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Frank R. Shaw FSA Scot

A Highlander And His Books

How The Scots Invented the Modern World
By Arthur Herman
(ISBN 0-609-60635-2)

Reviewed by: Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

This review will be a bit longer than normal because of some things that need to be said about a few books currently on the market, or soon to be, by authors writing about the rightful place of Scots in today’s world. For those of us who love to read good Scottish books, we live in an exciting time. Never has there been a period in literary history when so many good books are in the bookshops that deal with the intellectual influence of Scots on the world or America, in particular. Those of us fortunate to be a part of the Scottish community are very aware of the impact the fighting Scots have had around the world. As history bears out, Scots have been a mean, lean fighting machine. It is as if Scots were born to be fighters in the great military campaigns in history. Scots are known more for their sword being mightier than their pen.

Now, we have Scots and non-Scots in a relatively short period of time telling the story of Scots in medicine, science, literature, history, philosophy, sociology, religion, technology and capitalism, to name a few areas. These books describe their achievements or inventions outside the box of military campaigns. These great authors are telling us that the enormous accomplishments of the Scots and the direct impact they had on the world has been largely overlooked by historians and the world. Until now! Decide for yourself.

Take a look at the books that have flooded the shelves of our bookstores recently. Duncan Bruce has two - The Mark of the Scots and The Scottish 100. Both are wonderful books that are fast becoming classics. Then there is Stewart Lamont’s When Scotland Ruled the World, not as well known but worthy reading indeed. And now we have Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World. By the time you read this, the former chairman of Motorola, Robert Galvin, if there ever was a proud Scot, will be out with his book, America’s Founding Secret - What the Scottish Enlightenment Taught Our Founding Fathers. Wait! There is more to come. Alexander Leslie Klieforth and Robert John Munro recently asked me to review their manuscript that will be published in 2003 entitled The Scottish Invention of America, a book you need to "bookmark" on your "to buy list" right now. That is one book I look forward to reviewing in its completed form.

Bruce, Lamont, Herman, Galvin, as well as Klieforth and Munro, among others, are telling us to hold our heads high because of the accomplishments of the Scottish men discussed in their books. They are saying that it is time for Scots to be recognized for all they have done for mankind. What these books say to me is that Scots have largely been knocked about, pushed aside, stepped over, maybe beat up a little, and mostly ignored…outside of their military ability. I get the feeling that Scots have been made to feel they are the "red-headed stepchild at the family reunion" that no one really wanted to claim. Scotland, for too long, has been in search of an identity, and it has been right under our noses since the Scottish Enlightenment. Like the man in the movie, these authors today are raising the windows to the world and shouting they are fed up with such nonsense. They are proclaiming to one and all that they are not going to put up with it any more, and neither should we!

Now we come to Arthur Herman’s bestseller, How the Scots Invented the Modern World. A buddy of mine, Ross Wyllie, mentioned to me one night during our monthly Burns Club meeting that he had seen the author on television. I was intrigued by the title, but I must admit I was a bit skeptical, and I sort of chuckled, shook my head and thought, "Here we go again." Scotland? This poorest of all European nations inventing the World? Excuse me! They, our ancestors, were at times unable to rule their own country much less invent the world. Give me a break. Yet, I bought it, read it, but promptly assigned it to a shelf in my library. I found myself drawn back to it from time to time. Then, a few weeks ago, I re-read my "map" through the book (my markings, underlining and notes written in the margins). I decided to review it. Maybe after all, I concluded, the "pen was mightier that the sword".

I determined that anyone inspired by John Prebble, as Herman says he was, must have something to say. Prebble could do no wrong in my book. I cut my teeth on Prebble and have never forgotten the messages of his wonderfully and beautifully written books. It was a great day when I picked up my first book by him at a Highland games book tent. Sadly Prebble died not that long ago and some of the literary hacks, jackals and hyenas couldn’t wait to jump his carcass, even before his body was cold in the grave. But, in my opinion, Prebble somewhere down the road will get the last laugh because his writings will still be around when their jumping days are over and they are gone and long forgotten. Thank God! Herman, a non-Scot like Prebble, has also had his detractors. But, an author who quotes Duncan Bruce is pretty wise. A writer who unapologetically says that Sir Walter Scott is "Scotland’s greatest writer" and the one who "singled-handedly changed the course of literature", as Herman does, is saying what I have thought for years.

