Academic confirms our status as founders of the modern world, with just a pinch of irony
NATIONAL STEREOTYPES are a funny thing.
Since I am a real Scotsman, it seems a bit odd that I recently bought two brand new copies of the same hardback book, identical in every respect except for the cover and the preface.
The book is called 'The Scottish Enlightenment – the Scots’ Invention of the Modern World' by the distinguished American historian Arthur Herman. Its cover shows a romantic classical painting of Edinburgh from the top of Calton Hill. The book inside describes the remarkable period in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when Scots scientists, economists, philosophers and engineers were leading the world.
Professor Herman was professor of history at George Mason and Georgetown Universities, and is now the coordinator of the Smithsonian’s Western Heritage Programme in Washington DC. He has written several highly respected volumes such as “The Idea of Decline in Western History” and a re-evaluation of Joseph McCarthy.
Despite the subject of his latest volume, he is not a Scot or even of Scottish descent.
After I had already paid for this scholarly book, I discovered that the American edition is presented rather more dramatically – for in the US, the book is boldly titled 'How the Scots Invented the Modern World – the True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It', and is decorated by a painting of a man in a kilt.
With an title like that I couldn’t resist visiting amazon.com and having a copy shipped over from the US. This was a little out of character – after all, I have never, ever, been tempted to buy one of these tea towels that they sell in tourist shops listing how everything in the world was invented by some Scotsman or other.
But Herman’s book is rather better than the tea towels. It is a thoroughly researched overview of the truly incredible story that was Enlightenment Scotland. In 1700, Scotland was the poorest country in western Europe, but in the subsequent decades it became the hub of modern European thinking. For it was here in Scotland that David Hume was redefining philosophy; Adam Smith was describing the workings of the modern industrial economy and creating the discipline of economics. James Watt was creating the power for the industrial revolution, and Sir Walter Scott was creating the modern narrative novel.
Of course, others contributed to developments in Society. As Herman says, the Germans, French, English, Italians, Russians and many others supplied bricks and mortar for building the modern world. But it was the Scots who drew up the blueprints and taught us how to judge the final product.
And the Scots didn’t just cook up the modern world – they also delivered.
Between the Act of Union in 1707 and the outbreak of World War I, nearly two and a half million Scots left Scotland and spread themselves across the world. They took with them a high level of literacy and numeracy, of job skills, of moral discipline and of personal initiative. They transformed every society that they touched.
No doubt the title of the US edition has encouraged many Americans who consider themselves of Scottish descent to buy it, when they might not normally buy such a scholarly history. It soon appeared in the Washington Post bestseller list.
One can only wonder at the reticence of the UK publishers who obviously felt that they couldn’t pull off the same trick here. Irvine Welsh, reviewing the book in the Guardian, called it “a wet dream for the positive image merchants of old and new Scottish establishments.”
Professor Herman recently appeared at a debate in Edinburgh. A series of distinguished Scottish and English historians were lined up to comment on his version of the enlightenment. All agreed that Herman was a good historian and that his book was excellent, but being British, they all thought his claims to be too extreme. The Scots were influential, of course, but surely they didn’t really 'Create Our World and Everything in It'. It was alleged that the US title of his book had been hijacked by an aggressive salesman employed by the publishers.
At the end of the evening, Professor Herman enlightened us about the title. No – it was not dreamt up by some 'marketing hot shot on Madison Avenue', declared Herman. The title was all his own work. It was intended, he declared, to be 'ironic'.
Clearly Arthur Herman has been here and done that – and he’s even got the tea towel.