Enterprising Scots

By Gilmour, David | The Spectator, July 16, 2011 | Go to article overview

Enterprising Scots


Gilmour, David, The Spectator


The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-century History

by Emma Rothschild

Princeton University Press, ?4.95, pp. 483

ISBN 9780691148953

If you wish to see how Scotland changed in the century after the Act of Union (1707), you might visit and compare the two houses in Edinburgh that belong to the National Trust for Scotland. Gladstone's Land, built for a wealthy merchant in the 17th century, is a six-storey tenement in the old town, a place rich with period ambience but narrow, confined and in its heyday unhygienic. It could hardly contrast more vividly with The Georgian House in the new town's Charlotte Square, which has space and elegance and the architecture of Robert Adam.

If you would like to know why such a transformation took place, what opportunities the Union gave to enterprising Scots, a good start would be to read Emma Rothschild's excellent book on the lives of the Johnstone siblings, seven brothers and four sisters who were born between 1723 and 1739. They were the children of an impecunious laird with a small estate in Dumfriesshire, tribal lair of the Johnstones, a clan formerly notorious for border reiving and feuds with clan Maxwell. Yet the creation of Great Britain enabled the siblings to break out, not just to England but thence to America, the Caribbean and the Bay of Bengal.

The brothers each had multiple careers.

Five of them lived at times in north America, four became members of parliament in London, four served in the armed forces, three joined the East India Company, and six were owners of slaves - albeit some - times reluctantly, through inheritance. One of the sisters was as adventurous as any of them, fighting for Bonnie Prince Char - lie, and, after her capture, escaping from Edinburgh Castle to France. None of the girls was the 'docile creature' of the epoch's stereotype, obedient in all things to the menfolk.

The East India Company made the fortune of John Johnstone, who fought at Plassey, yet became an enemy of Lord Clive, who regarded him as greedy, corrupt and rapacious, a judgment repeated in the next century by Macaulay. Even by the indulgent standards of the Company, the elephants, jewellery and other 'presents' he received from Indian princes and bankers were regarded as excessive. One of his brothers made money less conventionally, by selling Ganges water at one rupee a bottle to Indian pilgrims unable to travel to Benares. Yet India was famous as a graveyard as well as an opportunity. Another brother expired at the age of 18 in the Black Hole of Calcutta, and two of his nephews died soon after their arrival in the subcontinent. …

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