A review of Neil Davidson, Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1682-1746 (Pluto Press, 2003), £19.99
To use the term ‘Scottish Revolution’ is provocative. Most people, including some very good scholars, have assumed that ‘bourgeois revolution’ in Scotland is somehow accounted for by what happened in England in the middle decades of the 17th century—as if after the Union of Parliaments in 1707 Scotland was simply assimilated with the successful ‘English Revolution’. Neil Davidson shows that Scotland’s escape from feudalism into capitalism was the result of a different, separate process, crystallised after, and because of, the defeat of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Jacobite army at Culloden in 1746.
This was not because, as further lazy assumptions have had it, Highland Scotland with its Gaelic-speaking clansmen was the last redoubt of feudalism in Britain. Certainly, the area was distinctive in dress as well as in language. But the absolute authority of landowners over tenants was as strong in Lowland Scotland. While revenues from the sale of cattle on the hoof southward were important to landowners on Skye just as they were in Galloway, Lowland lords like clan chiefs had seen their estates not as sites for investment and development, but as arenas from which they could extract cash as well as services to support ostentatious lifestyles. Coalmines (where labourers were legally enserfed in the 17th century) were driven no deeper than was required to support a new mansion or pay gambling debts. The merchants and craftsmen who dominated the burghs in self-perpetuating oligarchies were for the most part unadventurously committed to familiar patterns of trade. In the unicameral Scottish parliament, until it voted its own dissolution in 1707, the dominance of great territorial magnates over lesser lairds and burgesses was represented by the layout of seating. The element of popular representation which, however skewed and thwarted, marked the English parliament, was wholly absent. So was the capitalistic afflatus which the English Revolution of the 1640s, triggered by commoners in parliament, either confirmed or released (depending on a historian’s emphasis). The ‘Commercial Revolution’ of Restoration England was echoed in Scotland only in a one-off desperate gamble, the Darien debacle.
More of this, and of the crucial matter of landownership, later. Meanwhile Davidson, with prodigious reading in primary as well as secondary sources, with scrupulously exact definition of such treacherous terms as ‘class’ and ‘revolution’, and with eloquent, entertaining style, has surveyed the explosion of Scottish historiography in the last 40 years from a sturdily classical Marxist standpoint to produce a masterly account of the process which transformed Scotland quite suddenly into the most bourgeois of nations. As he justly observes in a ‘Bibliographical Essay’, the best of Walter Scott’s fiction, dealing with Scotland from the 1640s through to the 1760s, presented a splendid analysis of ‘the unfolding of the bourgeois revolution’. Yet Scott has been denounced by many left wingers as a Tory ‘tartaniser’, a creator of far-fetched ‘romances’ which mystified his beloved nation’s history. And it is indeed true that the way in which Scott’s novels, published from 1814 onwards, were misread, enfeebled historical writing for a century and a half.
Of course, Scott told stories about vividly presented characters, many of them versions of actual historical personages. And he projected vigorously the antagonisms of Calvinist Presbyterian Whig and Episcopalian, ‘Cavalier’ Tory, of high-tempered Highlanders and sober-sided Lowlanders, of canny businessmen and cranky lairds. Rather than paying attention to Scott’s subtle analysis, rooted in the best thought of the Enlightenment, of the dialectics which generated transformation, readers were content with a simple dichotomy in which Scotland pre-Culloden was incessantly violent, heroic and ‘romantic’ as contrasted with succeeding peaceful prosperity. So the tendency set in to discuss olden Scotland in terms of personalities and dramatically opposed creeds.
A few excellent scholars, into the 20th century, stood against the current— William Law Matheson and George Pratt Insh are two to whom Davidson accords due respect. But most writing about Scottish history determined a common view in which the main question to be asked was not, ‘Why did the Scottish Reformation occur and thereafter take a Calvinistic turn?’ but, ‘Did Mary Queen of Scots connive in the murder of her husband?’
