Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself has said,
This is my own, my native land!
—Sir Walter Scott
As the nineteenth century waned, the intellectual capital of the Scottish Enlightenment waned with it. James McCosh was probably that tradition’s last survivor in the field where it all started, moral philosophy. Other isolated giants remained. Alexander Bain, virtually self-educated and the son of a weaver, rose to become professor of logic at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and founder of Mind,Britain’s most important philosophical journal. The University of Glasgow laid claim to one of the two most important physicists in Britain, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin. Aberdeen had the other, James Clerk Maxwell, the father of modern electrodynamics, whose work cleared the way for Einstein’s theory of relativity. In 1890 Sir James Frazer published The Golden Bough, which revolutionized modern anthropology. However, Maxwell had left Aberdeen early in his career for the University of London and then Cambridge. Frazer looked as much to German and French thinkers as he did to the “System of the North,” or Scottish school.
Scotland’s days as the generator of Europe’s most innovative ideas were over. However, she had done her work: the future direction of the modern world, which Scotland had done so much to chart and establish, was now set. What still hung in the balance was the fate of Scotland herself.
In one sense, Scotland had finally arrived—at least as far as Great Britain was concerned. Glasgow was now the industrial workshop of the empire. Its thriving banking and business center boasted an imposing neoclassical architecture of marble, granite, and sandstone to rival that of Edinburgh. Its iron and steel foundries and shipbuilding yards turned out close to one-third of the nation’s total output in each industry. It supplied locomotives and boxcars to Canada, South America, and the rest of Europe, as well as India and Asia. Shipbuilding firms along the Clyde, such as Napier’s, John Brown’s, and Fairfield’s, turned out one-fifth of the world’s total shipping tonnage. They made the British navy the most modern afloat and built the revolutionary new battleship Dreadnought in 1902.
As Glasgow’s population neared the one-million mark, seven out of ten men and women living in the city worked for some kind of industrial manufacturer—including twelve thousand at the new Singer Sewing Machine factory in Clydebank, one of the largest in the world. Other cities, such as Dundee and Paisley, flourished as well. Paisley was home to the largest cotton-thread-making company on earth, Coates-Paton, which dominated nearly 80 percent of the world market. Scotland had become a dominant player in the “global economy” long before the phrase was invented.
Scots dominated British politics, just as they pretty much ran the empire. Westminster saw five prime ministers hold office between Gladstone’s resignation in 1894 and the battle of the Somme in 1916. Three were Scots: Lord Rosebery, Arthur James Balfour, and Henry Campbell-Bannerman; a fourth, Herbert Asquith, was married to a Scotswoman, and sat for Scottish constituencies for his entire thirty-five-year political career.
The election in 1906 was a landslide for the Liberal Party, which owed its existence and credo to Scots. The Liberals took fifty-eight out of seventy-two Scottish seats. Balfour, the defeated Conservative prime minister, who claimed descent from Robert the Bruce, had also had a Scottish chancellor of the Exchequer and a Scottish home secretary. Another future prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, sat in the new Parliament as a member of the rising new Labour Party, which had also been founded by a Scot, Keir Hardie.
Scotland’s landed families were now pillars of Britain’s social and political elite. They sent their sons to England’s finest schools, Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge. Worrying about “scotticisms” in speech and behavior was a thing of the past; Scotland’s ruling class was now indistinguishable from its English counterpart. Archibald Primrose, the fifth Earl of Rosebery, was educated at Eton and Oxford, and married a Rothschild. In addition to being prime minister, he was also a prominent figure in English horseracing and the Turf Club.
