Historian retires to write new chapter

Tom Devine is a teacher, observer and commentator. Picture: Greg Macvean
Tom Devine is a teacher, observer and commentator. Picture: Greg Macvean
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ONE of Scotland’s most eminent historians is to retire after a career spanning more than four decades.

Professor Tom Devine, 68, director of Edinburgh University’s Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies and author of almost 40 books, will step down on July 31.

A graduate of Strathclyde University, he rose through the academic ranks there, becoming professor of Scottish history in 1988, then dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences and, finally, deputy principal of the university from 1994 to 1998.

He moved to Aberdeen University to become director of the world’s first centre of advanced research in Irish and Scottish studies.

He joined Edinburgh University in 2006, taking the Sir William Fraser chair of Scottish history and palaeography, the world’s oldest and most distinguished chair of Scottish history, which he held until 2011.

In 2008, he took on the additional role of director of the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies, funded by an endowment of £1 million by a leading Scottish fund manager and his family, thought to be the single largest private donation yet made to a UK university for the development of historical studies.

His books and academic articles range widely over topics such as the economic history of Scotland, empire, the Scottish Highlands, the Irish in Scotland, sectarianism, the Union, emigration, famine, identity and comparative Irish and Scottish relationships.

His 1999 work The Scottish Nation became an international bestseller, even outselling Harry Potter for a short period in Scotland.

He is the only historian to have been awarded Scotland’s premier academic accolade, the Royal Medal, by the Queen. He is also the only living scholar in the humanities and social sciences in the UK to have been elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Royal Irish Academy and the British Academy.

A prominent Catholic, Prof Devine described Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation last year as the church in Scotland’s “biggest crisis since the Reformation”.

He was also active in campaigning to keep the Scottish Catholic archives in the Capital.

Prof Devine says the independence referendum means there has never been so much interest in Scottish history. He says: “It’s been tremendously exciting to be involved when the subject has come of age.” But he insists: “It is definitely time for me to go. I did actually retire three years ago but the university brought me back for research and managerial reasons.”

Despite retirement, he plans to carry on writing and giving public lectures.

Edinburgh University will bid him farewell with a ticketed free public event at the McEwan Hall on June 16, which will see former prime minister Gordon Brown in conversation with Prof Devine.