The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

The Scottish Revolution

Last Saturday evening I went to the well-attended launch of Neil
Davidson's Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692 - 1746 published by
Pluto Press. Well over a hundred
people were there, including historians, journalists, and political
activists. This is in quantity and quality an impressive audience for a
book written by an active socialist with a full-time job and no full-
time academic position.

A few years ago, when Neil said he was writing a book on the Scottish
bourgeois revolution, my first question was: 'When was it?' It wasn't a
bad question, because it's easy to think of several mistaken answers:
that it happened in one or other bloody episode of the Scottish
Reformation, that it was accomplished as part of or in tandem with the
English Revolution (including the Glorious Revolution), or that it never
happened at all.

I'd more or less taken for granted the fairly common view that the
bourgeois revolution in Lowland Scotland was completed by 1692, and that
its decisive military victory was at Dunkeld. The subsequent Jacobite
risings are on this view the assault of the remaining feudal/tribal
Highlands, supported by foreign feudal/absolutist reaction, against an
already consolidated bourgeois state.

In his talk introducing the book, Neil challenged this view. He argued
that Scotland, still feudal in the 1690s, underwent a bourgeois
revolution from above in the first half of the 18th century, and one
whose results were decisive for the future of the world.

After the Glorious Revolution feudal relations persisted in Lowland
Scotland as well as in the Highlands. Feudal rent, military tenure, and
hereditary jurisdictions thwarted the development of capitalism. (A
feudal lord is A Man You Don't Meet Every Day: 'I have acres of land, I
have men I command, I have always a shilling to spare ...') The Scottish
bourgeoisie, such as it was, gambled its all - up to half the capital of
the kingdom - not on agricultural improvement or manufacturing, but on
the disastrous Darien Scheme. In the absence of agricultural
improvement, food production was insufficient to prevent famine in the

The incorporating Union of 1707, far from extending the gains of the
Revolution to Scotland, extended Scotland's vulnerability to counter-
revolution to Britain as a whole. Any Jacobite restoration had to aim
for the national capital: London. In the context of the world-wide
struggle between the empires of capitalist England and absolutist
France, this was a real threat. A restored Stuart monarchy would have
made Britain a vassal state of France.

Between 1707 and 1745 reforms and improvements were made, but not
enough. Only a few of the greatest lords, notably Argyle, could go over
to capitalist relations on their estates, and even for them it was a
partial and difficult process. Others simply racked-rented their tenants
and/or racked up their debts. It was the most indebted 'lesser lairds',
Highland and Lowland, who threw in their lot with Charles Stuart.

It was only the defeat of the Jacobite rising of 1745, and the
subsequent smashing of Highland society and the abolition throughout
Scotland of the hereditary jurisdictions and feudal or military tenures,
that made capitalist development finally and fully possible in Scotland
and irreversible in Britain as a whole. If the counter-revolution had
succeeded, capitalist development could well have been blocked even in
England, and absolutism strengthened in France, for an indeterminate but
quite possibly historic period: perhaps no American independence, no
French Revolution, no Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century.

The world we know was won at Culloden.


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