As for the 1640s, attention was distracted from the conditions in which Presbyterian zealots briefly took over direction of the country to romanticised portraits of their bugbear, the Cavalier Marquis of Montrose, who made himself Charles I’s champion in Scotland. And evocations of the pathos and excitement of the wanderings after Culloden of ‘Bonnie’ Prince ‘Charlie’ effectually concealed the fact that most Scots resented the efforts of this Roman Catholic foreigner to restore Stuart rule in London as a client of France, and that only a minority of Highlanders could be dragged forth by their chiefs to fight for him.
Yet Scotland over four centuries between Bruce’s assertion of independence in 1314 and the Treaty of Union in 1707 had not been an unsophisticated country or even a particularly violent one. In the early 16th century poetic activity in the Stewart (‘Stuart’ was a later spelling) court was more impressive than in the Tudors’. The reputation of Scottish philosophers rode high through Europe. Arguably, the most important element in Scotland’s espousal of Reformation in 1560 and thereafter was the spread of literacy among its middling people. The 18th century Enlightenment and the related efflorescence of Scottish literature had old roots in a distinctive culture. During the troubled 17th century Scottish architects produced work which was both imposing and distinctive. It was from circles interested practically and theoretically in architecture that Freemasonry developed in Scotland around 1600, eventually to become an enigmatically influential force in Europe and North America. Calvinism was one factor ensuring close links between Scotland and the Netherlands and the origins of Scottish pre-eminence in medicine, so marked by the late 18th century, can be traced to Dutch influence before the union.
The point about what may seem a digression into ‘culture’—a matter in which Neil Davidson himself is extremely well versed—is to emphasise that Scotland’s failure to keep pace with England economically before the 1640s, and especially after 1660, cannot be attributed to stagnant mindlessness. Paradoxically, even men whose violent activities might seem to justify the myth of a ‘backward’ nation—the multitudinous mercenary soldiers who roamed Europe as far as Moscow—tended to be rather well read chaps, and alongside the rustic literacy which formed the Bible-dominated mentality of lower class Covenanting rebels can be found erudite Calvinist theology. Scots were as well equipped as any people to understand new worlds of colonisation, commerce and finance, while the empathy between Calvinism and capitalism has long been a historians’ cliche. So the familiar assertion that the Union precipitated revolutionary change in Scotland can be overturned by questions—why did Scotland, so much involved with England (on the same smallish island, damn it, after all…) politically, economically and in religious debate not ‘catch up’ until the mid-18th century, and how was it that this small country came thereafter to dominate the mentality of the rising European bourgeoisie?
To amplify the last point: by the early 19th century Scotland was respected throughout the western world. Agricultural ‘improvement’ had purged the land of the spectre of famine. English capital had helped make Scotland a centre of transformed or completely novel industrial activity. Scots were prominent and often dominant as soldiers, traders and administrators in every part of the British Empire—from the new convict metropolis of Sydney, New South Wales, to the British North American fur trade and the expanding territories of British India. Economic afflatus had transformed the filthy Scottish capital, Edinburgh, creating a spacious, and relatively hygienic new town in neo-classical style to house a rapidly expanding bourgeoisie, most of whom rejoiced in the recent triumphs of Scottish ‘Enlightened’ thought, and revelled in the writing of Burns, Scott and Byron which had conquered Europe and America.
