Books: What Made Scotland Great? Union with England! ; the Scots Made Wonderful Doctors, Soldiers and Engineers. but, Says AC Grayling, They Didn't `Invent the Modern World'

By Grayling, Ac | The Independent (London, England), January 6, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Books: What Made Scotland Great? Union with England! ; the Scots Made Wonderful Doctors, Soldiers and Engineers. but, Says AC Grayling, They Didn't `Invent the Modern World'


Grayling, Ac, The Independent (London, England)


The Scottish Enlightenment

By Arthur Herman

FOURTH ESTATE pounds 20

A problem faces any historian of the Scottish Enlightenment these days. He or she has to tell how, between AD 1700 and 1800, a small, backward country - its lowland parts crushed under the heel of a gloomy and desperate Calvinism, its highland parts occupied by ignorant barbarians living in mud huts and passing their time by stealing each other's cattle - was brought into the mainstream of European progress, and became a flourishing, civilised part of a great country which, in its unified identity, ruled the largest empire the world has known.

The historian's problem is not how to explain this miracle, since the reason for it is very simple: it happened because of Scotland's union with England, which brought vast benefits to Scotland as a result. Rather, his problem is how to make this point without offending the pride of Scottish patriots, who would rather die than concede that anything good ever came to Scotland from across "The Wall". Before any claymore-swinging Big Mac comes after me for the sovereign contempt I hope this shows for Scottish nationalism, I should mention that my mother's maiden name is Burns and her birthday is 25 January - which entitles me to agree with Dr Johnson that the best prospect that ever lay before a Scotsman, in the centuries before the Act of Union at least, was the road to London.

Arthur Herman solves the problem in question in an absolutely preposterous way. He does it by claiming that the Scottish Enlightenment invented the modern world. I kid you not. He appears to think he can appease ferocious Scotch pride by redescribing its rescue by England from the Dark Ages (think Afghanistan in its Taliban days: that was Scotland up to the 18th century) as Scotland's invention of modern times and all its amenities, benefits and advances.

Here is a selection of his own words: "The Scottish Enlightenment created the basic idea of modernity... technology, capitalism and modern democracy... [it is] the wellspring of the modern mind"; "The Scots are the true inventors of what today we call the social sciences: anthropology, ethnography, sociology, psychology, history, and, as mention of the name Adam Smith makes us realise, economics"; "Sir Walter Scott single-handedly changed the course of literature"; "Scots created the new capitalist future of the world, with its self- renewing productive growth and `economies of scale'"; "[Scotland was] the generator of Europe's most innovative ideas"; "Glasgow was the industrial workshop of the empire"; "Scots ran the empire"; "Scotland was the first truly literate nation" - and so on and on, a litany of inflated nonsense as absurd as it is tiresome.

It is true that Scotland had a splendid Enlightenment, in the course of which it produced distinguished men, some of whose names belong permanently in the list of the great, such as David Hume and Adam Smith.

And it is true that when Scotsmen were given the opportunity to join their English brethren in building and running an empire, they did so to excellent effect. They were and are marvellous soldiers, wonderful doctors, and fine engineers.

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Books: What Made Scotland Great? Union with England! ; the Scots Made Wonderful Doctors, Soldiers and Engineers. but, Says AC Grayling, They Didn't `Invent the Modern World'
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