from the Scotsman Scotland's
gift: A brave new world
Sir Walter Scott, that once exalted but
now despised figure, said it best. "I am a Scot," he wrote,
"and therefore had to fight my way into the world." That fight
led the Scots to change our world as no other people in modern times
have done. Now Scots face a fight of a different kind: a struggle with
their own desires for the future while coming to terms with the legacy
they have left. If they flinch at this one, if they ignore or try to
forget what Scotland and the Scots have accomplished and given to the
world over the last 300 years, then they will not be the only ones
poorer for it. The rest of the world will as well.
More than any other society the Scots of the 18th century thought about
what they were doing, what was being done to them, and why. This is the
whole point of the Scottish Enlightenment: all those great minds engaged
in a single great project of explaining what happens when a society
becomes part of a global capitalist economy, and how it changes forever.
From 1745 on, Scots proceeded to alter nearly every aspect of Western
civilisation for the better - from education, theology, and medicine, to
law, economics, engineering, and literature. David Hume reshaped modern
thought; Adam Smith gave birth to economics, while Adam Ferguson laid
the foundations for sociology. James Boswell became the most famous
biographer in the English language. James Watt developed the steam
engine, Thomas Telford and John Macadam revolutionised communication and
transport, and Scottish doctors and teachers turned modern medicine from
an amalgam of prejudice and guesswork into a systematic scientific study
whose primary focus was the welfare of the patient.
Other nations would play a part in the making of the modern world - the
French, the Germans, the Americans, the Russians, the Irish and, yes,
even the English - but it was the Scots who drew up the blueprints the
rest would follow.
Without the Scots there would have been no American Revolution, no
American constitution and no American frontier spirit or myth of the
self-made man - an extension on American soil of Scottish
Presbyterianism’s validation of individual self-worth and a direct
cousin of Scotland’s own myth of the "lad o’ pairts".
Without Scottish liberal politicians, the direct heirs to the Scottish
Enlightenment, there probably would not have been a Reform Bill of 1832,
just as without Scottish soldiers, missionaries, and statesmen, the
British Empire would simply have been an apparatus for exploitation
instead of a blueprint for a future Commonwealth and Dominion. Without
James McPherson’s "translations" of Ossian, there would have
been no European Romantic movement; without Sir Walter Scott, no modern
novel; without Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society,
no Karl Marx.
It’s an amazing record - but how typical of Scots of today to downplay
this history, to turn their own accomplishments into a tea-towel joke
with its sardonic but still proud motto, "Wha’s Like Us?"
Others ask the well-intentioned question: intellectuals and inventors
are all very well and good, but what about the poor, the women, the
Clearances? Yes, precisely. What about them? What other society would
have cared or made sacrifices for those whom the forces of history had
left behind? In what other culture could those whom history had cast
aside rise up to create a world of their own?
From 1790 until the First World War, perhaps two million Scots left
their homeland to make a life in the greater world. They were men and
women who brought their energy, skills, and traditions to recast the
planet in the modern mould their predecessors in the Scottish
Enlightenment had foretold. They transformed every place they touched,
from America and Canada to Australia and South Africa, from the icy
shores of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland to the rain forests of Ceylon and
They included ordinary Scots as well as middle-class politicians and
intellectuals. They worked as dockhands, sea captains, merchants,
farmers, soldiers, missionaries, doctors, nurses, and teachers. They
left a legacy that endures today: the idea that humanity can tackle its
own implacable difficulties and dilemmas, and somehow overcome them. It
is the promise of modern life. But it also includes an obligation. For
Scots, it was not enough just to fight their way into the world. They
also found ways to reshape that world so that those who came after them
would not have to fight so much.
So does Scotland have a future as part of Britain? Before answering that
question, we need to acknowledge a basic truth. The great dynamic force
in British history since 1707 has been Scotland and the Scots. It was
only after the Great War that Scots began to realise that they had
attached themselves to what was in fact a dying empire. The feeling
began to creep in that, having given so much, including their own
national identity, they were getting little in return.