One might say that as well as experiencing a bourgeois revolution Scotland had invented a complex of innovations which, in amalgams and permutations, would constitute the 19th century bourgeoisie. While her husband wrestled in his factory with the new social order created by the application of Watt’s steam engine, before meeting his friendlier counterparts in the ‘business community’ to argue over whether Adam Smith’s free trade was always the right idea, or talking to his pastor about Thomas Reid’s ‘common sense’ rebuttal of the atheistical Hume, his proud wife would see her son poring, with the great treatise on geology by Hutton to hand, over specimens collected on earnest walks with his tutor, while her daughter sat enraptured with a novel by Scott or verse narrative by Byron. She herself would practise at her piano settings of Scottish songs by Beethoven, and if the illness of a child distracted her from this, she would at once consult Buchan’s invaluable Domestic Medicine. Elsewhere in Europe young Karl Marx would soon be digesting the ideas of Smith and Millar. The controlling conceptions of the bourgeoisie, and those of master critiques of it, could both be tracked back (as it were) to conversations between Hume and Smith, over claret, in still-reeking Edinburgh…
Such future glory was far beyond the thoughts of the Scots who struggled, between the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 and the Union of 1707, with economic crisis and catastrophe, and even of those who came to terms with the shock of the final Jacobite Rebellion of 17451746.
In the 1690s the Anglo-Dutch merger represented by the arrival of William of Orange on the throne was accompanied by the climax of England’s ‘Commercial Revolution’, symbolised by the initiation of the Bank of England in 1694, and by the beginning of the long war with France for supremacy which would continue till 1815. Both were critical for Scotland.
To compound Scotland’s abject economic underperformance compared with its southern neighbour the country endured, from 1696 to 1699, four appalling years of famine, in which as many as 15 percent of the population—that is, 150,000 people— may have died. A general ‘global cooling’ at this time is not enough to account for Scotland’s exceptional misery. Neil Davidson points to ‘still dominant forms of feudal tenure which had prevented the commercialisation and increased productivity of agriculture… In some areas the collection of rents from tenants who had barely enough on which to survive went on throughout the famine.’ Yet it was at precisely this juncture that such classes in Scotland as had any money were inspired to attempt, with one bold leap, to compete in the new world of intercontinental commerce where England and France had begun to contest for supremacy.
In 1695 the Scottish parliament passed an Act for a Company Trading to Africa and the Indies. Two forces conspired in the company’s foundation—desire in Scotland to find new markets overseas, and the wish of certain London merchants to circumvent the monopoly of the English East India Company. Opposition in the English parliament extinguished London interest, and Scottish investors went ahead alone. Enthusiasm, in so poor a country, was astonishing. The nation’s hopes were committed to the idea of establishing a colony in Panama as an entrepot for world trade. The first expedition of would-be colonists sailed in July 1698. In March 1700, after 2,000 lives had been squandered, the remaining colonists submitted to the Spaniards whose monarch had long claimed the territory on which ‘Darien’ stood. Spanish hostility was one factor in the experiment’s failure, diplomatic opposition by King William was another. But Davidson argues that both these problems ‘could have been coped with had either the Scottish state or civil society been resilient enough to sustain the venture’.
William was succeeded by Queen Anne, ‘last of the Stuart monarchs’, whose inability to produce an heir provoked a crisis of dynastic succession. James, ‘the Old Pretender’, in exile in France, was the favourite of the ‘Jacobite’ tendency which was fairly strong in Scotland. But he was a Catholic, and would surely be a puppet of France. The continuing existence of an independent Scottish polity which might ally with France was unacceptable to the Westminster parliament which favoured handing the throne to a son of the Electress Sophia of Hanover, related to the Stuarts. English pressure was such that in 1707, after huffing and puffing through stormy debates, the Scottish parliament voted itself out of existence. As Davidson’s careful analysis shows, most Scottish opinion was dismayed by this. But opposition was chaotically divided—Jacobites yearning for a Catholic king were hardly natural allies for Calvinist ex-Covenanters and those fearful for the future of the national Presbyterian church. The economic penalty entailed in holding out—loss of trade with England—was a factor reinforced by the potential benefits arising from free and lawful access to England’s overseas empire.
