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Evaluating the provenance of a source

Watch this to understand how to evaluate source material in Higher History (and why convertibles aren’t always the best choice)

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Imagine sitting in a convertible – it’s cool, it’s fun, you’ve got the wind in your hair…Well, this was the exact image I had in my head when I was recently buying a new car.

You can’t deny how stylish a convertible looks, right? It would great for driving in the sunshine but given the cost of this new purchase, I knew I had to do my research and weigh up the pros and cons.

Despite the lure of a convertible, would I be better off with a more practical car? One that would be more suitable when it rains for example- and let’s face it, it rains a LOT in Scotland!

This was no easy choice. I had to think about the cost and benefit of each type of car before coming to a final decision. And that is exactly what you need to do in an Evaluate the usefulness question in History.

So sit back and enjoy the journey as we explore this.

This is thinkfour

I want to focus on the origin and possible purpose of the source, as most students studying Higher History struggle with these particular areas. This includes authorship, timing, type of source and possible purpose, and they are each worth 1 mark out of the possible 8 for this type of question.

For each area, you need to consider whether it makes the source more or less useful and you must state this in your answer for each, as well as linking to the topic in question.

So let’s start with authorship.

Look carefully at the origin of this source on why Scots migrated.

Source A is from an article about emigration written by the editor of Chambers’ Journal, a popular weekly Scottish magazine, from 1872

Now think carefully- is the author useful?
Are they an eyewitness for example? Or are they an expert on the topic? You should be using these types of keywords and explaining the impact this would have on the usefulness of the source.

For example, the author of the source is the editor of a magazine. This would be useful as he would be an expert who would be well-informed and would have researched the reasons for migration, such as the lure of better wages abroad for Scots, especially farmers. Note: I have used the phrase ‘useful’, the key word ‘expert’ and linked it to the question and source.

For timing, you need to decide whether the source is a contemporary source, which was written at the time of the event, or a secondary source, written after. Each of these can be useful.

For example, you could write:

The source was written in 1872. This is useful as it is a contemporary source written when many Scots were emigrating to places like Canada in search of better wages or the ability to own their own land.

Secondary sources are written with the benefit of hindsight. This means the author can look back at the bigger picture given a more balanced view.

For timing, it is crucial you read the source origin and question carefully as this will allow you work out if it is a contemporary or secondary source.

For type, you again need to look at the origin of the source.

The example I just used is an article. However, there are many different types of sources, such as a letter or a diary entry, and each can be useful and potentially less useful in their own right. You need to think carefully about the type of source in relation to the question.

Why might a diary be useful or less useful for example? A diary should be an honest account given it was never meant to be published so should contain true thoughts. However, it is only from one viewpoint so may be biased. Each of these answers would be worthy of a mark in an SQA exam.

Lastly, the purpose of the source. Most students mix this up with a type of source or conflate their answers together, losing them up to 2 marks, so it is an important area for you to take your time over.
For this, you need to think carefully about why the source was written. Was it written to record? Or to inform? Or even to persuade? These are often the key words we, as historians, associate with purpose and, although not an exhaustive list, should help when trying to decide why a source may have been written.

Once you have worked this out, you need to then decide if the purpose makes the source useful. For example, if the source was written to persuade Scots to emigrate to Canada then it may be less useful as it only highlights the positives of money, such as owning land, and fails to mention that many Scots struggled with settling into new countries.

Again, it would be a good idea to look over previous past papers to see if you can work out the possible purpose of the source and the impact this would have on the usefulness of the source.

As you can see, the origin and possible purpose of the source in Evaluate the usefulness questions can be tricky.

However, if you think carefully, follow this guide, and always remember to state whether the source is useful or not then you will have the knowledge and skills required to gain all 4 marks and will soon be driving in the sun, with the top down and on the road to success…

This was thinkfour, thanks for watching