The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Their snuff-filled rooms, and a' that

I've just finished reading Neil Davidson's Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746, whose launch I refer to and whose thesis I sketched in the last but one post below. Having read it I can heartily recommend it. The writing is excellent: cool, witty, free from rancour. Davidson is sparing in his approbation (for Fletcher of Saltoun) and his condemnation (for the atrocities after Culloden) and partisan only for progress and for its victims among the poor. For the rest, the strongest emotion he permits himself to display is scorn. The narrative grips like a thriller. We are shown the undead ogre that was Scottish feudalism, and the feeble forces of progress arrayed - or disarrayed - against it, and we want to know how it was slain. Even though we know the outcome, the story is a page-turner.

How did Scotland go from being the armpit of the universe to the Athens of the North in a generation? How did a country that burned its last witch when Hume and Smith were boys become one in which these men and others could ignite the Enlightenment? How did a capitalist class whose international debut was the Darien Disaster rise to the top ranks of the industrial and financial masters of the world? How did landowners hitherto notorious for their backwardness become a byword for Improvement?

There are two popular answers. One is the 'Kirk to Enterprise' theory that the Scottish church promoted certain democratic and capitalist virtues. To an extent it did, but not enough to account for the take-off (quite apart from all the burning witches and stuff). Another is the 'Long Live the Glorious Fraternal Assistance of the English Revolution' (or 'Beam me up, Scotty') theory, which attributes the advance to the Treaty of Union. The killer fact for this beautiful theory is that the Treaty of Union quite explicitly left Scottish feudalism intact, just as the revolutionary struggles of the seventeenth century had.

What followed the Union was a protracted struggle, a decades-long situation of dual power that was only finally resolved when the counter-revolution lashed out in 1745. Within months of the military defeat of the rising the hereditary jurisdictions and military tenures that made the Scottish nobility a state within the state were abolished lock, stock and barrel: lords Highland and Lowland, Whig and Jacobite alike were stripped of their private courts and armies. This outcome, Davidson argues, was the climax of the Scottish, and completion of the British, bourgeois revolution.

As he points out, Scotland's revolution is a peculiar one, that does not lend itself to populist, socialist, or nationalist inspiration. There was no Bastille to storm, no tyrant to behead: only 'deals struck in snuff-filled rooms' and thousands of poor peasants butchered on the heather. It was no less real, and no less progressive, for all that.


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