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November 2008: T. C. Smout

T. C. Smout
Historiographer Royal and Emeritus Professor of the University of St Andrews

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

When I was at school, I had a brilliant teacher of British history, and it turned out to be the subject at which I did best in exams – so I went on to read History at Cambridge.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

Development does not all come at once! Stage one was at Cambridge, where I was lucky enough to have Geoffrey Elton as my supervisor in early modern history and Marjorie Chibnall as my supervisor in medieval history: Elton taught me a kind of constructive skepticism which I think is characteristic of Cambridge at its best, and Mrs Chibnall that there was no limit to what a historian might be expected to do. She asked me once in my second year if I had consulted the Hungarian sources. Escaping from Elton made me both a Scottish historian and an economic and social historian, as he knew nothing about those two things and I could go away and do my own thing. Stage two was in my first job as assistant lecturer in economic history at Edinburgh, where I had wonderful colleagues in Michael Flinn and Alan Milward. We combined a passion for scholarly discussion with a healthy appetite for beer, and lunches together in the staff club were wonderful. Then later in life I discovered environmental history through reading Oliver Rackham’s works on woodland history, and also through working for a government advisory board on nature conservation. I realized the problems they had to deal with in British nature conservation had an important historical perspective that was not recognized or understood.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

By the time I had written my Ph D I had pretty well disqualified myself from doing anything else. I once went for an interview with an industrial firm to see what would happen, and it was fairly clear that they thought I was an academic nerd, and that I thought the real world was the republic of letters. I still do.

4. What project are you currently working on?

I am beginning to work towards an ‘eco-history of the Firth of Forth’, which most of my colleagues regard with incredulity, but my inspiration comes from Marc Cioc’s splendid eco-history of the Rhine.

5. What projects do you see yourself working on in the near future?

I can’t see that far – I want to get what I am doing now properly launched.

6. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

They have all seemed fulfilling. I very much enjoyed doing my thesis on Scottish trade, and writing the book that followed from it. Then doing the History of the Scottish People and the Century of the Scottish People were fun; the second followed on fifteen years after the first, and I thought I would never get to finish it. Work on demography and prices, which is for other historians (rather than for a wider public that wants to understand the world about them), I enjoyed for the technical challenges. Developing environmental history was exciting, and giving the Ford lectures in Oxford, published as Nature Contested, was as scary as it was rewarding. The history faculty in Oxford is seriously serious, but I always feel most at home in Scotland.

7. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

All over the place, I hope. Unless it is inquisitive, innovative, interdisciplinary and empirical, it is going to get boring. There is nothing as dull as a field ploughed ten times, except reading papers on the theory of ploughing.

8. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

Get really excited about something first – so excited that you can’t sleep. Everything else will follow.

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