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How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It

by Arthur Herman
392 pages,
ISBN: 0609606352


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The Importance of Being Scottish
by Alexander Craig

There are three basic ways of trying to view other cultures, civilizations, and peoples: through travel, study, or reliance on stereotype. Some people choose to travel, but there's only so much time and money available. Reading and reflection, then, become the most common routes to other cultures. Herman's book gives you a lot to think about. Previously professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia, he is now Coordinator of the Western Civilization Program at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
A version of his book is published in the UK, by Fourth Estate, under the title "The Scottish Enlightenment: How the Scots invented the modern world." But North America is if nothing else competitive¨a market place as much as a civilization¨and selling is king. Just imagine, for example what might have happened to Denys Arcand's film Le Declin de l'Empire AmTricain if it had stuck with one of the more pedestrian titles they had initially come up with.
Use of stereotypes is necessary, and unavoidable, too: when the Globe and Mail highlighted Herman's book, on the cover page of the book review section, the entire paper was decorated with a kilt. Le Devoir did the same thing recently when it covered the forerunner of all the fringes in the world, the Edinburgh Festival's Fringe.
But apart from the fact that "tartanry" is what this book attempts, in part, to avoid, the kilt is here all but irrelevant: the author shows, for example, how "genuine Highlanders wore plaids in any color that pleased them, regardless of their clan."
Herman makes huge claims: e.g. "Scottish-style commercial society was about to become the paradigm for modern capitalism." And he sets out, valorously and assiduously, to prove his case¨with an assertive, independent point of view:
"Above all, this is a study of the Enlightenment, 18th century Scotland, particularly Edinburgh and Glasgow, where Smith, Hume, Ferguson, Hutcheson, and others laid the bases not just for today's world, but also its study: we witness the birth of the social sciences, so many of whose founding fathers came from these cities, in this period."
According to Herman, Smith made a sortie south, to Oxford, where "for seven years, he found nothing of value." He summed up his experience there in his description of the average university as a "sanctuary in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter and protection, after they have been hunted out of every other corner of the world."
There's a lot more covered here than just the Enlightenment. Herman's initial chapters are excellent surveys of the rise of Scots Presbyterianism, as well as Scots entrepreneurship, as it moved towards free trade with England, and the regime change which produced the Union of the Parliaments of 1707.
The second half of the book is largely about the Diaspora. Herman looks at the impact of Scots on the Empire, on the US and elsewhere. He looks for instance, at the Aberdeen philosopher Thomas Reid, the founder of the philosophy of common sense. Reed's thinking influenced Thomas Jefferson to such an extent, for instance, that "it was very probably from Reid that [Jefferson] borrowed the ideas of 'self-evident truths' for the Declaration of Independence."
Herman does an excellent job of depicting the Scots mentality, the mind-set that so significantly helped shape the spirit and culture of the United States. And that of Canada for that matter: "the American Revolution did have this unexpected consequence: it infused the British dominions in Canada with a bracing dose of Scotsmen who would play an important part in the making of the country in the next century." He proceeds to give us an admirable overview of the Scots contribution to the history and making of Canada. Figures such as Sir John A. MacDonald are here, but so too are Sandford Fleming, George Simpson, Simon MacTavish, Lord Elgin, JK Galbraith, an d others.
The author might have applied his well-honed analytical skills to who emigrated where and why, but this is a book about success, and individuals. So he contents himself more with the Great Men approach, following along the lines of other US-based writers such as Duncan Bruce, with his Mark of the Scots, The Scottish 100, and so on.
Herman proves himself an excellent guide in this historical overview¨all the way, in smooth narrative flow, from the hard-headed Calvinism of John Knox against the pretensions of Mary Queen of Scots to the present. Although the second half of the book is concerned more with personalities, and the Scots Diaspora, the chapters on Scots contribution to liberalism, romanticism, as well as to science, industry, the Empire and the United States, are models of their kind.
He's suitably revisionist: there's no cloudy romanticism here. For example, on the Jacobite Rebellion, he writes: "In the sharpest sense, the Forty-five was not a war between Scots and Englishmen, but a civil war. The split that divided Scots (at Culloden) transcended class or religious divisions, or even the division between Highlander and Lowlander. (According to one recent scholar, Murray Pittock, perhaps as much as 40% of Charles' army consisted of Lowlanders.) It was in fact a cultural split, between two competing versions of what Scotland should be and where it should goÓ."
The author pours cold water, elegantly, on a number of confirmed prejudices and opinions. Much of it has been done before, of course, but here it's done in a wonderfully skilful way, with the intermingling of anecdote and analysis.
For example, tourism today, to Scotland and elsewhere, often relies on genealogical demonstration as a selling point. Herman again takes issue with the notion of clan:"from the Gaelic clann, meaning 'children.'Ó. Whether they considered themselves Campbells or MacPhersons or Mackinnons was a matter of indifference, and no clan genealogist or bard, the seannachaidh, ever wasted breath keeping track of them. What mattered was that they were on clan land, and called it home."
Inevitably, after spending so much time in the elysian fields of success, the author strays into idealism. He cites, uncritically, Horace Walpole, the son of Britain's first prime minister, saying in 1758, "Scotland is the most acccomplished nation in Europe." Around the same time, Voltaire, was saying much the same thing: "It is to Scotland that we look for our idea of civilization."
Scotland still has huge problems: it's not part of the author's remit to study these, but a simple look at films such as Trainspotting, or Ken Loach's more recent Sweet Sixteen will give you some glimpse of that. Nonetheless, Herman, who as a non-Scot thus carries that much more authority, has in this well-written book, which is excellent on a whole range of matters, done a first-class job of presenting Scotland's history to the world. ˛
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