One thing Herman does is use frequent anecdotal stories. For example, his quoting Andrew Jackson’s mother never "to sue anybody for slander, assault, or battery. Always settle them cases yourself". Or, as she told her son one day, "Stop that, Andrew. Girls were made to cry, not boys." "What are boys made for, Mother?" he asked. "To fight," she answered. Another interesting anecdote relates how Charles Napier banned the Hindu practice of suttee (the cremation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre). The Brahmin priests let him know in no uncertain terms that he was interfering with an important national religious custom. Much to the relief of the widows, I might add. Napier replied, "My nation has a custom, when men burn women alive, we hang them. Let us all act according to national custom."

There are a few things that a dyed-in-the-wool Scot may disagree with Herman about. For instance, saying of Robert Burns that "his failure also drove him to drink, cutting short his life at thirty-five." The author’s ready acceptance of this old canard (false and unfounded report) of his early biographers is not easily understood. (See the "Chat" with author Herman in this issue where the subject is discussed.) If the jackals jumped the bones of Prebble, can you imagine how quickly they jumped the bones of Burns with his sharp wit and acid tongue? You see, Burns was actually 37 when he died, but not from excessive drinking. Scholars today such as James MacKay (international Burns scholar) and Thorne Winter, M. D. (local Burns scholar), just to mention two of many, now believe Burns died of rheumatic heart disease, or to be precise, "endocarditis, a disease of the substances and lining membrane of the heart". MacKay believes that "bacterial endocarditis complicating rheumatic heart disease still seems, on balance, the likeliest cause of death…" In modern vernacular, Robert Burns was a "dead man walking", not from alcoholism, but from the heart disease that plagued him all his life and particularly his last year or so. Drinking may have exacerbated his death to some degree, but I do not believe it would have been listed today on a death certificate as the primary cause of his death - maybe as a secondary cause, but that may even be a stretch.

Another question I had was why Herman put Culloden in Aberdeenshire. (Inverness, the "capital of the Highlands" as we know it today, was just seven or eight miles down the road.) Also, Herman fails to mention the aborted all-night march of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men that sucked the very fighting strength out of the troops for that battle a few hours later. They were tired and starving. Again he says that their commanders steadily lost their nerve that day of the one-sided battle (tell that to their widows and orphans). And, yes, Lord Elcho, a disgruntled follower, did have a few choice words about the Bonnie Prince who was forcefully ushered off the field of battle by those nearest to him after his horse had been shot out from under him. But Elcho had fallen out with the Prince long before the battle and couldn’t resist the opportunity to bad-mouth him at any time. Herman further states that the Prince had never seen the "strange Highland dress" (read kilt) until he was in Scotland. (Other scholars point out that the Bonnie Prince had "a deep fascination with his Scottish ancestry" as evidenced by the oval miniature portraits of himself that he gave to his friends. His "tartan jackets were elaborately trimmed in ermine tails and gold braid", and he sported the Jacobite cockade in the form of a white rose in his Scottish bonnet. He was given a kilt as a young child by one of his father’s followers, and countless dozens of Scots, like John Gordon of Glenbucket, who proudly dressed in their Highland dress from head to toe, called on his father to pay homage "to the king across the water" at the Palazzo Muti in Rome. After all, he was a Stuart Prince, tutored by the Jacobite, Sir Thomas Sheridan, in a Jacobite court.) And the beat goes on.

Even with the above questions, I firmly believe Arthur Herman has done us a favor by writing this book, which is interesting, fascinating, absorbing and a publication worthy of any Scotsman’s library. It took Herman five years to do his research. The achievements the author writes about regarding these mostly Lowland Scots and a few of their northern cousins (the so-called "sons of the heather") will enlighten you. What these Scotsmen did for Scotland, America, Canada, Nova Scotia, Australia, New Zealand and India, and for that matter, the whole world, is miraculous. So, again, let all Scottish lads and lassies hold their heads high. We have a wonderful heritage to be proud of and an identity to proclaim. In conclusion, the full title of the book says it all - How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything In It. Enjoy. I did!

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