The Duke of Buccleuch hunted foxes on his 433,000-acre estates, just like any English squire. Others regularly invited English guests to their Highland castles or Lowland shooting-boxes to join in the annual slaughter of deer, grouse, pheasant, snipe, woodcock, trout, and salmon, which consumed so much of the leisure time of Edwardian upper-class males. The Clearances had left the Highlands devoid of people, but they did leave it a playground for the rich, and a vacation spot for tourists from London and Manchester and Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Yet, by the same token, Scotland’s upper and middle classes were losing that hard-driving entrepreneurial edge which had been a part of their cultural heritage. They increasingly settled into the ideal of the English gentleman. The values of Eton, Cambridge, and Oxford, of the Reform and Athenaeum clubs, and of Lord’s Cricket Grounds steadily replaced those of a grittier homegrown variety. Balfour, who was a founding member of the super-elitist Cambridge Apostles as well as the darling of English upper-crust society, once described a member of his cabinet as “that rare bird, a successful manufacturer who is fit for something besides manufacturing.” Lord Rosebery admitted, “There is no thought of pride associated in my mind with the idea of London” or Britain’s great urban industrial wealth. When Andrew Carnegie proposed giving Scotland’s four universities more than two million pounds for sponsoring new science and engineering programs, he received a stern rebuke from Blackwood’s Magazine, now the voice of genteel British conservatism. “Success for him is the accumulation of dollars. . . . Maybe Mr. Carnegie has never heard the fable of Midas. . . . To get money you must strangle joy and murder peace.” If Carnegie had his way, Blackwood’s warned, “presently the American ideal will be our own.”
The sad truth was that, to many educated Scots, their own culture now seemed more provincial than ever. Scotland’s success had brought with it a sense of disquiet, an increasing feeling that the rewards were not everything that had been promised. Part of it was due to being the “good child” of the United Kingdom, while the “bad child,” Ireland, stole the headlines with the issue of Home Rule. Also, in the two decades before the start of World War I, Scotland learned some unpleasant truths about the costs and consequences of becoming a modern nation in such a rapid and headlong way.
For one thing, for all of Scotland’s industrial growth, poverty remained as intractable a problem as ever. Wages in Glasgow always lagged behind those in the rest of Britain; that was partly what made it so attractive to manufacturers. Quality of life suffered, however. Infant mortality remained higher than in other British cities. Disease and malnutrition haunted the crumbling tenements of Glasgow’s inner city. Scotland’s other industrial cities told similar stories. In Dundee in 1904, for example, one-fifth of the city’s six thousand houses had no toilets or sanitary accommodations. Belatedly, Glasgow’s city authorities began to push large-scale slum clearances and new housing. But the damage had already been done. At the start of the Boer War in 1898, two out of three Glasgow recruits for the British army had be turned away because they could not meet the minimum health requirements. As one writer has put it, “Scotland in the Edwardian era was no place to be poor, sick, aged, or unemployed.”
Farther north, the nightmare of the Highland Clearances was over, although fierce confrontations between crofters and landlords had continued down to the 1880s. Poverty remained the fate of most of those who stayed. Their diet had changed little from almost two centuries earlier—oatmeal porridge, bread and oatcakes, a little beef or mutton. No wonder emigrants continued to stream out of the country in record numbers. In the first decade of the twentieth century, almost a quarter of a million people left Scotland—and not only from the Highlands. Town and rural laborers in the Lowlands realized a much brighter future awaited them in Canada or America; in the fifty years before 1920, in fact, more than half of Scotland’s emigrants headed for the United States.
Scotland had been the first fully literate nation. Its education system, particularly its universities, had once inspired the rest of the English-speaking world. Now it seemed to lag far behind. In 1882 the rector of Edinburgh’s hallowed High School, James Donaldson, bitterly complained that the curricula of Scottish universities were still pretty much what they had been three hundred years earlier. In terms of modern research facilities and laboratories, Donaldson suggested, the Scottish university was “the handloom weaver of the intellectual world.” Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen no longer attracted Scotland’s best and brightest: anyone in pursuit of an advanced degree in the humanities or sciences went to Cambridge, Oxford, or London instead.46
Ten years later the universities tried to update themselves by instituting entrance exams, creating the bachelor of science and honors degrees, and finally admitting women. University students of thirteen or fourteen years old were now a thing of the past; the academic body more closely resembled that of other Western universities. It was not clear, however, whether all this was really for the better. Poorer and less qualified students, who once could have sneaked into Edinburgh and St. Andrews and gotten their university training, now got caught in the mesh of entrance exams. Overall, the Scottish university became more elitist in its orientation, all in the name of higher standards and professional excellence. And still the best and brightest traveled south for their degrees.
