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Stories 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 New Guinea.

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 and symbolises.

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.

Friday, 4th January 2002
The Scotsman


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