scotland’s relations with Europe and a series of symposia. It also led, between 1990 and 1996, to his editorship of (and contribution to) a series of volumes: Scotland and Scandinavia, 800-1800 (Edinburgh, 1990), The Scottish Soldier Abroad, 1247-1967 (Edinburgh, 1990) and Scotland and the Low Countries, 1124-1994 (1996). Grant was much more than a ‘big project’ scholar, too: his numerous article-length publications and book chapters include a wide variety of pieces on the written culture of late medieval Scotland, ranging from studies of the archives belonging to the medieval church of Glasgow to the Declaration of Arbroath, from wide-ranging reflections about the links between historians and archivists to a close examination of the symbolism on the seal of minority used by King Alexander III.
Grant had a unique understanding of the ways in which historians of the written word and historians of the material world might collaborate, and as early as the 1970s he expanded his already broad interests into the archaeology of the medieval world. A series of journal articles and book chapters on medieval castle-building brought him to the attention of members of the Château Gaillard Colloquium (European Castle Studies), a group he was associated with from 1970 through 1995. The committee and organising work he had done first as Assistant Keeper of Records at the SRO he continued on behalf of other professional bodies, serving as Chair of the Scottish Records Association between 1984 and 1987, then as a member of that organisation, as Chair of the Conference of Scottish Medieval Historians between 1992 and 1994, as President of Scottish History Society from 1992 to 1995, as a member of the Scottish Secretary of State’s Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland between 1971 and 1987.
Grant’s expertise in local archaeology won him a great deal of support from urban archaeologists and their students who, in the 1970s and ‘80s, were only just beginning to develop new standards for their discipline. Grant served three terms on the Council of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1963-1965; 1970-1972) including one as Vice-President (1973-1975). He was Convenor of the Society’s Urban Archaeology Committee between 1970 and 1976, as a member of the Council and as trustee of the Scottish Urban Archaeology Trust from 1981 to 1994 and, from 1989 as a consultant on the Finds Disposal Panel for Historic Scotland. The work Grant put into the development of both urban and local authority archaeology in Scotland, as well as the development of archaeology at Aberdeen University, more especially in the 1970s, were nothing less than revolutionary, and key statements were produced under the auspices of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, such as Scotland’s Medieval Burgh’s: an archaeological heritage in danger in 1972 and Archaeology and Local Government – an environmental problem in 1974. Grant was the catalyst and driver behind changes, first in Aberdeen and North East Scotland then wider afield, that paved the way for the system of archaeological practice carried out in the Scottish planning system today.
Grant’s interest in history, archaeology and archival studies carried him well beyond his retirement from the University of Aberdeen in 1995. Those years after his retirement were among the happiest of Grant’s life. In partnership with his wife, Anne, he ran a heritage consulting firm. He also became closely involved in the local community council, and in that capacity had the honour of meeting Queen Elizabeth II in 2002.
Sadly, long term trouble with his eyesight and, later still, a diagnosis of dementia caught up with him. Despite these serious health-related challenges, Grant never lost his joy of life or his fundamental curiosity about human nature. Nor did he ever abandon his willingness to help out former students and fellow scholars.
One of the most eloquent witnesses to the generosity with which Grant shared his wisdom and knowledge was the festschrift dedicated to him by his colleagues, Terry Brotherstone and David Ditchburn, Freedom and Authority: Historiographical and Essays presented to Grant G. Simpson, published in Edinburgh in 2000, soon after his retirement from the University of Aberdeen. It brings together essays from a wide range of scholars, all of whom acknowledge warmly – and unreservedly – their enormous intellectual debt to this historian.
Formidable his achievements certainly were, but those who knew Grant will remember most of all his basic humanity. He told a wickedly good story. His friends remember a dry sense of humour and a big heart. His students remember a man who was infinitely patient and a generous mentor. In his younger days he enjoyed hillwalking, the cinema and Scottish country dancing. He had a passion for the novels of P.G. Woodhouse, Raymond Chandler and Sir Walter Scott. In his later years as an academic he often hosted student coffee evenings. His Ne’erday dinners and whisky tastings passed into local legend.
Grant Simpson leaves behind an enviable legacy, one that amounts to considerably more than merely a long list of achievements. His postgraduate students went on to professional posts in Great Britain, Canada and the United States. He inspired countless undergraduate students, many of whom went on to study higher degrees. His expertise in medieval Scottish history, its sources and its material remains have been transmitted to people who are in turn, now, shaping the next generation of academic historians at home and overseas. That is the mark of a scholar whose life was inspirational and genuinely transformative.
Cynthia J Neville
with thanks to Professors Ian Ralston and Richard Oram
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