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A Distant View of Inchcolm Abbey
A Distant View of Inchcolm Abbey

Walter Bower lived from 1385 to 24 December 1449. He was an abbot and a chronicler. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Walter Bower was born in Haddington in East Lothian. He was presumably the younger son of a landed or noble family, and entered the priesthood at the age of 18 in 1403. He then studied in Paris. In 1418 he was made Abbot of Inchcolm Abbey, which stands on the island of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth. Like many senior abbots of his time, he played an important part in matters of state as well as in the religious life of the country. In 1423 and 1424 he was one of the commissioners who negotiated with the English for the return of the captive James I. He also went to Paris in 1433 to help arrange the terms of the marriage between James I's daughter Margaret and the Dauphin of France.

But it is for his work as a chronicler that Walter Bower is primarily remembered. In 1440 he was asked by Sir David Stewart of Rosyth to undertake the task of bringing up to date Chronica Gentis Scotorum, a five volume history of Scotland published by John of Fordun in 1360. Fordun's rich mix of myth, legend and history came to a halt with the death of King David I in 1153. Walter Bower's update was completed in 1447 and called the Scotichronicon. Fordun's original five volumes had been expanded out to sixteen. The first five-and-a-half volumes were largely Fordun's work, with extensive additional comments and material added by Bower. For additional coverage up to 1371 Bower continued to draw on later work produced by Fordun, but from there on, for the period until the death of James I in 1437, the story is told wholly in his own words: though, as one Victorian reviewer put it, like Fordun he wrote "in a scholastic and barbarous Latin".

After the completion of Scotichronicon, Bower turned his attention to an abridged version, known as the Book of Cupar, the original of which is now held by the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh, which is also home to one of a small number of original transcriptions of the Scotichronicon itself. There are many doubts which can be raised about the historical accuracy of some of Fordun's sources, especially in his early volumes, and these carry through to Walter Bower's work. But the production of Scotichronicon remains an incredible undertaking, and it is one that has influenced every work of Scottish history written since which starts earlier than 1437. Walter Bower died on Christmas Eve, 1449 at the age of 64.

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