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Taking industry to the world


Scotland’s mark on the globe has been made as much by its engineers as by its thinkers. From the very start, the nation embraced the ideology of iron and steam.

It was a way of changing, if not dominating, the world, and the Scottish engineer remains as synonymous with Scotland as tartan or haggis.

In 1824, the editor of The Scotsman welcomed the first railways as a force of huge potential in war and peace. The Scots philosopher Thomas Carlyle - the great ideologist of Victorian Britain - proclaimed in 1829: "We level mountains and make the sea our smooth highway. We war with rude nature, and come off always victorious and loaded with spoils." His words inspired Samuel Smiles’s Lives of the Engineers (1861).

At the end of the 19th century, the English imperialist Rudyard Kipling universalised the Scottish engineer in McAndrew’s Hymn, eulogising Calvin, Burns, discipline and the reciprocating marine engine. A century on, the Scottish engineer is still around in Star Trek and even The Simpsons. (Not just the hirsute school jannie but wicked old C Montgomery Burns who owns Springfield atomic plant).

The Scots were good adapters and entrepreneurs: the Enlightenment gave them a grasp of sociology, economics, and what we would now call technology transfer. Their religion had a core of common-sense confidence set in an evangelical frame. They had also knocked about Europe long enough as scholars, soldiers and pedlars (not mutually exclusive categories) to build up contacts and expertise. German awe at Scots parsimony stems from the time when the words Schotte and pedlar were interchangeable. Add to this steam, sound iron, lathes and micrometers, and they were in business. Their world was a far cry from the snobbery encountered in Government House, the Anglican Church and the military, but they had come to the rescue often enough to win their guarded trust. Jock wouldn’t let you down.

Consider John Haswell. He had travelled from Lancefield in the 1830s to Vienna to build cotton machinery (Scots did a lot for the early European cotton industry: Finlaysons in Finland, Douglases in the Tyrol). In the 1840s he turned to locomotive building and in 1852 one of his engines, the Vindobona, competed in the Semmering trials to devise a "big engine" to haul freight over the Alps. The Vindobona was a flop, but Haswell adapted the design and produced the first standard eight-coupled heavy freight engine in Europe. Without this, the railways could not have handled the massive freight and military traffic on which the Austrian, German and Russian empires depended.

Worldwide, there were hundreds like Haswell. Much of this success was inevitable, given the period and the milieu. There were great Scottish scientists such as Kelvin and Clerk Maxwell. The London police-court clerk, Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, whose painstaking experiments in the 1870s into refining phosphoric ores revolutionised the European steel industry, was half-Scots, half-Welsh. But, as Adam Smith had written long before, invention was a social activity: communication and instruction mattered as much as genius.

The civil engineer Thomas Telford, a would-be poet and a benevolent soul in a harsh age, called his projects "a great working academy" for his employees. Many of them had come from an improved agriculture which already demanded adaptability. Joseph Mitchell, who built the Highland Railway, and William Dargan, who built the main Irish lines, worked for him. And the Motala Foundry in Sweden, which supplied Telford’s Gota Canal, was basic to that country’s industrialisation.

The Scots benefited from widespread literacy and the systematised information of Edinburgh’s Encyclopaedia Britannica (1769) as much as from the export-orientation of most of their basic industries: railway equipment, structural engineering, processing plant, steam-engines, thread and iron. Where capital goods went, Scottish engineers, investors and administrators followed: partly propelled by the lack of consumer goods industries at home, or indeed wealth for Scottish workers. Getting on involved getting out.

War and diplomacy furthered trade, and Scotland was well-placed to exploit it. Under the East India Company, Scots from Henry Dundas - on its board of control - downwards struck it rich. Nabob wealth - gained by taxation, trade and corruption - surfaces in English culture, rarely sympathetically. In Scotland it flowed into lowland estates, business and education. After 1815 this pattern of growth transferred to settlements in the colonies and in America.

"Sticking together like bricks", as an Australian remarked, Scots often settled as farmers and gardeners, using the skills built up through "improvement" back home to transplant and exploit new crops. As entrepreneurs their skills were reinforced by engineering, religion, medicine and teaching and, as JK Galbraith noted of his kinsfolk on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, a devotion to money verging on the obsessive.

Used to moving considerable distances within Scotland and Britain, two million Scots left between 1820 and 1914, an extraordinary number from an industrialised country. They carried with them a sense of identity, built up out of the kirk, freemasonry and family, and the Burns cult (how potent a blend of Enlightenment philosophy, lyrics, and sentiment this was, reflected in clever Donald Farfrae in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge).

Self-sustaining communities were soon created, where ingenuity and know-how were quickly rewarded. The great environmentalist John Muir got his first chance in America as an inventor, Andrew Carnegie as a telegraphist.

Progress, however, could take strange forms. Above the village of Lairg in Sutherland an Indian temple stands over the grave of Sir John Matheson, a tacksman’s son who, with Robert Jardine, broke the East India Company’s monopoly and cornered the supply of opium from Indian plantations to his depot in Hong Kong. Lord Palmerston fought the Chinese in 1840 to protect this trade, and right up to the end of British rule, in 1998, the acme of Hong Kong society and its Scottish base - in the Royal Bank - were the "Taipans": the families of Jardine, Matheson, Herries and Keswick.