Other parts of the education system struggled to keep the old egalitarian ideal intact. In 1872 Parliament created for Scotland the first system of compulsory primary education in Britain, and transferred control of the traditional burgh schools to a new public board, which also provided money so that schools could now abolish students’ fees. One out of seven Scottish children went to secondary school in 1914, compared with one in twenty in England. But the problem of drawing into school those who most needed it, the poorest and most disadvantaged, remained as intractable as ever. Something like 15 percent of Glasgow’s children never saw the inside of a classroom. Increasingly it was government that was called in to help; as with urban renewal and social reform, reform in education steadily passed out of private hands or church-based organizations and into the arms of the state, which meant London.
Scottish businessmen had once led innovations in the printing industry and the book trade. The Edinburgh Review had set the standard for the English-speaking world of serious intellectual culture. The last issue of the Review appeared in 1929. (Blackwood’s managed to hang on until 1980.) Now Scots were pioneers in a new field: the tabloid press. Alfred Harmsworth set up the half-penny-a-copy Daily Mail in 1896, which spawned a host of imitators, such as the Daily Mirror and Daily Express. The best-known Scottish writers were no longer philosophers or political economists or essayists or historians, but masters of the field of fantasy and escapist literature. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island delighted children and adults alike, while Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae put the final touches on the Highland myth Sir Walter Scott had started. Arthur Conan Doyle not only authored the most famous detective of the age, Sherlock Holmes, but a series of science-fiction novels, including The Lost World. A Roman Catholic, Doyle was a champion of spiritualism and seances—a far cry from the hard-headed realism of Hume and Reid. James Barrie led a pack of authors writing sentimental stories about rural Scotland, which critics dubbed “the Kailyard school.” But his most famous work, Peter Pan, with its tale of a talented boy who refuses to grow up, reflected a Scottish intellectual tradition that now seemed to be running in reverse.
Traditional Scottish culture had likewise retreated into self-caricature. Music-hall comedian Harry Lauder had come up from nothing. He had worked at a flax mill in Arbroath at age twelve, and then as a miner. He went on to become the most popular entertainer of the age. But his stories and songs, such as “The Lass o’ Killiecrankie” and “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,” created a Scottish persona of the “ower thrifty wee mannie” with a thick brogue, battered bonnet and kilt and beard, which dominated the outside world’s view of the typical Scot for nearly half a century. Sentimental ballads such as “The Blue Bells of Scotland” and “Loch Lomond” conveyed the impression that Scotland was a land of bekilted lads and lassies who wandered wistfully o’er the glen and sighed for the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Charlie himself, or at least his smooth, youthful visage, graced tins of Walker’s Butter Buscuits. Robert the Bruce helped to sell tartans and scarves.
The commercialization of traditional Highland culture played a crucial role in the formation of the Scotch whisky industry, as well. For centuries Scottish families had distilled their own spirits or uisge beatha, “water of life.” In the eighteenth century it had been the drink of choice of the lower classes, as it continued to be, despite tax excises and temperance campaigns, in the nineteenth. Then Parliament in 1823 lifted the onerous taxes and made owning a distillery legally and financially possible. By 1870 Scottish distillers discovered there was a huge market for whisky south of the border. Two in particular, John Walker and Tommy Dewar, skillfully tapped into it.
John Dewar had worked in a wine shop in Perth before he started his own business, offering whisky in glass bottles instead of the traditional jars or wooden casks. His sons Jimmy and Tommy opened a branch in London in 1885, and exploited the associations between whisky and the romantic land of tartans and bagpipes in their advertising. The symbol of Dewar’s was a Highland drum major with a bearskin bonnet and kilt: in fact, Highland costumes, bagpipes, and kilts became de rigeur for all Scotch whisky advertising for nearly a century. But their “Scotch,” like that of their counterpart John Walker of Kilmarnock, was geared to English tastes. Blended whisky took the husky, peaty edge off the traditional Scottish malts. It made it smoother and more appealing to the southern palate. By the 1890s whisky-and-soda became the preferred drink of the English gentlemen. The Dewars became multimillionaires. Tommy Dewar entered the House of Lords—the first Whisky Lord to do so—and was the third man in Britain to own a motorcar. (The first was the Scottish tea magnate Thomas Lipton; the second was the Prince of Wales.)
