edited by: R. A. Houston, W. W. J. Knox
London, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press in association with the National Museums of Scotland, 2001, ISBN: 9780713991871; 640pp.; Price: £25.00
University of Strathclyde
Date accessed: 28 February, 2024
The cover is a view from Stirling Castle: in the foreground a carved lion rampant, in the background the Wallace Tower, the Scottish national monument, raised by public subscription in 1859; in the valley below, Stirling Bridge somewhere near the site of William Wallace's victory over the forces of Edward I in 1297; just out of the picture, the field of Bannockburn. It has not quite the cringe effect of Penguin's last excursion into Scottish History, Tom Devine's Scottish Nation, on the cover of which a Scottish Saltire is being raised on the mountain top, with echoes of John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, but it comes close. It bodes yet another post-devolution search for Scottish identity. Parts of the introduction by the editors do not reassure. While so-called 'tartan history' is eschewed, 'telling Scotland's story as closely as possible to the "way it was"' is from a world before postmodernism was ever thought of. It is true that there are not many signs that post-modern approaches have made inroads into Scottish history, but, on the whole, however, the fears of yet another search for the roots of the new Scotland are unfounded. What we have are eight highly competent essays, some exceptionally good, which try to present a rounded picture of economic, social, cultural and political life in Scotland, with two blocks of nearly seventy illustrations of artefacts held by the National Museums of Scotland.
For the non-specialist, such as this reviewer, whose knowledge of pre-medieval Scotland is decades out of date, the two opening chapters, Ian Armit on 'Prehistory' and Thomas Clancy and Barbara Crawford on 'The formation of the Scottish Kingdom', have much new to offer. A world of long journeys and complex relationships, at least for a few, can be conjured from the Megalithic tombs, the longhouses and the ceramic remnants that survive throughout what was to become Scotland, long before the place appears in the written record with Tacitus's account of Agricola's invasion in AD 83. What has disappeared is the long-held view that a Celtic invasion brought new peoples to the land. For Ian Armit, the 'coming of the Celts' was a long-drawn out process of absorption of culture and language 'not an explosive event'. The Romans came and soon departed behind Hadrian's wall and, by the fourth century AD, had provoked collaboration between different groups north of the wall into those they called the Picts. With the departure of the Romans and the arrival of Gaels from Ireland and Angles from the south, Britons, Angles, Gaels and Picts shared the land. St Ninian can no longer be confidently claimed to have brought Christianity to the south-west in the fourth century; not until the sixth century is there clear evidence of Christian presence. After 563 Columba spread monastic settlements from Iona along the Gaelic west coast and embarked on the process of evangelising the Picts. The Synod of Whitby in 664, once viewed as Roman Christianity overwhelming Celtic Christianity (English versus Scots) around the issue of the date of Easter, proves to be much more complex. By the eighth century a remarkably stable Pictish kingdom had emerged, to which were added, over the next three hundred years, Viking settlers. At the same time Gaelic language and culture from the west began to overwhelm the Pictish lands of the east, with a new kingdom of Alba appearing under the descendants of Cinaed Mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpine). By the early eleventh century, Malcolm Canmore and his saintly Queen Margaret were presiding over a relatively peaceful kingdom with close ties with Anglo-Saxon England. Scotland had been born.
Over the next 450 years a complex and variable relationship with its bigger southern neighbour was at the centre of Scottish politics. The tale is well told by David Ditchburn and Alistair MacDonald in their chapter on medieval Scotland. But the chapter is especially good on the everyday life of the mass of the inhabitants. There was still slavery as late as the twelfth century but by the fourteenth there seems to have been a reasonably comfortable Scottish peasantry within a loose and patchy kind of feudalism. Certainly the lack of peasants' revolts is remarkable, but they may, the authors suggest, have been checked by pretty brutal repression. As with so much of this period the evidence for firm conclusions is thin. To sophisticated French observers Scotland was a backward place populated by gluttons, vagrants and fighters. To outsiders there was a national identity. To insiders there were numerous other identities that could take precedence. Hence the complex and divided loyalties of the wars of independence at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries. Bannockburn solved little and centuries of Anglo-Scottish wars followed. Perhaps the authors are right to see anglophobia as being the most enduring medieval legacy, after all the hope of once again seeing off 'proud Edward's army' is still expected to rouse them at Murrayfield. Was 'innate conservatism', as they also suggest, another legacy? It is true that there were few challenges to the existing Stewart order, but fifteenth and sixteenth century Scotland was perhaps more outward looking and more in touch with continental developments than they give credit to and the remarkable thing was to survive with relative unity.
