This is a subject ever so slightly dear to my heart, and I turn to it with the same sense of modesty and proportion that the author includes in his subtitle, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It. But he makes an extremely good supporting case for it – overstretched perhaps, but not very far.
“The point of this book is that being Scottish is more than just a matter of nationality or place of origin or clan or even culture. It is also a state of mind, a way of viewing the world and our place in it,” asserts Herman. “This Scottish mentality was a deliberate creation, although it was conceived by many minds and carried out by many hands. It is a self-consciously modern view, so deeply rooted in the assumptions and institutions that govern our lives today that we often miss its significance, not to mention its origin. From this point of view, a large part of the world turns out to be ‘Scottish’ without realizing it. It is time to let them in on the secret. This is the story of how the Scots created the basic ideals of modernity.”
Not bad from an American historian. It’s quite a thesis, and sometimes Herman squeezes the evidence to fit it. Some very great Scots hardly get mentioned at all: Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, are dismissed as purveyors of “escapist literature,” and hardly get a few lines. Scottish naval heroes of the Napoleonic Wars like Lord Keith or Heneage Dundas likewise rate little coverage. Robert Burns gets surprisingly little notice, and Thomas Carlyle, another great – albeit reactionary – Scottish intellect, even less. John Logie Baird, creator of another characteristic facet of the modern world, the television, doesn’t feature at all, even though other Scots of his era do. Herman also tends to underplay the Romantic Movement, and how much Scotland’s place in the European imagination was down to German and French writers who took it up as the most Romantic country imaginable – in complete contrast to the pragmatic, progressive Lowland spirit.
All the same, Herman doesn’t defer to many of the myths and cliches of Scottishness. He chronicles the Highland Clearances as a great national tragedy and disgrace, but demolishes the legend of the brutal absentee English, pinning the blame on the same clan chieftains often romanticized in nationalist mythology. And he details how miserable traditional Highland life often was, and how the Union allowed rapid improvement to the quality of life North of the Border.
But much of the narrative is about progress outside Scotland as well as within. Besides being a history of Scotland, this is a history of the modern world, and a reminder of how technological, industrial civilization came to be. Follow-ups like James Buchan’s Crowded with Genius: Edinburgh, 1745-1789 have expanded the same thesis. Herman’s historical perspective, and the prime example of the Scottish Highlands, shows just how far we are from the pre-modern world, and how much we did gain in the interim. And yes, the critical, inventive, improving spirit that fostered both technology and the wealth of nations was hatched and systematized in Scotland. It then proceeded to scale up and take over the world. If you want to follow that trek, and learn how and why modern technological, industrial civilization came to be, this it the book for you. And it’s quite a story.