The Scottish character did continue to be recognized and admired: its moral discipline, its integrity and honesty, its capacity for hard work and ambition for advancement. But it, too, found itself on the verge of a cultural distortion as the new century dawned. The Scottish Enlightenment had always dubbed man a “social animal,” meaning that interaction with others was indispensable for his or her intellectual and moral development. Adam Smith had even insisted that the opinions of others acted as a kind of moral mirror, without whose reflection we never form a sense of right and wrong. But when carried to extremes, such a view bred in the middle-class Scot of the late Victorian and Edwardian era an acute need to conform to social norms. The emphasis on conformity blocked innovation and creativity in ways that could be stifling, even dangerous. James Barrie put it best with a bitter irony: “The grandest moral attribute of a Scot is that he’ll do nothing which might damage his career.”
As all of Europe mobilized for war in August 1914, believing its soldiers would be home “before the leaves fall,” three of the most important soldiers in the British army were Scots: Field Marshal Lord Robertson, Sir Ian Hamilton of the General Staff, who had been Lord Kitchener’s chief of staff, and General Douglas Haig, later Field Marshal Earl Haig. For more than a century, Scots had been the backbone of the British army. One out of every four officers had been of Scottish birth as early as the 1750s. But what had made them so useful, besides their physical courage and sense of honor, was their daredevil attitude, their willingness to defy the rules as well as the odds. One looked high and low for such qualities in these three men. Hamilton was largely responsible for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in Turkey; Lord Haig presided over the ceaseless slaughter at the Somme, Ypres, and Passchendaele, which sent more than half a million Britons to their deaths. Robertson, despite his own misgivings, refused, out of professional courtesy, to stop him.
Intelligent and conscientious soldiers, Haig, Robertson, and Hamilton had mislaid the habit of independent judgment, the ability to think outside the box. Trained to concentrate on the means, they had lost sight of the ends. They were vivid examples of what Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson had warned might happen in an overspecialized modern society, where “the minds of men are contracted and rendered incapable of elevation”—but now at the top of society rather than the bottom. Thousands of English, Welsh, Canadian, Scottish, Irish, Australian, and Indian soldiers paid the price.
The end of World War I ushered in a period of acute hardship and unemployment for Scotland. World War II revised the picture somewhat, when Scottish factories turned out the Spitfires and Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that won the Battle of Britain. In the 1950s, the great shipyards along Clydeside continued to produce nearly 15 percent of the world’s shipping. Coal, iron, steel, and engineering were as essential to Scotland’s economy as ever, although they were almost all nationalized. The average workingman’s income in 1958 was almost three times what it had been in 1938.
But Scotland’s relish for its ties to a fading empire had begun to sour. As the 1960s dawned, it had no clear sense of direction or inspiration. Scottish doctors were giving way to Indians and Asians as the hardworking footsoldiers of the National Health Service. Whisky, golf, football, and auto racing seemed to sum up its cultural achievements. Then Scotland turned up an unlikely cultural hero: James Bond.
Few people realize that Ian Fleming’s fictional spy was supposed to be a Scot (he even goes to school in Edinburgh), even though his best-known screen interpreter, Sean Connery, is probably the best-known Scot in the world. Fleming himself was of Scottish descent; he certainly modeled Bond after a Scot, Commander Fitzroy Maclean, a leading commando during World War II.
Bond remains in many ways an allegory of how the relations between the Scottish spirit and the contemporary world had evolved in the postwar world. He is born half Scot and half French Swiss. “The one element explains both his puritanical streak,” writes critic Kingsley Amis, “and the granite gift of endurance, while the other makes him fluent in French and German, at home on skis, and a wine lover and gourmet.” Bond is a soldier and servant of empire, like so many generations of Scots, in this case “in Her Majesty’s secret service.” He lives in London and identifies himself with gentlemanly English values: he is deeply patriotic while others see him as impeccably and irremediably British.