The problem with a chapter break at 1560 is that there is remarkably little on the causes of what is arguably the most significant event, the Reformation. The previous chapter looks forward to it, Keith Brown's chapter 'From Reformation to Union' has more to say of its consequences. There is slightly more sympathy for Mary Stewart than one gets from a reading of Jenny Wormald (1) and a recognition that seismic social and political changes have to be set alongside Mary's flawed political and personal judgements. There is also a useful reassessment of James VI and I, pointing to a political shrewdness that belied his indolence. Meanwhile, Presbyterianism gained hold and successive attempts to replace it with an episcopalian order led to bitter conflicts in the seventeenth century. The Covenanters' revolution of the 1640s was fatal for Charles I and profoundly significant as an assertion of the right of rebellion against an ungodly ruler and of the right of relatively ordinary people to say something about politics. At the same time, it looked back to the sixteenth-century George Buchanan's arguments that royal power came from the people and, if rulers forgot that, could be withdrawn by the people. It was a belief that was to be picked up again in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when the example of the Covenanters found their place in radical perceptions. The Marquis of Montrose's brutal attempts at repression with an army of Irish Catholic mercenaries were also to feed into the Scottish consciousness. Like all the Stewarts, Charles II learned little from the past and, while he survived, his brother paid the price of attempts to impose bishops and subsequently Catholicism. William III, Glencoe apart, according to Brown, wisely 'left the Scots to govern themselves'. The nobility re-tightened their grip.
Brown's chapter is more heavily political than many of the others, but social and cultural changes are noted. By the end of the sixteenth century there were five universities and a steady stream of students to European universities such as Leiden. The level of literacy among trades people was substantially more extensive than in England. Scientific enquiry and legal debate began to interest the intellectuals, but the all-pervasive obsession with religion was hard to challenge. A single paragraph on the subject of witchcraft hardly seems adequate to encapsulate Scotland's abysmal record of legal and sometimes illegal, murder, mainly of women, from 1590 until the last poor soul from Dornoch in 1727 who died for having turned her daughter into a pony. The paradoxes of Scottish culture were already very apparent.
The Union of 1707 was perfectly logical and reasonably lucrative for a cash-strapped Scots nobility who had for some time looked longingly at the splendour of London and the royal court. Powerful elements of church and law were appeased and the old order was able to survive in power for another century and a quarter with little challenge. There is some recognition of the popular resistance to Union that Chris Whatley has recently documented (2) but to Brown the general acceptance of the Union shows 'a new level of political maturity', to Bruce Lenman in the following chapter it was the ancien régime pursuing its own selfish interests.
Lenman's chapter is written with predictable flair, pointing up so many paradoxes of eighteenth-century Scotland. We have a society going through massive economic and social change while the aristocratic political system remained remarkably intact. The landed gentry pulled more power into their hands and away from the church. A determined effort to raise income to match their new life-style in London led to a squeeze on tenants and the start of the process of highland clearance and lowland 'improvement'. But, before the Napoleonic Wars, agricultural improvement rarely brought a profit and a snout in the political trough remained important. As Daniel Szechi has shown, even the Jacobite rebellions did not fully undermine class loyalties and most Jacobite families were soon back in control of their forfeited lands. Lenman presents balanced accounts of the rebellions - reflecting more Episcopalian than Catholic discontents - and he is good on the remarkably resilient Highland culture that survived the predations on the Highlands in the aftermath of Culloden. The multiplicity of ideas which went to make up the Enlightenment in eighteenth century Scotland is less easy to encapsulate in the few pages available, but Lenman brings out well the social conservatism of so many of the Edinburgh literati, radical 'when they were sure that there was no chance their ideas would be implemented', tied to and closely defensive of the landed order.
Bob Morris and Graeme Morton on the 1832-1914 period are right to start with the Disruption of 1843. Religion remained central to any understanding of Scottish society and politics in at least the first half of the period, with sectarian rivalry within Protestantism deepening. Not surprisingly, given the credentials of the authors, the chapter is good on the towns and the civil society that developed within them. The focus, alas, never gets much beyond the central belt, which is a pity because the other cities and the smaller towns of Victorian Scotland not only have their own characteristics, but also provide the background for many of those who actually ran Edinburgh and Glasgow. It was also the values and attitudes of such smaller towns that shaped Scotland's perception of itself well through the twentieth century. The Highlands and the land generally also receive rather short shrift. But it was land issues and a hostility to the landed class which kept Liberalism dominant for much of the period and which emerging Labour was to pick up at the end of the century. But the politics are all rather thin. Where are the Liberals? Where is Liberal Unionism which provided a welcome stepping stone to the Right for so many well-heeled Scots, for whom Conservatism was still a step too far and who gave Scotland an anti-Liberal majority in 1900? Where is the whole culture of municipal enterprise transmuted into municipal socialism?