Scots soldiers and administrators reformed India along utilitarian lines, inspired by James Mill and his son John Stuart, and the historian, poet and critic TB Macaulay, whose Minute on Education (1836) was a key initiative in creating anglophone modernisation. With the governor-generalship of Lord Dalhousie from 1848-56 came extensive administrative and university schemes, and although this provoked the violent reaction of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, it cleared the way for the re-engineering - in roads, telegraphs, drainage schemes, harbours and, crucially, the immense railway system - of the sub-continent.

Dundee, more than anywhere else, showed the two-way impact of this techno-imperialism. The demands of an empire which in 1851 had captured half of world trade, made the city the capital of Europe for canvas and jute. Jute fibre, imported from India, was spun and woven into backing for carpets and linoleum but, above all, provided the sacks which held raw cotton, wool or woven cloth, grain, fruit and meat in the holds of British merchantmen - many built by the Caledon shipyard. The jute industry grew from the town’s involvement in whale hunting. Whale oil - essential before the extraction of paraffin from shale (also a Scots discovery) - was used to make jute fibres flexible, and between the 1830s and 1870s jute production rocketed, and the tidal quay of the city was crammed with sailing-ships from Calcutta, where the jute was despatched. Huge fortunes were made by relatively few Jute Barons from the Bonar, Low and Grimond families.

These families increasingly invested in Calcutta factories (because of cheap wages) and put their profits into the infrastructure of the United States - railroads, coal mines, real estate - through the investment trusts which Dundee pioneered along with Edinburgh solicitors.

The Flemings went from the shop-floor to the City of London in one generation, and to James Bond in three. Winston Churchill expanded the Royal Navy to its Super-Dreadnought zenith while MP for Dundee, from 1906 to 1922.

Dundee wasn’t trapped by Empire. The sociologist Patrick Geddes, holding a jute-endowed chair at the university college, became the guru of Gandhi, Nehru and Chaim Weizmann, as well as regional planners worldwide. In the Depression the Dundee Labour Party combined with the Indian nationalists to put forward Krishna Menon as its candidate, and actually did return John Strachey, who went from a Scots-Indian governing family to notoriety in the 1930s as a pro-Soviet propagandist.

On the journalism front, DC Thomsons fostered Ritchie Calder and also James Cameron, publicist for science and humanitarian socialist, who oiled the transition into a multi-racial Commonwealth.

On an altogether different level, where would the oeuvre of William MacGonagall have been without imperial tidings of shipwreck, disaster, heroism, battles lost and won?

Jobs and capital were exported, but this was not a negative result. It became part of a nexus of ownership, training, technology and mission. This network adapted and generated many new technologies (refrigeration and canning, tea and coffee imports) and activities: tourism, agencies, real estate.

These thrived, not only in Britain, around imperial structures where the technocrat could make his presence felt. The setbacks of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny provoked military and imperial reform. These would herald the mighty expansion of railways on a world scale and the triumph of steam at sea. However, a crude neo-Darwinism also fanned a racism (anti-coloured and anti-Irish) generated by the likes of Professor Robert Knox - the anatomist who was supplied by Burke and Hare. Setbacks abroad distracted Britain and gave Bismarck his chance in Europe, but the 1860s also saw techno-imperialism reinforced by the implications of two moral crusades.

The first was the American Civil War which drastically diminished the merchant fleet of the northern states, clearing the seas for the new cargo-carrying steamers that the Clyde turned out. The combination of compound engines and condensers, pioneered by Randolph and Elder at Govan, produced a compact power unit which saw off the clipper in a couple of decades.

The second was the boost that explorer-missionaries gave to a moralised imperialism. David Livingstone, a cotton-spinner from Blantyre, trained as a doctor at the Anderson College in Glasgow, explored (successfully) and evangelised (unsuccessfully) in Africa, tracking the Zambesi and discovering the central African lakes.

The result of Livingstone’s interest in and for the media went far beyond the founding of Nyasaland, "the Scotch colony". In the 1880s an imperially minded mission ideology, propagated by the charismatic scientist-theologian Henry Drummond, favoured British expansion, and the partition of Africa was decided by the Berlin Conference of 1885. Liberal Imperialism became a powerful but uncertain keynote of late Victorian Scotland, as two great land-mass empires, each internally unified by rail - Russia and the US - were serving notice on Britain’s grandeur. Lord Rosebery, a Scot and premier in 1894, and the energetic state-socialist RB Haldane would preach "national efficiency" and systematic technical education as an antidote to decline.

1885 was the year when General Gordon was martyred at Khartoum. Gordon was all the right things: engineer, evangelical Christian, Scots by descent. 1885, however, also saw Daimler’s motor-tricycle bump along a country road near Stuttgart, and Japanese industries, often started with Scots expert advice, began to accelerate.

The epoch of chemicals, electricity, radio, powered flight - and of the joint-stock company and shareholder value - was unfavourable to the patronage and partnership ethos of Scots industrialisation. But in the crisis which ended the imperial age, in 1914-18, the Clyde, as "workshop of the world", still outproduced Germany and so saved Britain.

However, centralised control over-concentrated Scotland on old specialisms or on new equipment unsaleable in peacetime. Machinery and labour were still there, but the First World War broke up the linkages that riveted McAndrew’s world together.

By the end of the 20th century, there were signs the traditional grease-spattered Scottish engineer had been re-invented, wearing a spotless hi-tech lab coat. Scotland created the automatic cash teller, produced silicon chips, personal computers, and cloned Dolly. What next - starships? Beam me up, Scottie.


Thursday, 13th September 2001
The Scotsman

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