But Bond is also stuck in a cultural vacuum. He is made rootless by his profession, and wanders through a world debased and hardened by the Cold War. He sees the world in purely utilitarian terms. In the novels, every detail of scene, food, weaponry, and personal appearance is described with meticulous accuracy. Bond even assesses the physiognomy of his opponents with the cool detachment of his predecessor Sherlock Holmes (who was modeled on one of Conan Doyle’s professors at Edinburgh medical school, the brilliant diagnostician Joseph Bell), as in this passage from Moonraker:
[Hugo] Drax had grown a bushy reddish moustache that covered half his face, and allowed the whiskers to grow down to the level of the lobes of his ears. He also had patches of hair on his cheek-bones. The heavy moustache served another purpose. It helped to hide a naturally prognathous upper jaw and a marked protrusion of the upper row of teeth. Bond reflected that this was probably due to sucking his thumb as a child and it had resulted in an ugly splaying, or diastema, of what Bond had heard his dentist call “the centrals.”
Bond arrives at decisions quickly; we never see him hesitate or agonize over a choice of action. He always manages to keep his cool—even in the most horrific and violent circumstances. He is the embodiment of the Scottish commonsense mind: sure of his judgments, confident of his skills, certain that even if he makes a mistake, he did the best that he could with the available information. Above all, Bond always knows what he wants. His goals are never fuzzy or ambiguous. He views everything, even pleasurable activities such as seducing a woman, beating Drax at cards or Goldfinger at golf, as available means to necessary ends: victory over the Russians, the Chinese, or SPECTRE and SMERSH.
Yet those ends are no longer his own. Despite his courage and physical prowess, he is, to put it bluntly, a hireling. Bond is a professional killer employed by a British spy establishment that was in reality heavily populated by Scots (including the head of the Secret Service, “C,” or Stewart Graham Menzies, on whom Bond’s own boss, “M,” is based). Personal happiness plays no part in the shrunken Bond worldview: in his one attempt at it, his bride, Tracy di Vincenzo, is murdered by his enemies within hours of their wedding. He has become like Adam Ferguson’s vision of commercial society’s soldier or bureaucrat, “made, like the parts of an engine, to concur to a purpose, without any concert of their own,” like ants in an anthill.
James Bond reveals a modernizing spirit that has finally run its course. The Sean Connery films make us think of James Bond as a character from the 1960s, or even ’70s. It is a shock to realize that the first novel, Casino Royale, appeared in 1953, when Winston Churchill was still prime minister and three years after an incident that suggested that an entirely new spirit was beginning to take root in Scotland.
This book began with college students. It now ends with them.
On Christmas Eve of 1950, three Scottish collegians—Glasgow law student Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, and Alan Stuart—broke into Westminster Abbey near Poets’ Corner, not far from the tomb of James McPherson. Passing quietly through the cold, darkened church, they made their way to the Coronation Chair, which for more than six hundred years rested on the Stone of Scone, the ancient symbol of Scottish monarchy. With a grunt and a shove, the young men wrestled the 336-pound chunk of sandstone out of the church and into the trunk of their car driven by a fourth student: teacher trainee Kay Matheson. They then headed north for the border and home.
If the police and press believed at first that the theft was just a college prank, they soon realized their mistake. The four students were Scottish nationalists, and with one stroke they had (symbolically at least) reversed the direction of British history. A new force had entered on the postwar Scottish scene, inspired in part by the success of Irish nationalism and its militant arm, the IRA. It would provide a powerful rallying point for resentment about what had happened to Scotland over the previous century. It also offered a new challenge to the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment and the kind of future it had envisioned.
The story of the Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny—Lia Fail in Gaelic—is in large part the history of Great Britain itself. Steeped in history and legend, it stood for four hundred years as the symbol of the ancient Scottish monarchy. Tradition has it that it was originally the stone on which the Bible’s Jacob laid his head when he dreamed his vision of a ladder to heaven. It then made its miraculous way from Egypt to Ireland, where Saint Patrick supposedly blessed it for Irish chieftains to use for their coronations. According to legend, one chunk of it became the Blarney Stone. In 503, it seems, St. Columba brought another to the monastery at Iona, where it may or may not have been used for crowning local kings. In 843, Vikings swept over Iona. Kenneth McAlpin brought the chunk to the mainland, and eventually to Scone Castle, where he was crowned and where every Scottish king would be crowned until 1292.
