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St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen
St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen

John of Fordun lived from about 1330 to about 1384. He was the first chronicler to set down what he believed to be a continuous history of Scotland. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

John of Fordun probably came from the village of Fordoun, in the Mearns area of southern Aberdeenshire: today it lies immediately to the north west of the main A90 some 10 miles from Stonehaven. By profession, John of Fordun was probably a chaplain at St Machar's Cathedral in Aberdeen, and it is believed that he developed an interest in history in order to record Scotland's place in history and its wider links: all against the background of the tremendous destruction caused by the Wars of Independence against England. He was, in effect, an early Scottish nationalist.

The result, published around 1360, was Fordun's five volume Chronica Gentis Scotorum, the product of many years' research that involved extensive consultation with sources in monastery libraries across England and Ireland as well as in Scotland. Drawing on sources as varied as the Welsh monk Gildas, chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth, and ancients such as Julius Caesar, Ptolemy and Tacitus, Fordun filled in a canvas that extended from Noah and the Romans to the Britons, the Scots, the Picts, and finally to then relatively "recent" Scottish history, concluding with the death of King David I in 1153. His work was itself extensively recycled by late chroniclers, most notably by Walter Bower, the abbot of the Monastery of Inchcolm, who in the mid 1400s more or less incorporated Fordun's work wholesale into his own 16 volume Scotichronicon.

Modern historians see John of Fordun as a trailblazer, albeit one who was prepared to accept as fact a rich mixture of folklore, myth and real history. His contribution to keeping alive the story of Scotland was invaluable, but he is almost as important for his role in setting down the folklore of his age. Hence we hear about Merlin's involvement in Scotland, and come upon fascinating snippets that might or might not have real origins, such as the story of the murder of King Kenneth II by Lady Finella in 995. He also presented as fact his interpretion of the story of Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh whose descendents founded Scotland.

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