The root cause of this ambivalence is a reluctance to accept that the past can only be judged in its own terms. We may be horrified at those terms, as Wilson is, but imposing our values illumines not history but ourselves. Spinoza set out the Hippocratic oath that should bind all who approach the past: ‘not to mock, lament or execrate but to understand human actions’. Only when we recognise slavery as a constant in human history can we understand why Hawkins could see nothing wrong with supplying the newly extended labour market in Spanish and Portuguese America. Even John Newton would continue slaving after his conversion. We may not wish to endorse Drake’s piratical values, but can and should still celebrate his circumnavigation as a huge achievement in its own r ight as well as its enduring impact. And we have to remember context. Wilson suggests that the Elizabethans should have left Ireland to the Irish, yet that was unrealistic not only in light of the previous 400 years of history but also in terms of European power politics and cultural values. Only context explains how the acutely sensitive Spenser was ready to see the Irish wiped out by famine, or worse, but was still able to sleep comfortably in his bed. What benefit was there in the ninety-four apologies Pope John Paul II is said to have offered for past church errors? Is it not more valuable to note that many of the errors arose from attempting to implement what was sincerely believed to be the divine will? History has moral utility when we understand how humanity has behaved in the past and so are made less confident in our own righteousness.
Do not look to The Elizabethans for an authoritative nar rative. Read i t to understand why, despite ‘ the Difficulty’, Queen Elizabeth I and her subjects still do matter. Just as a person is normal with, not without, his or her neuroses, a country is normal with a history. As A N Wilson concludes, perhaps a little against his will, part of what made Britain so resourceful in later centuries was a l egacy o f ‘ t he evolved exper i ence o f t he Elizabethan age’. To order this book for £20, see LR bookshop on page 20
and Burns Night wherever they find themselves in the world. Descendants of Scottish emigrants bedeck themselves in tartan and, especially in Canada and the USA, stage Highland Games and form pipe bands. All this is well known. So too is the fact that people have been leaving Scotland for centuries. Before 1700 they went mostly to Europe: the Netherlands, France, Poland, and Russia. Some went as soldiers of for tune, many as traders and merchants, and a smaller number as political refugees. Since the Treaty of Union with England in 1707, while far fewer have settled in Europe, huge numbers have crossed the border to England, where, often, in two or three generations, they became English. Even more have emigrated overseas, first to English colonies where the old English empire became a British one, and subsequently to countr ies like China and Argentina which were never formally annexed to the empire but came within what one may fairly call the British imperial economic zone. The USA, however, was the favoured
P a i n t i n g t h e G l o b e Ta r t a n TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: SCOTLAND’S
GLOBAL DIASPORA, 1750–2010
By T M Devine (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 397pp £25)
DURING AN EARLY eighteenth-century war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, the generals of the two armies came together to negotiate a truce. ‘Aye, aye, Sandy,’ said the Turkish one, ‘we’re a gey lang way frae the back o’ Bennachie’ – for the two men had been brought up on neighbouring farms in Aberdeenshire. The t a l e may be apocr yphal, but is quite likely t r ue, and I l i ke to th i nk they indulged in reminiscences of their childhood, s peaking t he b ro ad Aberdeenshire Doric.
Scots have a deep, if often sentimental, attachment to t he i r homeland, o f t en expressed in – sometimes mawkish – song. They celebrate S t Andrew’s Night
MA in biography Consistently rated ‘excellent’ by external examiners and inspectors The course is taught by Jane Ridley and will be based in London from
October 2011. Available full-time (12 months) or part-time,
by research or as a taught MA. Start October or January. For more information visit our site www.buckingham.ac.uk/london/biography or email firstname.lastname@example.org destination: ‘more than half o f a l l emig r a t i ng Scots embarked f o r t he USA between 1853 and 1914.’ Canada, Australia and New Zealand came next; until the selection of players from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga became common, a disproportionate number of New Zealand’s r ugby i n t e r na t i onal s had Scots names. In this book Tom Devine has set himself the task of recording what he f airly calls the Scottish
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011