Davidson accepts the received wisdom that for four decades after Union, its vaunted economic advantages were not apparent, and explores with great erudition the fascinating rise of pro-Jacobite feeling to a high point in the 1715 rebellion, then its ultimate collapse in 1745-1746 when the ‘Young Pretender’, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, arrived to assert his father James’s right to the British crown. It is worth stressing that ‘Charlie’ did not want to become king of an independent Scotland. He, and his sponsors in the French government, wanted his installation as monarch in London over a United Kingdom. He was, in that way, a ‘Unionist’. Discussing ‘the ’45’, Davidson reinforces his basic point that landlordism in Scotland was much the same in the Lowlands as in the Gaelic-speaking Highland areas. On both sides, landowners could and did apply pressure on their tenants to fight, whether for Charlie or George. But Jacobitism had withered in the Lowlands, and it was the Highlands which were punished after Culloden—both by immediate, indiscriminate slaughter by occupying Hanoverian troops, and by such specific measures as the notorious banning of tartan dress. However—and this is crucial—Culloden precipitated the Heritable Jurisdictions Act of 1747 which applied to the whole of Scotland and abolished, suddenly, the most malignant features of surviving Scottish feudalism.
In Scotland the crown had never been strong enough to assert direct control of the countryside. Landlords had exercised powers of ‘justice’, even of life and death, through their own courts, and this had abetted extortionate economic tyranny over their tenants. Now, along with the pretence of ‘paternalism’ (clan chief as father of his ‘family’), this anti-capitalistic anachronism was extinguished. A ‘revolution’ in the countryside, led by capitalistic ‘improving’ landlords, could now proceed unchecked. Ironically, the most familiar images of tyrannical landlordism in Scotland come from the second phase of the ‘industrial revolution’ which followed.
The ‘Highland Clearances’ have been a source of misunderstandings as fertile as the Nile Valley itself. The salient, undisputed fact is that large areas of the Highlands were depopulated by mass migration, largely to North America—but the notion that all migrants were cruelly expelled by landlords seeking to profit from sheep- farming, in an exceptional process of virtual genocide, does not bear cool inspection. Over the same period certain Lowland rural areas lost population equally, and in England John Clare produced his classic lamenting response in poetry to ‘enclosure’ in his beloved Northamptonshire. Scottish Gaels like English ‘peasants’ were sucked into the cities and into manufacturing industry. It is true that the Duke of Sutherland (an Englishman married to a clever Highland heiress) decanted rural people from the interior of his vast domain to ‘model’ villages on the coast where they could conduct fishing and other industries. This was ‘improvement’. It is true that in Sutherland and elsewhere sheep supplanted Gaelic-speaking people: Bradford needed wool. In some cases, as in various other parts of industrialising Europe, evictions were heartlessly carried out. That the songs and tales uttered against the Clearances still sound so strongly in the 21st century bespeaks, paradoxically, the tenacity of Gaelic tradition in Scotland and counters the myth of ‘genocide’. It would be good if Scots could come to see them as an exceptionally hardy protest against the widespread destruction of rural communities by triumphant capitalism, such as Cobbett’s countrymen did not provide.
One strength of Neil Davidson’s excellent book is that it coolly displays documentary support for the fact that cruel and exploitative landlordism was at least as common before 1747 as afterwards. My chief reservation about his compact and tightly argued survey is that he underestimates the portents of change in Scotland between 1707 and 1746. He notes the activities of improving, enclosing landlords—and the ‘Leveller’ uprising against such in the south west in 1724 which would provide the only notable example of widespread organised resistance to agrarian change in the Lowlands. But one should add to the picture a tremendous surge of Scottish activity within the British Empire. In the Caribbean, Scots rapidly, after the Union, came to dominate whole islands. More crucially, as George McGilvary demonstrated two decades ago, Walpole and his Whigs in the 1720s, seeking to appease and control Scots within the new British state, saw the potential of patronage through the East India Company, and the great Eastward Ho! phase of Scottish history was launched, more than half a century before Henry Dundas, as minister in the Younger Pitt’s government who dealt with India, is usually supposed to have started it. The relationship between Scottish industralisation and Glasgow’s astonishing rise through the Virginia tobacco trade has been well explored—the importance of profits (and later loot) from India should not be underestimated.