Scotland: The Global History

Murray Pittock

Yale, £25



Such was people’s desire to learn about Scotland’s past that, at one point in 1999, Tom Devine’s History of the Scottish Nation outshone Harry Potter on the bestseller lists. Historian Murray Pittock, who is Bradley Professor of Literature at the University of Glasgow, cites that remarkable fact towards the end of his own broad survey. While it remains to be seen if his work reaches such dizzy heights, Scotland: The Global History certainly deserves a wide readership.

Beginning with the Thirty Years’ War, shortly after the Union of the Crowns under James VI and I in 1603, it stretches to the present day. Offering a sweeping overview of the major events and currents that have formed modern Scotland, its core thread is “the paradoxical and powerful yet partial nature of Scotland’s ability to project itself as an international actor” when it was no longer an independent nation.

Whether it’s on matters of governance or finance, education or culture, industry or business, every strand of this assessment is viewed through the prism of sovereignty, or its diminishment. From the late middle ages through the Covenanting era and the Clearances, to the rise of Empire, industrialisation and its decline, the issue of Scotland’s independence and political integrity is to the fore. In Pittock’s hands, what followed after the Union of Parliaments in 1707 is as severe a test of the concept of nationhood and centralised state as a political theorist in a laboratory could devise.

“Scotland is a country, but not a state,” he writes; “one of the longest-lived of all global nations yet hardly counted by some to be a nation at all.” Among the oldest of European countries, its borders have barely changed since the middle ages, with the exception of Berwick-upon-Tweed, which switched hands countless times, and a few miles of wild and ungovernable “debatable lands” in the Scottish borders.

There are many pitfalls to be avoided when writing Scottish history and, as Pittock draws together themes that touch on several of his previous works, he is keenly aware of them. Too many political and cultural analysts treat this country as innately special, a one-off case unparalleled elsewhere. Adopting this tack can be undignified, sounding boastful, self-pitying, or both.

Yet, as Pittock points out, since in many ways Scotland has been an exceptional case, or at least has had a very different experience from the rest of the UK, he cannot avoid treating it as distinctive. What he signally does not do, however, is wear either rose-tinted spectacles or historical Ray-bans, where the refrain is of the nation’s poverty, oppression and mistreatment.

To read his chapters on Scots’ involvement in the slave trade, for instance, is to feel profound shame and disgust at the depths of merchants’ complicity and greed. “Scots were heavily implicated in chattel slavery”, he writes. The slave trader Alexander Allardyce of Dunnottar was said to have sold as many slaves as the population of Aberdeen. On one occasion 100 residents on Skye were kidnapped, to sell as “indentured servants” in America, while in Aberdeen – clearly a dangerous place in the 18th century – 500 boys were abducted in the years 1740-5 and subsequently sold. The same fate awaited captured Jacobites.

So much for the trumpeted Scottish ethos of egality and fraternity, and supposedly innate democratic tendencies. From the pages of this book Scots’ ability to prosper at the expense of others rises like the smell of drains. Across the Empire, from India to the Caribbean to the plantations of America’s deep south, Scots heartlessly enriched themselves. Back home, meanwhile, many of their fellow countryfolk were toiling.

Pittock’s project is as much intellectual as historical. Discussing the concept of Scotland the Brand, as promulgated by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, James Macpherson and Robert Burns, he places the brand’s origins in the failed Jacobite rebellions: “Romantic Scotland thus preserved the bravery and grandeur of the defeated politics of its native dynasty and sovereignty in a displaced and fossilized form”.

Thereafter, the British Army co-opted fearsome Highland soldiers, taking this once destabilising force within Great Britain and turning it into an icon of British military prowess.

Scotland: The Global History is told around the complications of surrendered political agency, and the compromises, sorrows and grievances this entailed. While the Union of 1707 and the subsequent dominion of the British Empire, into which many Scots gladly bought, was to the country’s economic advantage, the loss of self-governance and national distinction was a sore that has festered in some quarters ever since.

Amid his scrupulous recounting of a vast swathe of history, Pittock offers fresh insights. “It was to be no coincidence”, he writes, “that the decade the British Empire ended was the first decade in which Scottish nationalism achieved significant support”. It is as if money and opportunity were sufficient compensation for loss of patriotic soul; but when that treasure chest disappeared, minds belatedly turned to upholding Scotland’s heritage and inheritance.

As far back as 1792, the journalist and pamphleteer John Thomson Callender wrote, “To England we were for many centuries a hostile, and we are still considered by them as a foreign, and in effect a conquered nation.” Some would agree with that sentiment today. Sentimentality, however, is one thing Scotland does rather too well. As Pittock acknowledges, bringing the story through the 20th century’s wars and into the present day, “support for ‘indyref2” or “our precious Union” is increasingly expressed in forms as passionate as they are limited.

Everything about Scotland: The Global History is directed towards the political settlement we currently face, and in what direction that might turn next. Although sympathetic to the nationalist cause, he is not uncritical. A great deal of what he outlines is of crucial significance in helping delineate how Scotland has reached its current position, and assessing how best to move forward.

While in places his writing can be academic and chewy, the engine behind this history is running at full throttle, and its momentum carries the reader on at speed. Whatever side of the constitutional argument one stands on, this is an invigorating assessment. It might not outsell Harry Potter, but as the provisional date of Indyref2 approaches, it should be regarded as an essential tool in the debates that will soon be raging.