The rise of Scottish nationalism that this led to has, on balance, been
a good thing. After all, it was Americans who first took to heart the
first lesson of the Scottish Enlightenment, that in "the pursuit of
happiness" people must not only be free as individuals, but
independent as a community. But mastering that lesson also requires a
sense of historical perspective, which some Scots, in their rage for
Anglophobia, seem to have forgotten.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt once said if we are going to be truly
free, we need to think literally about what we are doing. That kind of
perspective comes bidden or unbidden, either the result of careful
deliberate self-reflection - or it can be thrust upon us by events. This
is what has happened to America as a result of 11 September. Everyone,
both in the United States and abroad, has noticed the sudden change that
has come over Americans. Some are even frightened by it. But it is not
the result of American arrogance or the frontier cowboy spirit - a
spirit, by the way, passed on to us by Ulster Scottish immigrants in the
18th century. It is the result of moral clarity, which is
perspective’s final fruit.
Since 11 September, there has been a proliferation of tartans and plaids
across America, on scarves, skirts, hats, handbags, decorations, with
even the occasional kilt. This is, the New York Times informs us, the
result of Americans reaching for "the security of tradition"
and the strength of timeless values which the Scottish plaid signifies
Tiffany’s, the famous jewellery store on Fifth Avenue in New York, has
even decorated its Christmas windows with a complete Scottish theme.
When my wife and I were in New York last week, we met the man
responsible for it, Tiffany’s vice-president in charge of visual
creative services, Robert Rufino. Rufino is a spare man, impeccably
dressed with a ramrod carriage. He is no more a Scot than I am, but for
the unveiling of his Scottish windows he wore a kilt and even brought a
piper to Fifth Avenue. It was the first time in a very long time that
New Yorkers have heard bagpipes being played not for the funeral of
another World Trade Centre victim, but to celebrate something -
something of beauty and strength.
Rufino reminds me in many ways of the best Scottish virtues: a profound
pride in his work, meticulous attention to detail, a no-nonsense
efficiency and practical know-how combined with a sense of vision and
broad cultural horizons. These virtues are embedded deep in American
culture. They are the virtues that make modern society, and modern
capitalism, work. They are part of what Scotland has given us as a
society and a people.
But the contribution of Scotland is not limited to making Americans the
star pupils of Adam Smith. That kilt is the crucial clue. Why else has
William Wallace become such a cult figure in this country?
At first glance, the myth of "Braveheart" Wallace, medieval
warrior and rebel, seems to cancel out the legacy of the Scottish
Enlightenment. Sometimes he is even presented that way, as the virile
antidote to what the 18th-century Scots called "the refined
virtues" of commercial society. But in fact it was those same Scots
who understood that a healthy society needs both. The myth of Wallace,
like the myth of the Highlander, rebalances the cultural bias of modern
progress. The intellectual virtues that drive modernity forward need the
support of moral virtues of an earlier time.
Americans can sometimes be unreflective, but in their own way they have
come to understand this. And if Americans can, then so can the Scots.
For it is the Scots who made that synthesis of the modern and the
pre-modern possible. They defeated their own past in 1745 and accepted
its stark conclusion: that Scotland must move forward to the future not
backwards to the past. But they did not bury that past - they
resurrected it, even sentimentalised it in their own modern image - with
Scott leading the way.
But by doing that, they did something crucially important - they
universalised Scotland’s past and made it available to all. That
19th-century image of the brave and intrepid Highlander may have been a
fiction - but precisely because it was a fiction it served to balance
the self-interested energies of modern progress with an icon of courage,
loyalty, and honour. It was an icon which inspired not just Scots but
anyone with imagination - and imagination, as Adam Smith showed, is the
basis of modern society itself.
The 19th century Scots taught the world that the past does not have to
die or vanish: it can live on and help to nourish posterity - in a
nation’s memory or even in Tiffany’s window. So the Scots have given
us not one gift, but two. They remade the modern world and made it
better than it had been before. Then they gave us a way to save our
sanity in the midst of the mill-race that is modern life.
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