The true story of how Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It
By Arthur Herman, Crown Publishers (a division of Random House), New York, 2001.
Yeah, it's an outrageous title. But it's also an outrageously true and interesting book.
Most contemporary Americans who think about the Celtic world at all do so through the lenses of late-romantic Ireland: the English are industrial, practical, and mundaine, the Celtic fringe (from Brittany to the Shetlands) is agrarian, idealistic, and mystical. The English threw spirituality out with the bathwater through secular rationalism, the Celts retained the baby by always lagging one step behind in the progression from Paleolithic animism to modern atheism. Whatever is considered "good" about our contemporary progressive values (individualism, open-mindedness, women's rights, etc.) is (at least in the popular mind) attributed to long-ago and far-away Celtica, whatever is "bad" about the Celtic world as it exists today is an imposition by those nasty Anglo-Saxons/French/English, who, despite the great valor, skill, and might of the Celtic warriors, always seem to win (musta been the drink...) when the two groups battle. If it weren't for those pesky fellows from off the island, we're led to believe, the British Isles would have remained a pristine paradise of noble Kings, valiant lords and lissom ladies, sage bards and wise woman healers, with nary a sour look among the gentle humblefolk who, living in harmony with their Goddess, the Green Man, and the numberless Fair Ones, would, even today be living out incredibly long lifespans before gratefully giving their flesh back to the Earth and their souls to the Sky, blah, blah, blah....
Sorry, nice try. What this numinous picture leaves out (along with the usual cavils about life before dentistry) is the fact that a great deal of what we consider bastions of the post-agrarian world (capitalism, the industrial system, intellectual freedom, even the notion of "progress" itself) came from another "Celtica" altogether. Forget the bare asses, the bagpipes, the woad, and the wool - cloth - with - pretty- checks- that- tell- people- who- your- distant - ancestors - were, this ain't Mel Gibson territory here. For one thing, a great many of these folks are Protestant (and how that put the Scots Lowlanders one step ahead of, well, nearly everyone else in sight in the 17th century is an interesting story in itself).
For another, pre-industrial Scotland is portrayed as well, pretty wretched. The clan system, seemingly a holdover from the palmy days of the Neolithic, is unmasked as being an invention of the feudal Normans: most of the chiefs lived in comparative luxury in towns far from their holdings, and often the only significant contact made with their vassals would be to farm out their sons to a nursemaid to raise in a country cottage. Far from living gentle lives in nuts-and-berries harmony with nature, most agrarian Scots lived on whey, oats, and beef blood taken from living cattle (he points out that haggis was considered luxury fare), and were often conscripted by their chieftains (under regalian rights that made the chiefs virtual kings in their lands) to conduct small-scale warfare with neighboring clans, and were held in check by the threat of death and gruesome tortures. Witches there were aplenty, if you can judge by the number brought to trial by these same bucolic folk: torture was considered admissible to force a confession in these cases, and not even a recantation was enough to save many from the death penalty. Not that townspeople had it much better: the major cities were dirty and cramped, and there were (as a result of the same Calvinism that demanded Bible study, and therefore literacy of the general population) no playhouses, concert halls, or novels, since they were considered secular distractions from the life of the Godly. From these unpromising beginnings, Arthur Herman deftly pulls achievements out like a succession of rabbits, doves, scarves, and confetti out of a hat.
Logarithms! Encyclopedias! Asphalt! Economics! Insurance! Modern city planning! Systematic surgery! The scientific method! Linoleum! The list of inventions and achievements goes on and on and on, as colorful characters like Henry Home, Lord Kames (humanist writer and hangin' judge), Thomas Aikenhead (who got hanged, though not by Kames, for blasphemy and general snarkiness, thus touching off a decisive debate on freedom of belief), Francis Hutcheson (who held that people were intrinsically moral and was an early champion of women's rights), David Hume (who opposed him on the ethics thing, but was still a good guy), Robert Burns (who used his job as whisky excise man to underwrite his taste for single malt by drinking his confiscations, in between getting laid and writing poetry ranging from the bawdy to the sublime), Adam Smith the economist, not to be confused with the Adam Brothers (designers of some of the West's first truly livable luxury housing), and a cast of thousands transform, in less than a century, what would today be a Third or even Fourth world nation into an economic and intellectual powerhouse well ahead of its time.
Part of the advantage came because, unlike most other places, Scotland had very little to unlearn: having lost its status as a separate nation, it was free to reinvent itself without the inherent problems of modernizing, say, France or Italy -- there was almost no aristocracy, per se, and Presbyterianism held that God and His people were the true rulers on earth, anyway, not kings or princes. It was more than OK to get rich, since that meant God had favored you, and even though frivolous material was much frowned upon, reading for self-betterment was much to be applauded. Pretty much everyone had been to a church or state school for the basics; Scots universities were relatively cheap for the time, of high quality, and also open to pretty much everyone -- most people, even women, who lived nearby and who could spare the time had attended at least one lecture. Most importantly, there was a sense that a well-lived life existed at least partly in service to the community at large: that it wasn't enough to line your pockets, raise a family, and know a lot, you should at least try to make the world a better place.
