from the Scotsman
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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