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Obituary: Rosalind Mitchison
Herewith the obituary of Rosalind Mitchison who figured so prominently in a
recent debate on this list.
This from the Daily Telegraph, I think 24 Sept.
Rory in Toronto
Professor Rosalind Mitchison, who has died aged 83, was the 20th century's
foremost exponent of the social history of Scotland.
A writer of forthright, elegant and lucid prose, she was also constantly
ready to make inroads into new and unexpected areas of study; indeed, her
eminence as a social historian derived from her awareness of the crucial
inter-relationships between social, political and economic approaches
previously considered discrete.
Along with two other non-Scots, John Prebble and Christopher Smout, Rosalind
Mitchison bears much of the responsibility for reviving interest in Scottish
history, which had seemed all but extinguished, and creating the present
vibrant scene. Her one-volume A History of Scotland (1970) was judicious and
succinct, and remained essential reading for at least 20 years.
It opens: "Go and stand on the castle rock of Stirling and look about you.
That is the quickest way to comprehend the basic features that have dictated
Scottish history. You will see the Highland line, one of the great
geological faults to which Scotland owes its shape, a wall of hills rising
sharply from the plain a few miles to the north . . Stirling is the brooch
that holds together the two parts of the country."
Unconventional, direct and unusually helpful, this opening is typical of a
historian who always liked to ask unexpected questions of seemingly
While A History of Scotland proved an indispensable introduction to their
past for many Scots, Rosalind Mitchison's contribution to a later
multi-volume history of Scotland - Lordship to Patronage, Scotland 1603-1745
(1983) - gave her greater scope to demonstrate her integrated vision of
social, economic and political history. Impatience with artificial barriers
and trenchant analysis were two constant hallmarks of her working method.
She was born Rosalind Mary Wrong in Manchester on April 11 1919, a daughter
of the historian Edwin Wrong, and a grand-daughter of the Canadian historian
G M Wrong. Young Rosie was educated at Channing School, Highgate, and at
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she took a First in Mathematics in 1940
and a First in Modern History in 1942.
After three years (1943-46) as an assistant lecturer in History at
Manchester University, where Lewis Namier was professor at the time, she
returned to Oxford as a tutor at Lady Margaret Hall.
In 1947 she married the scientist John Murdoch Mitchison, a son of the
writer Naomi Mitchison. When he was appointed to a post at Edinburgh
University in 1953, he and his wife and young family moved up to Scotland.
The next year, Rosalind Mitchison joined the Department of Economic History
(later Economic and Social History) of Edinburgh University, where, apart
from spells lecturing at Glasgow, she would remain until retirement. She
became a reader in 1967 and Professor of Social History in 1981. Her pupils
found her vigorous and inspiring.
Her first book, Agricultural Sir John (1962), was a biography of Sir John
Sinclair, the improver and editor of the first Statistical Account, an
invaluable source for historians of late 18th-century Scotland. In 1970 she
edited, with N T Phillipson, a book of essays, Scotland in the Age of
Improvement, which included her important piece "The Court and the
Four years later, she produced her paper The Making of the old Scottish Poor
Law - a subject in which she was soon acknowledged the foremost authority.
She showed that the Scottish law was not in fact finalised until the end of
the 18th century, and that 19th-century writers had falsified history by
making it seem that the law had been in effect since time immemorial.
Rosalind Mitchison now turned to demography, publishing the result of her
research as British Population Change since 1860 (1977). The next year saw
the publication of her Life in Scotland.
On retirement, her immediate research subjects were illegitimacy in early
modern Scotland and poor relief. Out of the first emerged the book, written
with Leah Leneman, Sexuality and Social Control: Scotland 1660-1780 (1989).
Based on parish records, this work revealed, along with much else, that in
the attitudes of the period in question there was "a complete absence of
'she had it coming to her' " when a girl was mistreated. Out of the second
research project came Coping with Destitution: Poverty and Relief in Western
In the introduction to the collection of essays she edited, Why Scottish
History Matters (1991), Rosalind Mitchison wrote: "Historians cannot rest on
any one generation's achievements; history itself is an area of historical
"It is hoped too," she added presciently, "that the current approach to the
history curriculum in English schools will include a new type of British
history which will involve paying serious attention to the interlocked
history of the different people of these islands."
Rosalind Mitchison died on September 19. She is survived by her husband, who
was Professor of Zoology at Edinburgh University from 1963 to 1988, and by
their son and three daughters.
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