England’s King Edward I robbed it from its resting place in 1296, as the triumphant spoils from his victory over the Scots. Since 1306 every English king and queen has been crowned while sitting above the stone; in the words of Dean Stanley, in his Memorials of Westminster Abbey, it is the “one primeval monument that binds together the whole Empire . . . a link to the traditions of Tara and Iona.” And, the tradition says, “empire abides where the stone stays.”
Legends, myths, miracles, and symbols: a far cry from the practical and precise hardheaded world Scotland and the Scots had inhabited since the Act of Union. These are, however, the farther but familiar shores of nationalism, which had convulsed the rest of Europe in the previous century, and which inevitably found its way to Scotland as well.
Scottish nationalism found its roots in a classic British political issue: Home Rule. Inspired by the example of Canada’s successful move to Dominion status, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone decided it was time to give the non-English peoples who actually lived in the British Isles more say over their own destiny. He did not want to break up the United Kingdom any more than the first members of the Scottish Home Rule Association did; the goal was a classic Scottish ideal, of making government more responsive to those who lived under it. Gladstone himself was a son of the Scottish diaspora. His father had moved to Liverpool from Scotland and become a successful businessman and member of Parliament. William Gladstone was, typically for the age, educated at Eton and Oxford rather than Edinburgh. All the same, he retained the Lowland Scot’s faith in free-market capitalism, in a strong evangelical religion, in a high moral tone in public as well as private matters, in the power of education, and in improving the lot and dignity of the common man, whether in Britain or abroad.
“By 1885,” writes historian Keith Webb, “Gladstone was fully converted to Home Rule for both Ireland and Scotland.” Ireland was the more urgent case: unfortunately, Gladstone’s hopes for a peaceful transition to self-government for Ireland ran aground on the rocks of religious and ethnic conflict, and even split the Liberal Party itself. Scottish Home Rule became a back-burner issue, with the failure of Ireland as a warning to anyone trying to undo Westminster’s control over other parts of the United Kingdom.
Home Rule was originally a Liberal Party issue, just as the Liberal Party was Scotland’s principal political party. As the Liberals withered and died after World War I, so did Scotland’s hopes that it might reverse the trend of two centuries and bring some control over its own affairs away from London and back to Edinburgh. Tories were inalterably opposed to any devolution, so Home Rulers turned to the Labour Party—after all, many of its key founders, such as Keir Hardie, were also Scotsmen. But Labour had come to see Scotland’s working class as an essential part of their own political base: they saw Scottish self-rule as political suicide. So in 1928 disgruntled Scots broke from Labour and formed their own Scottish Nationalist Party, or SNP.
The amazing story of the SNP’s rise and eventual triumph in the face of tremendous official hostility and bitter factional infighting closely follows the decline of traditional British politics. The SNP came to fill the void created by the demise of the Liberals and classical liberalism: as the other political parties made class struggle and whether to extend or demolish the welfare state their principal issues, Scottish voters began to turn to a party that, if nothing else, offered a way out of Scotland’s malaise. Whether it was devolution, or autonomy, or outright independence (the SNP leadership often quarreled bitterly over which they wanted), it was at least something different—and something that struck a chord that most Scots deeply felt but had been afraid to acknowledge: a sense of national pride.
The struggle to gain respectability was long and arduous. Hard times and the Great Depression raised the SNP’s appeal, particularly in working-class Glasgow and Edinburgh, while recovery undermined it. By 1939 the SNP was nearly bankrupt. Then, in 1942 John MacCormick broke from the party and set up his own Scottish Union, and then the Scottish Convention. His goal was a separate sovereign party for Scotland, although still within the framework of a union. But MacCormick’s people were also inspired by a cultural Anglophobia: already in the 1930s there were complaints about the “Englishing of Scotland.” Folklorist Ronald MacDonald Douglas went even further and tried to organize an IRA-style military insurrection in 1935 (it ended up a farce and Douglas was exiled to the Irish Free State). In 1949, just a year before Hamilton and his fellow students struck, MacCormick published his Covenant on Scottish self-determination, which looked to the seventeenth-century Presbyterian Covenanters as its inspiration.
