Diaspora, accounting for its fruits and its effect on Scotland itself. It is a bold undertaking, for the story, as he tells it, spans every continent and almost three hundred years with a backward glance to earlier centuries.
The Scots are a wandering people. Devine quotes the actor Sir Henry Irving speaking in 1896 of ‘the capacity of the Scot for … transporting Scotland all over the earth. I have an idea that when the North Pole is discovered, it will be found to bear a strong resemblance to Arthur’s Seat.’ The Victor ian Liberal politician Sir Charles Dilke, touring the empire, remarked that ‘for every Englishman that you meet who has worked himself to wealth from small beginnings without external aid, you find ten Scotchmen’. So numerous were the Scots in the colonies that Dilke, not wholly s e r i ously, thought it was ‘strange, indeed, that Scotland has not become the popular name f or t he United Kingdom’. John Buchan wrote in Greenmantle that ‘we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples. Perhaps t he Scots are better than the English, but we’re all a thousand per cent better than anybody else’ – a satisfying conclusion.
Devine knocks some of our complacency on the head. It is not true, he says, that Scots didn’t benefit from the slave trade, as is commonly believed (in Scotland, anyway). On the contrary, though Bristol and Liverpool may have been the main trading ports, Scots merchants and shipping companies were happily active in the trade, and many West Indian sugar plantations were owned or managed by Scots. One remembers that Robert Burns himself was about to take up a post as an overseer in a slaveworked sugar estate when the success of the first edition of his Poems caused him to change his mind. Likewise Devine has no time for the notion that Scots – and especially dispossessed Gaelic ones – had a particular affinity with native peoples. They robbed, exploited and killed them just as willingly and efficiently as the English. One of the great trading companies, Jardine Matheson, based in Hong Kong, made its fortune by running opium into China and persuaded the British Government to go to war in defence of its drug trade. Nevertheless the Scottish contribution to the making of the modern world was vast, and quite disproportion-
a t e t o t he s i z e and population o f t he countr y. Nineteenth-century Scotland was one of the g reat workshops of the world. As late as 1914, a fifth of the world’s shipping was built on the Clyde, and the North Br i t i sh Locomotive Company constr ucted railway engines for South America and much of Europe (now in Edinburgh we can’t even build a tramline, and if it is ever operational the trams themselves will have been built in Spain). Tea plantations in India and Ceylon were owned and managed by Scots. Modern Malaysia is in many ways a Scottish creation, its prosperity deriving or ig inally from the rubber plantations run by Scots companies Guthrie’s and Sime Darby. An Australian historian, James Collier, declared in 1911, ‘with pardonable
Flying Scotsmen exaggeration’, that ‘the Scots own all the land in Australia while the Irish own all the public houses’. Scottish investment trusts provided the capital for the development of the American West and also of Argentina. One may wonder where a l l th i s energy has gone. Certainly the entrepreneur i a l sp i r i t and agg re s s ive confidence o f n i neteenthcentury Scotland seem t o h ave evaporated. Pe r h a p s t oo many o f our able and ambitious young people left the countr y. Perhaps i t i s merely that we lost the competitive advantages which we enjoyed in the early decades of the Industr i a l Revolution.
Devine’s history is full of tantalising suggestions as well as a mass of fascinating incident and information. Some parts make for stodgy reading. He is a number-crunching histor ian, and his pages are crammed with statistics. There are times when one would wish for more vivid character sketches and a greater wealth of anecdote. Yet there is much meat here, and the book is a quarry from which others may extract much of value. There are paragraphs which the general reader – but not the academic historian – will pass over quickly or with a weary sigh, only to be brought up with a start by something new or unexpected. Tom Devine offers social and economic rather than narrative history, but so much of the material he has uncovered and organised is of compelling interest that this reviewer at least is ready to excuse the tedious passages. To order this book for £20, see LR bookshop on page 20
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011