The twentieth century gets two chapters: John Foster on 1914 until 1979, Christopher Harvie on the years since 1979. Foster writes a brilliant essay on the tensions within Scottish society between modernisers and defenders of vested interests, between radicals and conservatives within all groups of Scottish society, business people, trade unionists, artists as well as politicians. To Foster the militancy of 'Red Clydeside' built up during the later years of the first World War and immediately afterwards was a symptom of profound social changes. Accompanying these was the quite sudden sharp move to the left by the Scottish working class. Scottish business leaders, like Lord Weir, Sir James Lithgow, Eric and Auckland Geddes at the heart of government, were prepared to generate a recession in order to try to re-impose discipline and regain the industrial control which they had lost in the war years. Over the next fifteen years these same powerful interests pursued a policy of rationalising the traditional heavy industries of shipbuilding and steel where their interests lay and doing little to encourage the develop of new industries which might increase the bargaining power of their labour forces. The result was the deep unemployment in the mining and shipbuilding areas in the early 1930s. Despite it all, the amount of social protest in Scotland remained very small. Government action to control 'rough' activities, government resources to encourage 'rational recreation' and sectarian tensions all helped ensure that any challenge to the existing order was limited. An alliance of business and the emerging professional classes was built up by the Conservative and Unionist Party. Once again, the theme of a socially conservative society emerges, beautifully illustrated by the parade at the opening of the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938. After the royal party came cars carrying the Earl of Elgin, then Sir James Lithgow and Sir Cecil Weir, then the general manager of the Union bank and the ship-owning Salvesen family. Not until the eleventh car did Glasgow's Labour Lord Provost appear. The statement about the realities of power was plain to see.
It was after the second World War that the old order began to break as external forces came into play, but even then its influence did not entirely disappear and a wariness of too much encouragement of new industries which might pull workers away from heavy industry remained. Foster convincingly paints a picture of the 1950s and 1960s as, once again, a struggle between modernises and the interests of heavy industry. What was apparent to all, however, was the steady loss of Scottish control over their industries and the loss of Scottish influence in Whitehall. It was most clearly obvious in the North Sea oil industry that emerged after 1969, firmly under American domination and, in contrast to the pattern in Norway, committed to speedy extraction. As others have shown, the gains for the Scottish economy even in the 'oil capital' of Aberdeen were limited.(3) Politically, however, the effect was to generate a new confidence and a new demand for political change which was to build over the next decades. None of the above does justice to the range and penetration of Foster's chapter, where the poems of McDiarmid and the novels of McIlvanney are interwoven with the intricacies of deals between banks and businessmen behind the closed doors of the City of London and the smoke-filled rooms of the west of Scotland labour movement.
Finally, Christopher Harvie, with his accustomed verve, takes us smack up to date to the re-election of Tony Blair in June 2001 and the first sign that Conservatism had not entirely disappeared in Scotland, with one seat regained. In between were the Thatcher years, for many the single most important cause of the Scots determination to reject Toryism. Harvie plays down Margaret Thatcher's significance compared with the economic changes and their social effects which were making unionism less attractive. Also, as Foster shows, the significant changes and the advance of both socialism and nationalism were already underway in the1970s. Thatcher's failure to understand the changes or almost anything about the Scottish mentality, and poor advice, according to Harvie, from an insensitive Malcolm Rifkind at the Scottish Office, merely speeded up a trend to question the value of the existing political union, which came to a climax in the 1999 referendum and the opening of the Scottish Parliament.
Good essays, some brilliant, most a pleasure to read, but what is the book for? It is not at all clear at whom it is aimed: too general for the specialist and student, too specialist and too large for the tourist. There are no references -- only bibliographical essays at the end of each chapter. Did we really need another general history? In recent years we have had umpteen general histories of varying quality, television histories 'In Search of Scotland', newspaper histories on 'The Struggle of a Nation' and essay collections. Yet, a look at the bibliographies gives an indication of how limited the really new research has been on politics, on industry and economy, on education, on gender, on welfare, on popular culture, on specific localities. The editors, who provide the lengthy introduction, make the doubtful claim that there is a 'lack of informed knowledge of Scotland's past' and that the volume has the simple purpose of 'more fully and accurately [understanding] the place of Scotland the Scots in time'. Whether any of it will be achieved by the national focus of such a work is debatable and whether it can be done without more research is even more open to question. The early chapters with their broad sweep tend to place Scotland in a wider European context. From the Reformation years onwards, however, there is little attempt to compare Scotland's experience with anywhere but England. The imperial dimension, so important financially and economically from at least the eighteenth century and, certainly by the nineteenth century crucially important in how the Scots saw themselves, hardly features. The problem of one synthesis after another is that new questions tend not to be asked and new approaches tend not to be adopted and the discipline stagnates.