Scottish history was starting to come full circle. MacCormick then filed a lawsuit complaining that Britain’s new queen could not call herself Elizabeth II since Scotland had never had a queen named Elizabeth—under the literal terms of the Act of Union of 1707, MacCormick insisted, she should be Queen Elizabeth I of Britain (the case was eventually thrown out). It was news of the theft of the Lia Fail, however, that moved the Scottish nationalist movement from the shadows to center stage. It ignited a major sensation in Scotland as the public cheered the thieves on. After an exhaustive and slightly hysterical four-month hunt, the authorities finally found the stone at Arbroath Abbey. It came back to Westminster in time for Elizabeth II’s coronation (or was it Elizabeth I?), although the Crown declined to prosecute Hamilton and his colleagues—in part, it was rumored, because the English could not offer any proof of ownership in the first place.
Why Hamilton chose Arbroath as the stone’s final resting place was itself significant. It was there in 1320 that a gathering of Scottish bishops and barons declared defiance of the English king and their commitment to the independence of Scotland after the death of Robert the Bruce. The declaration is the Scottish equivalent of the Magna Carta and reads in part:
for as long as a hundred [of us] remain alive we are minded never a whit to bow beneath the yoke of English dominion. It is not for glory, riches or honours that we fight: it is for liberty alone, the liberty which no good man relinquishes but with his life.
The Declaration of Arbroath, like the Lia Fail itself, was now a symbol of a Scotland tired of subordinating its identity to an abstract political ideal, that of Great Britain. Scots, Hamilton and other nationalists were saying, will be North Britons no longer.
In any case, the spell had been broken. Although the SNP continued to languish as a political party in the postwar boom of the 1950s, when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (scion of the great Scottish publishing firm) announced to the British public that, “you have never had it so good,” few Scots believed it. The next two decades confirmed their worst fears. The great Clydeside shipyards began to close, as did the Lanarkshire coal pits and the blast furnaces. Between 1979 and 1981, Scotland lost close to 11 percent of its industrial output and 20 percent of all its jobs. Even the discovery of oil off Scotland’s North Sea coast in 1975 only served to push the British pound higher and ruin Scotland’s exports. Textile production in the Border country fell by 65 percent. Active Scottish coal pits declined from fifteen to just two. “Today ours is a fearful, anxious nail-biting nation,” wrote SNP activist Jim Sillars in 1985.
In the midst of national crisis and decline, the SNP stepped into the breach. Contrary to myth, it was not the promise of nationalizing North Sea oil that propelled the SNP into prominence. It emerged as a mass political party in the late 1960s and early 1970s—long before engineers had any idea of the vast oil reserves located just off the continental shelf from Aberdeen. Instead, it was the failure of either British Labour or Tory conservatism to offer a solution to Scotland’s sense of decline that made the SNP a political powerhouse. “There is no alternative,” Margaret Thatcher would say as she announced the closing of yet another government-run shipbuilding yard or coalfield; yet to millions of Scottish voters there seemed an alternative: Scottish independence and the promise of devolution.
In 1996 a beleaguered government in London tried to appease this sentiment by a symbolic gesture—symbols having become, in this postmodern age, suddenly very powerful. On November 15, two Army Landrovers and a transit van carried the Stone of Scone across the bridge at Coldstream, from England to Scotland and eventually Edinburgh, to great fanfare and the sound of bagpipes and politicians’ speeches. England had renounced its claim to the Lia Fail. Ian Hamilton, the stone’s original thief, had defied authority and tradition as Thomas Aikenhead had. Unlike Aikenhead, however, he had won. Yet now, at age seventy-three and rector of Aberdeen University, Hamilton refused to attend the installation ceremony at Holyrood Palace. His getaway driver, Kay Matheson, did, as did Gavin Vernon, who flew in from Canada. But Hamilton denounced the ceremony as a “charade” and warned “Betty Windsor” not to show her face north of the border. He declared, in tones reminiscent of Knox and James Buchanan: “We are no longer ruled by sovereigns. Sovereignty now rests with the Scottish people.”
Today, in 2001, Hamilton nearly has his wish. Scotland finds itself with a separate Scottish Parliament for the first time in nearly three hundred years, a new Parliament House, a growing computer technology industry, and a burgeoning service sector economy. Some are finding that the hopes they pinned on devolution may go unfulfilled: politicians in a Scottish Parliament turn out to be not much better than the ones in a British Parliament, while Scotland’s larger economic problems, such as unemployment, remain unsolved. Just as becoming a modern industrial nation created as many problems for late nineteenth-century Scotland as it solved, so devolution turns out to be less wonderful than everyone had anticipated.
