John of Fordun

John of Fordun (before 1360 c. 1384) was a Scottish chronicler. It is generally stated that he was born at Fordoun, Mearns. It is certain that he was a secular priest, and that he composed his history in the latter part of the 14th century; and it is probable that he was a chaplain in St Machar's Cathedral of Aberdeen.[1]

The work of Fordun is the earliest attempt to write a continuous history of Scotland. We are informed that Fordun's patriotic zeal was roused by the removal or destruction of many national records by Edward III of England and that he traveled in England and Ireland, collecting material for his history.

Collectively, this work, divided into five books, is known as the Chronica Gentis Scotorum. The first three are unverified historically, which therefore casts doubt on their accuracy, yet they also form the groundwork on which Boece and George Buchanan afterwards based some of their historical writings. Thomas Innes argued that some of the history these men presented was doubtful in his Critical Essay (i, pp. 201–2,4), but Innes himself had his own political agenda and his work has also been criticized by modern historians.[1] The 4th and 5th books contain much valuable information, and become more authentic the more nearly they approach the author's own time. The 5th book concludes with the death of King David I in 1153.

More recent scholarship, largely by Professor Dauvit Broun of Glasgow University, suggests that the portion of what has hitherto been considered Fordun's chronicle, after 1153 should be regarded as two separate works, neither of which can, in any meaningful sense, be attributed to Fordun himself. We now refer to the list of yearly events after the death of King David I in 1153 as the separate works Gesta Annalia I and Gesta Annalia II.The new thinking, put forward by Professor Broun, has been presented to Scottish school pupils, by Bill Glennie in the following helpful terms

• We should regard John of Fordun’s work as the chronicle alone. • So Fordun’s own work proceeds no further than the death of King David I in 1153. • Fordun can not be regarded in any meaningful sense as the author of ‘Gesta Annalia’. • We should regard ‘Gesta Annalia’ as a separate work. • In fact we should regard ‘Gesta Annalia’ as not one work but two. • An examination of the surviving manuscripts reveals two separate texts. • For convenience these are called ‘Gesta Annalia I’ and ‘Gesta Annalia II’. • ‘Gesta Annalia I’ ends when King Alexander III despatches an embassy to France to find him a new wife in February 1285. • ‘Gesta Annalia II’ begins with Alexander III’s marriage to his new bride in October 1285. • ‘Gesta Annalia I’ is the rump – what’s left – of a much longer work. • The author of ‘Gesta Annalia’ ended this work around February 1285. • At some point a scribe copied ‘Gesta Annalia I’ and appended it to Fordun’s chronicle. • Might that scribe have been Fordun himself? Did he append ‘Gesta Annalia I’ to his own chronicle? That, writes Dauvit Broun, ‘is an open question’. • So when we read ‘Gesta Annalia I’ we are reading a copy of an original work. • But we should assume that whoever copied the original work left it largely undisturbed, i.e. without altering the text. • There is a consistency of writing and presentation of the history in ‘Gesta Annalia I’ which we don’t always find in ‘Gesta Annalia II’ Gesta Annalia II’ is a more challenging – and some would suggest more interesting – work. • Whereas there is a consistency in the style and presentation of ‘Gesta Annalia I’, that is not the case in ‘Gesta Annalia II’.

The above bullet points are reproduced from Bill Glennie's advice to Scottish School pupils studying 'Scotland: Independence and Kingship, 1249-1334' at Advanced Higher.

Historical texts published before this new thinking was accepted will still refer to Fordun as the author of comments relating to the period after 1153. These comments are now cited as Gesta Annalia I or II.

Besides these five books, published around 1360, Fordun also wrote part of another book, and collected materials for bringing down the history to a later period. These materials were used by a continuator who wrote in the middle of the 15th century, and who is identified with Walter Bower, abbot of the monastery of Inchcolm. The additions of Bower form eleven books, and bring down the narrative to the death of King James I of Scots in 1437. According to the custom of the time, the continuator did not hesitate to interpolate Fordun's portion of the work, with additions of his own, and the whole history thus compiled is known as the Scotichronicon.

The first printed edition of Fordun's work was that of Thomas Gale in his Scriptores quindecim (vol. iii), which was published in 1691. This was followed by Thomas Hearne's (5 vol.) edition in 1722. The whole work, including Bower's continuation, was published by Walter Goodall at Edinburgh in 1759. In 1871 and 1872 Fordun's chronicle, in the original Latin and in an English translation, was edited by William F. Skene in The Historians of Scotland. The preface to this edition collects all the biographical details and gives full references to manuscripts and editions.


  1. William Ferguson, The identity of the Scottish nation: an historic quest, Edinburgh University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-7486-1071-5


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