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Michael Fry: A New Race Of Men - Scotland 1815-1914 (Birlinn)

In their bombastic introductory blurb, the publishers of this book promise much.

The volume will offer a fresh perspective on 19th-century Scotland, they trumpet, which "goes well beyond the conventional analyses of economy and society to which previous histories have confined themselves". It will also contain "detailed new research" which does not rely on "theories or statistics". In his own pitch, the author once again asserts his familiar dogma that "the traditional dominance of socioeconomic material in Scottish historiography is today doing the nation a disservice".

There are two major problems with this kind of irritating boosterism. First, it creates a straw man by falsely labelling recent histories of the period as only concerned with society and economy. From the books of Sydney and Olive Checkland on 19th-century Scotland, published some decades ago, to Ewen Cameron's 2010 history, Impaled Upon A Thistle, modern academic historians have always written broad panoramas of the nation's past which contain discussions of politics, popular culture, ideas, identity and much else. Even works grounded on economic and social issues avoid a focus on these matters alone. To do otherwise would be myopic in the extreme. This author completely distorts the nature of modern Scottish historiography in order to erroneously claim originality for his own approach.

Second, hardly any of the objectives so boldly outlined in blurb and introduction are fulfilled. Apart from the final section on high culture there is little new in this book. It does not change our understanding of Victorian Scotland one iota. The promised "new research" is minimal. A glance at the pages of footnotes confirms that the volume is overwhelmingly based on secondary sources, many of them written by the very same economic and social historians whom the author apparently holds in such high disdain. Even more remarkably, of the 15 chapters of text, nine are straightforward accounts of the nation's economy or society, the very approach Fry denounces.

The title of the volume will hardly please half the adult population of Scotland today. There is indeed a discussion of women in Victorian society but it is ghettoised in a single chapter with hardly any reference to women elsewhere in the text, with the exception of a few paragraphs on jute workers in Dundee. Like so much of the text, the approach is old-fashioned, with the author oblivious to key trends in modern historiography. The enormous advances in gender and family history mean the role of women can and should be integrated into the general narrative rather than marginalised in its own enclave.

Astonishingly, especially in light of its claims, this study suffers from two staggering lacunae which place a serious question mark against it being regarded as a rounded history of 19th-century Scotland. Two of the central themes of the period, each with a huge impact on the development of the nation, namely Scotland in the British Empire and the Scottish Diaspora, are ignored. The depth and extent of Scottish involvement in the Victorian Empire was such that every nook and cranny of national life was influenced, whether economy, politics, ideas, religion or popular culture. Quite simply the country in this period was moulded by empire; not to treat the subject in detail is incomprehensible in a book which purports to be a serious history. Equally the extraordinary mass movement of the Scots across the globe is a vital aspect of the national story. Between 1815 and 1914, for every two Scottish children who survived past infancy, one would leave their native land for ever. That vast haemorrhage of people requires explanation, not least because such an analysis tells us much about the nature of the society which generated it. Those looking for answers will not find them in this book.

However, this volume fails because it lacks intellectual excitement. The author's preference is for description and narrative with a great deal of factual information in support. Those readers interested in the clash of ideas and opposing interpretations, new and challenging insights, why developments occur in the past and what might be their consequences, the resolution of paradoxes and puzzles - the analysis of history - will have to look elsewhere.

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