Of course, any of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment could have told them that. No one can blame Scots for wanting to wrest some control over their lives back from London. In one sense, it fulfills the vision of modern liberty of the great Scots of the eighteenth century: that of increasing the independence and freedom of individuals in as many aspects of their lives as possible. Yet the great insight of the Scottish school was that politics offers only limited solutions to life’s intractable problems; by surrendering her sovereignty the first time in 1707, Scotland gained more than she lost. She has to be careful that, in trying to reclaim that sovereignty, she does not reverse that process.
Scotland, like much of the modern West, has seen the results of too much modernization. It is easy to forget, therefore, the penalties that accrue from having too little. One of the disturbing trends in Scottish intellectual life in the past two decades has been an increasing hostility to the great legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment. Scholars decry the Act of Union as a betrayal of “true” Scottish culture, while others condemn the founders of the Scottish school as sexists and elitists. “Whatever did not square with their philosophy was not knowledge and they loftily dismissed anything they could not understand,” is the way William Ferguson loftily dismisses Hume and Robertson in The Identity of the Scottish Nation.
In 1975 Michael Hechter even published a book that suggested that Scotland shared a common identity with Ireland, India, and the Third World as the exploited victims of English colonialism and “underdevelopment.” Andrew Fletcher has emerged as the new hero of radical Scottish nationalism (forgetting, perhaps, his call for mandatory slavery as the solution for Scotland’s ills), while the Declaration of Arbroath and William Wallace occupy center stage in a Scottish nationalist history that smacks more and more of acute Anglophobia. Some have even ventured onto the further fringes of pan-Celtic nationalism, calling for a Celtic League to draw Scotland into union not only with Ireland and Wales, but also Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man.
Like the legends surrounding the Stone of Scone, these are appeals to myths and historical fantasies. Scotland was never an exclusively Celtic nation: it included Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and Scandinavians from its first medieval beginnings. Likewise, the notion that its history as part of the British Empire is one of systematic abuse and exploitation is absurd: if anything, Scots have been overrepresented as part of its ruling establishment for more than two hundred years. The effort to turn Scots into Irishmen—trying to make them bitter and resentful about their links to Britain—does a disservice not only to historical truth, but to Scotland herself.
The great insight of the Scottish Enlightenment was to insist that human beings need to free themselves from myths and to see the world as it really is. This kind of intellectual liberation, they said, is required for living a free and active life. William Robertson, like Adam Smith and David Hume, cared deeply about human freedom and his homeland. Yet he does not even mention the Declaration of Arbroath in his History of Scotland—not because he was a brainwashed Anglophile, but because he saw it in historical context, as a well-worded defense of the old Scottish feudal regime by its oligarchic beneficiaries. Robertson and his generation of Scottish Whigs welcomed union because they were all too familiar with the Scotland that preceded it; their successors remained grateful for what union had accomplished. From Robertson and Reid to Dugald Stewart and Walter Scott, the Scottish mind understood that genuine human liberty was the by-product of a historical process that ground men like the Arbroath signers into dust—and would also have saved Thomas Aikenhead from the gallows.
That process was the making of the modern world—a process, for all its faults and failures, blind spots and injustices, in which Scotland and Scots have played a crucial part. As Scotland moves toward its new and uncertain future, it must not forget that achievement, any more than it should forget its earlier, premodern past.
As the first modern nation and culture, the Scots have by and large made the world a better place. They taught the world that true liberty requires a sense of personal obligation as well as individual rights. They showed how modern life can be spiritually as well as materially fulfilling. They showed how a respect for science and technology can combine with a love for the arts; how private affluence can enhance a sense of civic responsibility; how political and economic democracy can flourish side by side; and how a confidence in the future depends on a reverence for the past. The Scottish mind grasped how, in Hume’s words, “liberty is the perfection of civil society,” but “authority must be acknowledged essential to its very existence”; and how a strong faith in progress also requires a keen appreciation of its limitations.