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Talk by Canon David Henry 27th. February 2008


The name of John Duns Scotus, arguably the Town’s greatest son is one well known to all Dingers and of course a fine plastic bronze statue to his memory stands in the public park while a cairn marks his birthplace at Pavilion Lodge. Beyond the name though the regrettable truth is that generally little is known of his life and even less of the philosophy which he espoused and to which he gave his name.

It was appropriate therefore that in this the seven hundredth anniversary of his death Canon David Henry should address members of Dunse History Society at a very well attended meeting on Wednesday last on the subject of "Duns Scotus his Life and Thought"

While other claims have been made for the birthplace of this great mediaeval scholar and while for a time it was thought to be at Maxton in Roxburghshire accepted wisdom now, as Father Henry advised, is that it was most definitely in Duns, Maxton’s claim having been shown to have been based not even on a misreading or misunderstanding but on deliberate forgery.

Born in 1265 Duns Scotus’ earliest education was probably at Haddington and Berwick. Entering the Franciscan Order in 1281 he spent the next twelve years at Oxford before becoming a Priest at Northampton in 1291 and from 1293 to 1297 studying theology at the University of Paris. It was while in Paris that he would have learned of the signing of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.

During this period too he would have learned of the sack of Berwick when Edward 1 laid waste the Town and the townspeople were massacred (according to one report to the extent of 11,060 souls although this figure sounds unlikely) but which number must have included many of Scotus’ friends and colleagues.

After a period at Cambridge and Oxford he returned to Paris in 1303 where he was appointed to the Franciscan Chair of Theology. By 1307 he had already left Paris probably for political reasons this being the time of the suppression of the Knights Templar and took up a teaching post in Cologne where he died the following year and is buried.

So much for his comparatively short life but what of the his philosophy? This is by no means something easily put over especially in the limited time which was available. It is not for nothing that Scotus is known as ‘The Subtle Doctor’. Father Henry however succeeded admirably taking the audience with him as he succinctly and clearly traced the history of philosophy comparing the thoughts and philosophies of Scotus with such as Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas and even drawing comparison with Hume, going on to stress the significance and importance of his teachings on the Church and on philosophical thought at the time and subsequently. Delightfully delivered with a relish of humour sometimes reaching a point as the speaker conceded by a rather circuitous route or as he referred to by using the "Ronnie Corbett approach" the talk was greatly appreciated by all present as shown by the length and depth of the subsequent question and answer session.  

A most handsome, erudite and informative talk on a difficult subject beautifully delivered.

The statue (above right) was unveilled in 1966 to mark the 700th. anniversary of the birth of Duns Scotus.

The statue is the work of Mr. F Tritschier Glasgow and bears the inscription

"John Duns Scotus, Franciscan and Subtle Doctor was born in 1266 in the Town of Duns. His learning has shed lustre on Duns and Scotland, the Town and the land which gave him birth.

"Scotia hebet cunas, Famem Orbis, funera Rhenus, Caelum animam hic magni spirat imago viri"

The plinth was designed by Mr. McDonald-Smith and erected by Messrs Allan and Sons Ltd., Edinburgh and Messrs Nairn Ltd. Duns under the supervision of Mr. Small. The plaque was made by Messrs. Henshaw, Edinburgh.

The cairn was designed by Mr. H McDonald-Smith, A.R.I.B.A.,A.R.I..A.S., Edinburgh and erected by Messrs W.M. Nairn Ltd., Duns.

The plaque was made by Messrs. Charles Henshaw and Sons Ltd. Edinburgh. The work was supervised by Mr. James Small, Burgh Surveyor, Duns

The inscription on the plaque reads;

" John Duns Scotus the Subtle Doctor, and member of the Franciscan Order was born on this site in 1266. Whereever his distinguished name is uttered he shed lustre on Duns and Scotland, the town and land which bore him. Erected by the Franciscan Order on the Seventh Centenary of his Birth September 1966"

The above image from a Post Card by John G Corbett Duns

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