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Chat's with Frank R. Shaw FSA Scot
A chat with Arthur Herman

A Highlander And His Books


Author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World
Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Q: Much has been made of the fact that you are a non-Scot writing about Scots, but authors write from the same perspective as Churchill did when he wrote about the Civil War. How do you figure this helped or hindered you (or both) in the five years it took to write this book?

A: Actually, I wonder if I get away with the assertions I make in the book about Scotsí essential role in making the modern world, if my name were, letís say, Angus MacBean! In one sense, there is nothing new about my thesis - Scots have been saying the same thing for years and been ignored because of it. It adds to the credibility when someone who is a bona fide non-Scot, and a certified historian, says it, not out of ethnic pride or chauvinism, but simply because the evidence compels him to.

Q: How long were you in Scotland during this period of time and where did you do the majority of your research Ė Scotland or America?

A: Most of the research was done here in the States, but there were some valuable materials in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. I also made it a goal to try to personally visit every place in Scotland I wrote about in the book, from Perth to Glencoe to Ardnamurchan.

Q: How did you decide to write about this fascinating topic of Scots inventing the modern world, and did you raise eyebrows among your fellow historians about it?

A: As an historian and teacher, I was always fascinated by how much of modern thought was inspired by those great minds of the Scottish Enlightenment - Adam Smith in Glasgow, David Hume in Edinburgh, Thomas Reid in Aberdeen, along with Francis Hutcheson, Lord Kames, John Millar, Dugald Stewart - and thought it would be fun to do a book on why they came up with the ideas they did, and how profound the impact of those ideas has been. But then when I began to do some research, I realized they were not only supremely great thinkers, but also Scottish thinkers. That was when the bigger project began to take shape, a book really about the modern Scot as the culture-bearer of our civilization.

Q: Your chapter on "The Last Minstrel" is as fine a chapter as I have ever read on Sir Walter Scott, long a favorite of mine and too long ignored by current historians and the general public today. When one considers all he did for Scotland, the historical novel, as well as literature in general in Scotland, England and around the world, how could he end up with the lack of recognition today? Do you have more to offer in explanation than what is in your book? Do you see a comeback for Scott today?

A: Yes, I hope you are right. Scott does deserve a better reputation. For a long time it has been the fashion to treat him as a pre-Victorian sentimentalist and writer of historical romances - a sort of Scottish Margaret Mitchell - and many blame him for the cultural distortions that resulted from the "kingís jaunt" in Edinburgh in 1822 - a tartanism and all that. (Editorís note: Dr. Herman is referring here to George IV.) I donít see him that way at all. I see him as a part and parcel of the Scottish Enlightenment in its later phase, a man who was devoted to Scotland and to its past, but who understood the historical forces that had created it and were in the nineteenth century undoing it, and looked for a way to save what he could of that past before it vanished forever. Heís a terribly important and underrated figure. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that modern readers usually find his popular books - Ivanhoe and Waverly and The Talisman - unsympathetic and over wrought. In fact, it is his lesser-known Scottish novels - like Old Mortality - that are now coming back into critical attention, and may trigger that Scott boom youíre talking about.

Q: In your book you have put more emphasis on Sir Walter Scott than on Robert Burns. Your book index shows a more than two-to-one ratio of references in favor of Scott. What brought you to your evidently very high appreciation of Scott?

A: Well, Scott was truly a figure of international significance when he died, whereas Burns remained almost unknown outside the British Isles. That is not a judgment call; itís just a fact. Robert Burns is very beloved to Scots and his poetry has a deep affinity with Scottish culture; heís an important mirror of the Scottish soul, if I can put it that way. But there is no comparison in their larger impact - nor to the impact of Lord Byron, for that matter, a truly wayward Scot, whose poetry also changed the world of European music. Just think how many operas or musical scores were inspired by either Scott or Byron, and you get some idea of what cultural impact they had.

Q: You state that drinking cut short the life of Burns. It is well established that Burns had a heart condition his entire life. Did you consider any of the other possibilities that are put forth today by many Burns scholars that he died of a heart condition called rheumatic endocarditis (a bacterial infection of the lining of the heart), brucellosis (fever over a two-year period that could have come from contaminated milk), or pneumonia (caused from his doctorís order that he spend weeks sea-bathing in cold water when he was too weak to even walk)? If so, how did you decide that drinking led to his death?

A: I donít think there is any denying that his alcoholism made all his health problems much worse than they had to be, and he must have known it.

Q: In the book, you state that "his (Burns) failure also drove him to drink, cutting short his life at thirty-five." What exactly do you mean by "his failure"?

A: I see Burns as a deeply unhappy figure, someone who very early on got a taste of true literary celebrity from the Edinburgh culturati. And then when he began to write poems that really mattered to him, they dropped him like a stone. Thereís a willful self-destructiveness that runs all through his life, based on that conviction that he was a failure, a failure in the eyes of the world he largely despised but still needed for its approval, and for no fault of his own. What a terrible dilemma!

Q: You write that Burns died at age thirty-five. Please explain why you use that figure when all of the Burns scholars I have read, even the three you reference in your bibliography - James Mackay, David Daiches and Hugh Douglas - put him at thirty-seven since he was born January 25, 1759 at Alloway and died in Dumfries on July 21, 1796?

A: Youíre right! That was a mistake that shouldnít have gotten to the printer. But it is corrected in time for the paperback, which is coming out the 24th of this month (September), by the way.

Q: Is there another book in the works from Arthur Herman? If so, do you care to tell us what it is about or when it will be published?

A: Yes, my next book is on the British navy, as a force for change in modern history. There will be a fair number of Scots in that one as well, as you might guess - but there are also some interesting little tidbits in it as well - such as the fact George Washingtonís home, Mount Vernon, was named after a British Admiral, Sir Edward Vernon, and that the man who was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor was not Japanese at all, but a British naval aviator - and a Scot to boot!

Q: Can we look for you at the Stone Mountain Highland Games in October?

A: Not this year, but maybe next.

Q: I wish to thank you for the courtesies extended to me in conducting this interview. Is there a last word you would like to leave with the readers of The Family Tree?

A: Yes, I should thank everyone who bought the book and read it, and the many people who sent letters telling me how much they enjoyed it. Itís been the biggest thrill of this whole adventure.

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