Plenary Speakers

We are delighted to announce our plenary speakers for our forthcoming conference “The Communities and Margins of Early Modern Scotland.”

Introducing Dr. Jamie-Reid Baxter, Dr. Alison Cathcart (University of Strathclyde), Dr. Julian Goodare (University of Edinburgh), and finally, Dr. Aonghas MacCoinnich (University of Glasgow).

Dr. Jamie-Reid Baxter: “A Poetic Community on the Margins: the Presbyterians of Glasgow and the Southwest, 1597-1637”

This paper seeks to combine the ideas of community and of marginality by looking at the virtually unexplored poetry produced by committed presbyterians  – both clerical and lay –  in Glasgow and the Southwest,  between the failed presbyterian coup d’état of 17 December 1597 and the return of the presbyterians to centre-stage dominance with the prayer-book riots of the summer of 1637.  The presbyterian poets in question include figures as famous and influential as Samuel Rutherford, and names semi-familiar, such as Robert Boyd of Trochrigg and Sir William Mure of Rowallan, and names as obscure as those of Michael Wallace, Lady Margaret Cunningham, and Francis Hamilton of Silvertonhill. The paper argues that while it is as yet impossible to prove the existence of a mutually supportive ‘community’ such as that found in Fife between 1597 and 1614, involving James Melville, John Johnston, Elizabeth Melville and others, there are nonetheless parallels to be drawn.


Dr. Alison Cathcart: “Living on the edge: a Highland Scot community in Ireland”

This paper will examine the place of a Highland Scot community in north-east Ulster during the early modern period. Largely assumed to have settled in the region following a marriage with the local Bisset heiress in 1399, the late medieval settlement of the MacDonalds in Ulster will be traced briefly before focussing in more detail on this community and its interaction with the Irish and English communities in the north of Ireland. Operating as they did across the North Channel, the body of water that connected their estates in Ireland and Scotland, the MacDonald settlement in Ulster lay on the margins of land and sea; a position they utilised effectively to their own advantage. Their presence in Ireland, however, was problematic for the English monarchy who regarded them as subjects of the Scottish crown. Although settled in east Antrim, the MacDonalds moved easily back and forth to Scotland, crossing territorial, political and legal boundaries; as such they existed on the margins of kingdoms, jurisdiction and centralised political authority. That the family rose to power rapidly at the turn of the seventeenth century too often overlooks the struggles for survival in the sixteenth century which this paper seeks to unpick. At the same time, the paper will also place this study into wider historiographical approaches that ensure this community remains relegated to the margins of history itself.



Dr. Julian Goodare: “The Communities of Early Modern Scotland and their Witches”

Witchcraft records tell us about many interactions within the community that were not intrinsically ‘about witchcraft’ – they were about ploughing, or butter-making, or managing grazing animals, or offers of employment, or invitations to baptisms. Members of the community had to co-operate over these things, but sometimes difficulties and disputes arose. Some disputes led to charges of witchcraft – and, when this happened, people wrote detailed accounts of the disputes. These accounts often narrate previous disputes too, sometimes in a series that stretches back many years. Embedded in these narratives are explanations of how the previous disputes were resolved. By attending to these explanations, we can see that most disputes were resolved within the community, without resorting to formal legal processes.

There were three main approaches to dispute resolution. Often the two parties sorted out the dispute between themselves, using a range of reconciliation rituals that seems to have been well understood. The second approach was to seek the informal aid of a third party, such as a household head, or some other relative of one of the parties; such a person could mediate, using their negotiating skills and (in the case of household heads) informal social power. The third approach, more formal and serious than the first two, was resolution by submission to a court. Here it should be noted that our evidence was all generated by courts, and indeed quite a few of the cases concerned would ultimately lead to one of the parties being executed as a witch – but the point here is that the resulting evidence also allows us to look back to earlier stages. In these earlier narratives we find disputes that occurred, and were resolved, within the community, before the word ‘witch’ was ever used. Studies of kirk sessions and burgh courts have shown that these and other local courts did not necessarily seek to punish offenders; they often sought to mediate between quarrelling parties, to restore harmony and to rehabilitate the wayward. A detailed examination of witchcraft cases can show how community members themselves sought to mediate between quarrelling parties, to restore harmony and to rehabilitate the wayward.

At this point it becomes possible to reinstate these disputes into a broader framework of normal socio-economic transactions within the community – transactions that are often, in themselves, invisible to the historian. In examining disputes about ploughing, or butter-making, or managing grazing animals, or offers of employment, or invitations to baptisms, we can also learn something about how socio-economic transactions on these matters were meant to take place. The witches of early modern Scotland can tell us about many other things besides witchcraft.



Dr. Aonghas MacCoinnich: “A clan chief’s perspective on community:  a letter of advice, 1631”

In 1631 Colin Mackenzie Earl of Seaforth (alias Cailean Ruadh) took ill in London.   Fearing imminent death, the Earl wrote a letter to his younger brother and heir outlining what challenges their family (and clan) faced at this time and what he saw as his managerial priorities. Written with surprising directness and frankness, this letter can help give an insight into the working of a Highland clan from a clan chief’s perspective at a critical time as he struggled to balance dynastic and community pressures, manage relations with clients and vassals while fending off external parties (Scots burghs, Lord Lorne and the Society of the Fishery of Great Britain and Ireland), all of whom sought to displace the Mackenzies from their recent acquisition, the Isle of Lewis, and install a more amenable regime in their place. This paper will use this letter and the themes it outlines to inform a wider discussion on the nature and structure of a Highland clan in the early seventeenth century.