If you saw the movie Braveheart, you know that William Wallace was a Scottish leader and warrior who died in 1305. He was also the subject of Prof. James Fraser’s master’s thesis, completed at U of G. Fraser, the new Scottish Studies Foundation Chair in the Department of History, looked even further into the past for his PhD, studying the beginnings of Christianity in what is now Scotland.
Fraser headed to the University of Edinburgh to complete his doctorate, and when his supervisor left the university Fraser applied for the position. Fraser spent the next 15 years there, first as a lecturer then as a senior lecturer on early Scottish history in Edinburgh, focusing his research on the time between 600 and 800 AD.
“It’s a fascinating time,” he says. “At the beginning, the Romans controlled Britain. After they left, the situation was disorganized, but gradually political and social structures developed. This was also the time of the advent of the Christian religion in the area.”
It’s also a challenging time period for historians because documentation is very limited. Fraser says his research is always multi-disciplinary, including archeologists and other experts to help answer questions about how the people of that time lived and died.
“You are dealing with a very fragmentary body of evidence, and some gaps are just not fillable,” he says.
He notes that there are echoes of the past in the present-day news stories of militant groups destroying statues and historical artifacts. “Scotland and other countries have gone through similar waves of destruction. People wanted to eliminate reminders of the past and create a new story for themselves.”
In his new position as chair, Fraser is looking forward to helping the Scottish Studies program at Guelph to thrive and prosper. The program focuses on graduate studies and includes research on both the history of Scotland and the lives of Scottish immigrants to Canada. “The Scottish contribution to Canadian history is very significant,” he points out. “Our first prime minister was Scottish, after all.”
He adds there is a broad community of people in Ontario with an interest in Scottish history. “People donate their family treasures to the University and they contribute money to Scottish research as well,” Fraser says. “Our connection to the past can be surprisingly powerful.”