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The Oxford Companion to Scottish History.

Michael Lynch (ed)

Oxford University Press 732pp 30 [pounds sterling] ISBN 0 19 211696 7

The New Penguin History of Scotland From the Earliest Times to the Present Day

R.A. Houston and W.W.J. Knox (eds)

Penguin Books 574pp 25 [pounds sterling] ISBN 0 713 99187 9

The Scottish Enlightenment The Scots' Invention of the Modern World

Arthur Herman

Fourth Estate 392 pp 20 [pounds sterling] ISBN 1 84115 275 7

WHAT THESE THREE BOOKS REVEAL, above all, is the flourishing condition of Scottish history. The expertise of over 180 contributors has been combined for the Oxford Companion alone. They have been recruited from at least seven Scottish universities (and some nine elsewhere), as well as other educational institutions and public bodies involved in preserving and investigating Scotland's past. Another thirteen scholars wrote chapters for Penguin's History of Scotland published in association with the National Museum of Scotland. Although The Scottish Enlightenment is written by a single author, he depends heavily on secondary sources, most of which have been published during the last three decades.

The re-opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 is an event to which historians contributed indirectly, through their production of versions of Scotland's pre- and post-Union pasts which strengthened Scots' self-confidence during the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Scotland's new-found but incomplete independence has also benefited Scottish historians by forcing them to take stock, stimulating the search to know whence Scotland has come, what the modern nation is and whither it might go.

But too many school-leavers have only a smattering of knowledge of Scotland's history and much of that has been drawn from Hollywood, Braveheart, Rob Roy -- and other less than accurate representations of Scotland's past. The wider public is subject to similar influences, although recent opportunities to widen popular understanding of Scottish history have been seized by those sections of the media who have recognised that history-hunger has market potential.

The commercial success of these volumes will depend on their accessibility not only to teachers and students but, more importantly, to general readers. Hitting the right note is not easy: a recent BBC TV series on Scottish history, In Search of Scotland, was criticised in some circles as being too elementary. The book that accompanied the series, however, was pitched at a higher level and is selling well. Two of the current volumes are aimed at a similar but increasingly crowded market.

All three books are attractively produced and, in the main, well-written. Both the Oxford Companion and the History of Scotland range from prehistory to the present. The Oxford Companion provides a treasure-trove of informed entries, some of which are lengthy essays of a high calibre (`culture', for instance is given forty-four pages, forty-eight if `respectable' and `rough' culture are included), while others are covered in a single paragraph. This book will become the main point of entry for both serious and casual readers of Scottish history; it can be read for pleasure and information in its own right or, more likely, used as a reference tool, for occasional consultation.

Although multi-authored volumes are frequently marred by an uneven quality of writing and coverage, the editors of the History of Scotland encouraged their contributors to examine specific themes, thereby ensuring continuity through the volume. Happily, topics such as religion and women make frequent appearances.

Most of the chapters draw on recently published research and the best include new archive-based material. David Ditchburn and Alastair MacDonald's sparkling chapter on medieval Scotland is a case in point. There are irritations and disappointments, however. As might be expected, Bruce Lenman's eloquent, flowing chapter on Scotland from 1707 to 1832 is laced with provocative, penetrating, descriptions of contemporary figures: George Drummond, for example, a key figure in the emergence of Enlightenment Edinburgh, is for Lenman `a government nark and crooked real-estate manipulator ... a reliable placemen and sycophant [whose] ... sanitised post-humous image is one of Scotland's great whited sepulchres'.

Lenman is superb on the `people above'. He has dutifully included a section on women in eighteenth-century Scotland. But there are too few traces of the labouring people (whom the editors call the `neglected masses', important components of their ambitious aim of telling the history of the Scottish people as a whole). Where Lenman does pay them any attention he singles out -- twice -- the coal miners and relates what is now very much an older `pessimistic' interpretation of the status and condition of a group of men and women who were, in some senses, virtual slave's. In cases like this, where there is a strong alternative view (on this occasion partly developed by one of the volume's editors), it would have been helpful if the existence of an historiographical divide had been flagged. Readers too might have been told that the colliers' `Emancipation Act' of 1775 was partly designed to combat combinations of workers, a growing concern for thrusting Scots entrepreneurs, as well as being inspired by Enlightenment thinking on customary restraints on trade. This would have provided readers with firmer evidence of the often-overlooked connections between the Scottish Enlightenment and the commercialisation of Scottish society at all levels. The complex role of the British state in Scottish modernisation requires to be emphasised.

One compelling fact of Scottish history is that often it was overseas that the nation's sons -- and fewer daughters -- made their mark. Fewer females than males left Scotland. By the mid-Victorian period there were only seventy-seven females in the age group most likely to marry for every hundred males, a much lower ratio than in England. All these volumes emphasise the scale of Scottish emigration. The Oxford Companion's editor, Michael Lynch, takes note of the one-fifth of Scottish males who served in foreign armies in the 17th and 18th centuries, while in the History of Scotland Graeme Morton and Bob Morris underline the scale of the exodus of ambitious Scots in the 19th. It is paradoxical that so many Scots shaped other parts of the world while those remaining were unable to influence their native environment enough to make the country a more attractive place in which to remain.

A prominent theme of these books is Scotland's internationalism, not only the influence of Scots emigrants overseas but also the indelible impact of foreign influences on the nation's development -- the Picts, Romans, Vikings, the French, the Dutch, and others including the English. The marks left by these peoples on the landscape, in place names, language and culture put in perspective the recent Irish influence which, albeit important, was but one of the many external sources to enrich Scottish society.

These three volumes also demonstrate how the core values of the Enlightenment in Scotland -- order, tolerance, rationality and progressive improvement -- had potency not only at home and in the rest of Britain but also in Europe and the Americas. Arthur Herman celebrates the massive impact of Scots on America from the days of James VI (oddly, Herman describes him as James I). The movement culminates in the creation of Dunfermline-born Andrew Carnegie's Carnegie Steel Company, `Adam Smith's capitalism on a truly gigantic scale'.

Keith Brown concludes his chapter in the History of Scotland by remarking that politicians and others in the public gaze in Scotland `continue to appropriate Scottish history to serve their own ends', emphasising the need for Scots to understand for themselves the history of crucial events in the nation's past. With the triumphs there have been tribulations, and not all that is Scottish is a matter of pride. It is not only Scots who can learn the lessons of history from these volumes. For those unfamiliar with Scottish history any one of these three books is a promising place to start.

Christopher Whatley is the author of Bought and Sold for English Gold? Explaining the Union of 1707 (Tuckwell Press, 2001)
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Author:Whatley, Christopher A.
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2002
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