- J. M. Wormald, Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure (George Phillip: London, 1988).Back to (1)
- C. A. Whatley, Scottish Society, 1707-1830 (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 2000).Back to (2)
- David Newlands, 'The oil economy', in W. Hamish Fraser and Clive H. Lee (eds.), Aberdeen 1800-2000. A New History (Tuckwell Press: East Linton, 2000).Back to (3)
There has been a spectacular growth of interest in and writing about Scottish history during the last 15 years. Dozens (perhaps hundreds) of books and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of articles have appeared. They include and/or build on a handful of scholarly general volumes telling Scotland's story. Some of these date from the 1960s or earlier, but more have appeared in the last decade or so. When we sat down to plan the project that resulted in The New Penguin History of Scotland, we had certain guiding principles. These came out of our reading of the generations of general works and our knowledge of the burgeoning specialist literature.
First, we wanted to prepare a history of all Scotland's peopled past, which meant starting at the end of the last ice age. We decided that it was not possible properly to understand Scotland's modern society without showing the many different strands that ravelled and unravelled over 8,000 years of history. For example, the polarised and militaristic society of the Dark Ages was only one of several outcomes suggested by the experiences of Scotland's people in the previous millennia of human settlement. This was to be as comprehensive a history as possible.
To do this we decided to assemble a group of leading specialists in different time periods, not just at St Andrews University, but anywhere that Scottish history was researched and taught. The thinking here was that, however gifted, no one historian (or even a pair of historians) could really master the large and rapidly expanding body of academic writing on Scotland's complex past. For Scottish history is truly 'vital': living, growing, and evolving. Thus a professional historian who specialises in perhaps 200 years cannot be expected to do justice to the remainder of Scotland's peopled past.
We asked the chosen specialists to write an up-to-date and scholarly history of their assigned period, but one that was accessible and entertaining. We wanted this to be a universal history: a book for everyone interested in Scotland's past. And we wanted the authors to deliver not simply a narrative of political, military and ecclesiastical events, but also to offer an analysis of how, over the millennia, men, women and children lived and died, worked and played, conflicted and co-operated.
For our part as editors, we wanted to write a substantial introduction that would set out the principal themes in the history of our nation, but we wanted it to be more than a simple summary of the chapters. We were determined to show that Scottish history does not have to be tartan history to make it interesting. We tried to avoid becoming slaves to some creaking debates and instead to explore the often fresh and fascinating analyses of social and cultural life, which have appeared in recent years. Thus we focused on issues such as people and environment, religious life, the politicisation of Scotland's people, and local, regional and national identities. We tried to cut through the myths and clichés that dominate some perceptions of Scotland's past.
The result is meant to be a new kind of history, a challenging and sometimes uncomfortable one, but, like all new encounters, it is one which we hoped readers would find rewarding. Only they can judge if we have succeeded in the tasks that we set ourselves during the six years of work, which the other contributors and we put into it.
However, the book has already attracted some very favourable notices, which suggest that we got it more or less right. Jeremy Paxman - not an easy man to please - described it in the Sunday Times as 'often sharp . and witty', a book which will help the English better to 'understand the neighbours'. He singled out the 'masterly' editorial introduction and thought the book worth reading for that alone. Any book that encourages English readers better to 'understand the neighbours' (in Paxman's words) has to be good news!
Dr Richard Oram in the Scotsman praises it as 'a stimulating, challenging and refreshingly radical departure' in Scottish history. His opinion is summed up in the sentence: 'This is very much a new history for a new Scotland.'
Professor Tom Devine, himself author of an excellent earlier Penguin history, confirmed in The Herald that we had successfully bridged the gap between academia and wider readers. 'The book demonstrates that there need not be any conflict between accessibility and high professional standards.' He concludes that 'this collective project has the overall research and professional quality which deserves a wide audience'.
Reviewers have recognised the achievement of the 11 contributors in assimilating and presenting large bodies of scholarly literature. And they have acknowledged that the project was realised in an objective and inclusive way. As Brian Morton noted in The Higher, this is not a book with a political agenda. It illuminates the formation of national identity without being 'nationalist'. Morton concluded his review by likening the New Penguin History of Scotland to the National Museum of Scotland. 'Houston and Knox have created a similar edifice: in contact with an older historiography and answerable to it, but always looking forward. The tercentenary of the Act of Union falls in 2007 and demands a substantial rethink of the relationship between the northern and southern nations. This fine book offers the best foundation for that.'
These reviewers have recognised the huge task we set ourselves and the contribution the book has made not only to Scottish history, but also to that of the British Isles. Indeed, The New Penguin History of Scotland is aware of Scotland's place in the wider world, dealing with (among other things) her experience of empire in the nineteenth century and, turning the tables, of being 'globalised' in the twentieth century. The book offers an overview and also an agenda for future research. There are some small things we might wish to change, but not many. Of course, historians are an individualistic bunch and we cannot please everyone. But if the book provokes debate that is a bonus we had not anticipated, for (in the words of the 'Introduction'), 'Healthy disagreements . [are] examples of the productive tensions which drive advances in historical understanding.'