Allan Massie

Scotland’s miraculous century (it started with the Union)

A review of Michael Fry’s A Higher World examines the long 18th century, in which the Union of England and Scotland was consolidated

Scotland’s miraculous century (it started with the Union)
Text settings

A Higher World: Scotland 1707–1815

Michael Fry

Berlinn, pp. 462, £

In 1707 Scotland surrendered what it had of its independence by the Treaty of Union with England. That independence had been limited since the Union of the Crowns in 1603, and arguably for at least half a century before that. But the treaty was, as Lord Seafield, Chancellor of Scotland, said ‘the end of an auld song’. It was unpopular in Scotland, popular in England because, in the middle of a war with France, it secured the Protestant succession to the throne and meant that the new kingdom of Great Britain no longer had an internal frontier to defend.

Nevertheless, it would be 40 years before domestic peace and security were assured. In that time there were three Jacobite risings — attempts to restore the exiled Stuart kings. The continuing unpopularity of the Union meant that all these insurrections had some support in Scotland, and the last and most improbable of them, in 1745, seriously shook the stability of the Hanoverian throne.

In truth the new kingdom was never a unitary state. Scotland retained it characteristic national institutions: its Presbyterian church, its law and its educational system. As Michael Fry shows in this intelligent and provocative history of 18th-century Scotland, all diverged even further from English practice in the first century of Union, and yet by the end of that century, the Union was more complete, and more completely accepted.

The 18th century was the most remarkable period in the history of Scotland. Before the Union, it had been a poor and insignificant country. Sixty years later Voltaire declared that now ‘there come to us from Scotland rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening. We look to it for all our ideas of civilisation.’ How this astonishing development came about is the theme of this book.

Fry is a journalist as well as a historian, which happily means that he writes to be read; he has little time for the statistical analyses beloved of academics. He has also dabbled in politics, at least to the extent of having been a Conservative candidate, though, as an Englishman who has made himself into a Scot, he argued the case for ‘yes’ in the recent referendum. Only independence, he has optimistically suggested, can lead to the emergence of a new, capitalist, market-oriented Scotland. (That’ll be the day.)

Perhaps his own history of political commitment leads him to underplay what is perhaps the prime reason for the flowering of Scotland in the period under review: the freedom from politics. Government was mostly light-handed, with intervention in society and the economy being occasional and ineffective. As Walter Scott put it, ‘Thus, neglected as she was, and perhaps because she was neglected, Scotland was left to win her silent way to wealth and prosperity.’ The Presbyterians might still attempt to impose moral discipline, as Robert Burns found to his discomfort, but even the kirk’s authority relaxed and was open to the new spirit of the Enlightenment.

Fry divides his book into five sections dealing with economy, society, margins, politics (which were mostly local) and culture. In each he is concerned to trace the progress towards a new civility, a new theory of human society and its development. The Scots remained a Bible-reading people, arguably the most literate in Europe; yet it was through their Enlightenment philosophers, notably David Hume and Adam Ferguson, that men and women were encouraged to understand history and society without reference to a presiding deity.

We are also shown how a backward peasant economy, where the burghs were still controlled by restrictive medieval guilds, gradually evolved as a result of agricultural improvements and the exploitation of commercial opportunities offered by the Union, so that by the end of the century Scotland was on the verge of becoming one of the powerhouses of the industrial revolution. Prosperity brought a new confidence, and in the wars against Revolutionary France and Napoleon, the sense of a British patriotism was apparent. This did not exclude a revisionist Scottish patriotism too, one that was made explicit in Scott’s Waverley novels.

Macaulay famously hoped that his History of England would replace the latest novel on a young lady’s reading table. Such tables may no longer exist, but, like Macaulay, Fry writes for the general reader. History, he understands, should entertain as well as instruct. He delights in illustrative anecdotes and in the character sketches from which academic historians too often shrink.

I know quite a lot about 18th-century Scotland, but I learned even more from this book, and, where I disagree with some of Fry’s judgments — and he is not averse to laying down the law — I found myself  obliged to question my reasons for doing so.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £22.50 Tel: 08430 600033