The net effect was to create a civic life more pleasant than heroic and full of interesting contrasts: Christianity was seen as the foundation, not the enemy, of reason, modern living, and civilized behavior, unlike the anticlerical Enlightenment elsewhere. As in the best of traditional New England two centuries later, the Scots' economic wealth was expressed, not in ostentatious luxury, but an agreeable lack of pretention: living in a tasteful town house in a cool neighborhood was preferred to a gilded rococo country manor, and holding a job, doing church work, or various forms of teaching was better than living off an income. After a slow start, the arts became valued, not as frivolous entertainment or a means of self-aggrandizement, as it had been for the Baroque rulers, but as a means to self-betterment -- knowing about music and drama not only made you sophisticated, but a better person, and as religious censorship fell away, reading became a prime leisure activity, second only to visiting social clubs (ranging from the serious -- The Select Society -- to the frivolous -- The Beggar's Benison), drinking and talking. Everyone knew each other and social barriers were few: wealthy middle-class Edinburghers enjoyed celebrating family milestones, not by holding formal dinners with elaborate dances and entertainment, but by going down to a local oyster house, getting tanked up on huge quantities of porter and shellfish, and then leaping over the tables to dance flings and reels (much as their 20th century counterparts enjoyed similar occasions by going to the clam shack, knocking back a few brews and jitterbugging to the jukebox).
We learn cool facts like what "tron" means, that Scots Law (a separate system) is closer to Roman Law than to English Common Law (three verdicts, for example, since the evidence must stand on its own merits), and that Scots (also called "Inglis") is a not-quite-language of its own, closer to the language of Beowulf than of Chaucer, and so far from the King's English that most Scots in the 18th century had to take ESL tutoring to be intelligible outside Scotland. (It also meant that they tended to write it a lot more clearly and grammatically than many native speakers of the day, and helped pave the way for "English" as an academic discipline.) Personal names are another fascination: far from being a monotonous recitation of Stuarts and Anguses MacSomething, there are such evocative personages as the Earls of Mar and Stair, which seem drawn from Michael Moorcock or Neil Gaiman. We hear about the vast differences between Highlanders and Lowland Scots: 18th century Lowlanders tended to consider their whisky-swigging, Catholic (or Anglican), kilt-wearing bretheren as barbarians, compared to their own tastes for claret, Calvinism and fashionable dress. We learn that the word and concept of "politeness" (meaning, to be polished, that is, to be pleasant by going beyond what's expected of you by etiquette) is Scots, not French. Many times in this book, I've had to pause and say ... hmm .... explains a lot...Most importantly, I've gotten a sense of what it means to be an adult, as opposed to someone who's just been around a while: it's hard to define, but it's definitely there.
Much has been made of this book as a debunking of many Scottish stereotypes and legends: the Jacobite rebellion comes off, not as a romantic crusade of idealistic Scots united against the cruel oppressors to the South, but as an ill-concieved political move that would have backfired against the Scots even if they'd won. The Battle of Culloden wasn't, in this book, the heroic last stand of Bonnie Prince Charlie against Lord Cumberland, but the cold-blooded pitting of a hungry, exhausted, and ill-organized band of cattle farmers, Irish mercenaries and scared-witless college students (most adult Lowlanders staunchly favored the English) armed only with primitive weaponry against a well-drilled force of the Royal Army with musket and grapeshot. The invention of Scots culture, from MacPherson's forgery of the lays of Ossian through Sir Walter Scott's novels to its culmination in the Royal Visit by George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 and subsequent developments under Queen Victoria (who helped publicize the Highlands as a prime vacation spot even as the Highland Clearances were driving the original inhabitants off the land) is one of the most interesting strands of the book. Few people know, for instance, that many of the setts, or patterns of tartan, were invented by two Hungarians in or near the early 1840's, or that most Lowland and Border Scots before 1800 would have been anything from amused to insulted if you asked them their clan.
As the 19th century wore on, the Scottish image of intellectual excellence, skepticism, and integrity became more and more trivialized in jokes about haggis, golf, funny accents, kilts, and penny-pinching, as the national Zeitgeist turned inward- and backward-looking: instead of being known for major works of philosophy, economics, and history, the authors of the latter part of the century were known for detective stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), escapist adventure novels (Robert Louis Stevenson), and children's books (Stevenson again, and James M. Barrie). It's an indication of how far they'd fallen when you reflect that the creator of the ultra-rational Sherlock Holmes, is known to have spent a great effort championing spiritualism and the Cottingley Fairies. What was once a fierce drive towards truth and service towards the community spent itself in prudery, an obsession with careerism and "what will the neighbors say?" The rapid industrialization of the country, which freed so many from lives of agrarian squalor produced dirt and wretchedness of a different kind, one in which many areas have yet to extricate themselves. (Yet there's hardly a mention of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's thoroughly visionary yet livable designs, or of crusty old Bertrand Russell, whose thorough skepticism and mathematical acumen is wholly in keeping with the Scots tradition of knowlege.)
It's only in the latter chapters that the book's tone of relentless boosterism begins to wear a bit thin: reading about the colonization of Canada and Australia isn't quite so much fun as the lives and deeds of the abovementioned oyster-lovers. The Scots experience in America seems to peak with the establishment of Princeton University, reaches its nadir with the Ulster Scots in the Deep South, and then rambles on forever with a discussion of Andrew Carnegie. (Though I'll never see the color orange in quite the same way again.) The Whisky Lords aren't nearly so colorful, for some reason, as the Tobacco and Law Lords that preceeded them: Dewar and his flask be damned. A similar biography of Dr. Livingstone falls incredibly flat, and for some reason, I can't summon up as much enthusiasm as I feel I should for the history's penultimate figure, James Bond.
The book closes with the recent revival of Scots nationalism, from the theft of the Stone of Scone on to the reconstitution of the Scots Parliament, together with a few concluding remarks on the perceived limits of progress and modernization, conclude the book. Some reviewers have, therefore, likened the position of Scotland in history to that of Greece: a brief flash of brilliance followed by a long, irreversible decline. As for myself, I tend toward the third verdict on this one: there's too much life in the old tiger to tread on its tail....
...Or you can read Ossian. Fare ye weel, ye bitches!