December 02, 2002

How the Scots Invented the Modern World, Arthur Herman

Herman writes that Virginia Woolf said that one of Sir Walter Scott's literary virtues was that the reader never knew which side of the issue he was on while reading his novels. This is not a virtue that can be credited to Herman, who is so enthusiastic to prove that the Scots were necessary to every important development of modernization that he gets sloppy with his definitions; Scots abroad are Scots (no Scots-Irish, because he argues that they didn't blend: he calls them Ulster Scots), non-Scots in Scotland produce Scottish work, Gibbon counts as a Scot "for all intents and purposes" because he studied Scots writers but the Adams brothers do not become Italian by studying Italian architecture. I also find him sloppy in distinguishing between his summary of what an important Scot thought, and his assertion of the obvious truth demonstrating that the Scot in question was right; and also he tries to lead the reader by alluding to some current popular fallacy that the eighteenth-century Scots had already seen through, without explaining what the fallacy is.

When reading something so tendentious, it's hard not to look for the Heffalump; and I did catch him out in some at-best-dubious assertions. I could have believed that the Adam brothers improved classical architecture by adding servant's stairs, except that Rybczynski's The Perfect House mentions servant's stairs in the Villa Cornaro and shows them on the floorplan. Later he explains the Jardine's forcing the opium trade into imperial China with the argument that "Britain had no drug problem" in 1827 (considered relevant because it put fault for Chinese opium addiction on Chinese weakness); I checked Martin Booth's Opium . Booth confirmed widespread opium addiction among the poor of the Fens, for instance, who also needed opium as a medicine. Now, maybe Herman didn't know this, or maybe he thought all the use of opium in England was medicinal, but - from Opium -

When, in 1828, the earl of Mar died...his insurers refused to honour his life insurance, contending his [opium] habit affected his life expectancy. A few years later, a Professor Christiansen of Edinburgh concluded to a Scottish court that opium-eating shortened life.

Herman is familiar with the lives of other Earls of Mar, but this still might be sloppy scholarship accepting Jardine's rationalization; it isn't written clearly enough to tell if he was asserting that Jardine's rationalization was true. At least he didn't praise Prof. Christiansen immediately after admiring Jardine, the way he admired the Ulster Scots' armed land-grabs in the New World right after praising the innate Scots respect for private property.

A book asserting that Adam Smith begot the modern world would be plausible. (comment from my other half: "And Clausewitz!" I don't think there's any reason to consider Clausewitz Scots.) I'll try Rothschild's Economic Sentiments for that. What Herman finally convinced me of was not that the Scots made the modern world, but that the British Empire used the Scots to make the modern world. Scotland was a whole nation of younger sons, willing to learn a new language, do the dirty engineering, fight some nasty battles, for a chance to earn a place in the center of civilization. Even Herman's brief summary of Scotland in the 20th century was of a poor and low-wage nation, the ignored 'good child' of England as Ireland is the harassed 'bad child'.

Interesting tidbits; Highlanders fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie routed more-experienced, better-equipped troops more than once, something to consider when reading pulp fiction battles between savages with swords and troops with distance-weapons. They didn't win the war. Later, when Sir Walter Scott was inventing cod-Highland pageantry to amuse drunk king George IV, there was one group of real Highlanders sent, bare survivors of the clearances. They were so scruffy and frightening that they were shuffled away, fed scraps, not allowed to march. So wrote clew in History.

And thus wrote others:
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