Here’s tae us history: A review of Scotland: The Global History

Scotland: The Global History, 1603 to the Present, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2022. Murray Pittock.

This is a curiously old-fashioned book – a bit like antimacassars – a Great Scots-Man view of history from 1603. It is, in the words of the author, Murray Pittock, The Global History (of Scotland, that is). You don’t come across many like it, which is possibly just as well.

It’s the kind of book that gets peddled at book fairs to unsuspecting visitors keen to ‘learn about Scotland’. It is published by Yale University Press, so it belongs to a genre of how others see us. It calls to mind that curious book (at least the title is curious) ‘How Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our Modern World and Everything in It’, published in 2001, by American Arthur Herman. To which the only appropriate answer is: aye, right. Pittock acknowledges the book, though he misspells the author’s surname in the first footnote; which is not a great start. 

The book has the usual academic accolades, including one on the front cover by William Dalrymple: ‘spectacularly panoramic and sweeping’. Dalrymple, some readers might recall, signed a celebrity letter in 2014 urging Scots not to vote for Independence. Maybe he has changed his mind; maybe not, but ‘sweeping’ is his term. Of course, that can have negative connotations – playing fast and loose with evidence, and there seems to be a fair amount of that here. 

The timescale runs from 1603 through to the present day, so it’s ambitious. Does it work? To quote Muriel Spark‘s Miss Jean Brodie: ‘For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like’. One might have thought that running a narrative line from the Unions of Crowns and Parliaments, the experience of Empire, through two world wars, welfare state and devolved parliament might have required a fairly sophisticated theory of social and political change.

The early part of the book makes something of the notion of ‘composite monarchies’ (Austro-Hungarian, for example), but the author drops that in the early bits as not strong enough to sustain a thesis; if thesis there be. And that is the problem. It’s really a history of ‘Famous Men’ (women don’t figure much; they’re not deemed famous enough), old-fashioned cultural history with clever asides.

‘Cultural’ here does not mean cultural theory, but the story of the Great and Good of Scotland, or at least those judged to be so. It’s hard to avoid bumping into famous persons who litter the pages, and about whom we get curious detail. For example, one such: ‘the mother of George Abercromby (1735-59) who succeeded Kirkpatrick was a Duff of Braco, from the Earl of Fife’s family’ (p. 98). Presumably it was George who was famous, not his mother, but how else would one learn of his antecedents? 

To help the reader (presumably; we are never told what the point is) there is sundry text shaded in grey, such as ‘diaspora’, ‘the highlands’, ‘Veere’ (Veere?), ‘New Caledonia’, ‘Scottish Constitutional Thinking’, and so on, too numerous to list in this review, and without any explanation as to why they’re coloured in.

There are heroes and villains aplenty – but mainly the former. Nothing on the little people, not even walk-on parts. Covenanters don’t come out well – ‘armed terrorists’ (p. 60)  – but Episcopalians (and Catholics) do much better; Presbyterians, not so much. Jacobites get a fair wind, but whether they were after the British Crown, or an Independent Scotland, is never resolved. And if you are an alumnus of Aberdeen Grammar School (like Pittock), you’ve made it in this book. At one point, we are told that ‘between one-third and two-fifths of pupils of Aberdeen Grammar School opted for imperial careers’ (p. 197), but sadly, no evidence is cited. 

That is one of the problems with the book: the reader frequently asks – how does he know that? – but answer comes there none. Evidence is, to say the least, light; you have to take the author’s word for it far too often. 

It is a self-regarding book, with lots of references to the author’s own work, some of it bizarre. Pittock’s awayday presentation to the Scottish Government’s External Affairs in 2018 is given big licks (p. 450; note 2), and p. 451, note 12, an unpublished essay on ‘The Burns Supper in Hong Kong, China and the Far East’, by one Clark McGinn, who just happens to be one of two dedicatees of the book, and described therein as ‘Global Burnsian and Financier’. The other is Michael Russell, ‘Former Brexit Minister and Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, Scottish Government’ (who presumably appreciated Pittock’s awayday presentation in 2018).

Pittock rushes in to claim that the US Declaration of Independence, 1776, was modelled on the Declaration of Arbroath, 1314, or at least that the signatories ‘knew’ of the former. The author must know that this is a highly dubious claim, but one imagines that it suits his purposes to infer the claim, and the Republican Senator Trent Lott who set up Tartan Day. And Gary Wills is better known as a conservative US commentator than a ‘historian’, surely. 

Pittock is quite sympathetic to ‘Scotland the Brand’, and likes to think that ‘Homecoming’ in 2009 ‘was judged a success’. One wonders by whom, because it was fairly heavily panned, and lost a lot of government – our – money. Pittock is at odds with what he calls ‘continuing distaste for nostalgic flummery among elements [you know who you are, Bella Caledonia] in the country’s intelligentsia’ (p. 412). He traduces David Hesse’s excellent book ‘Warrior Dreams: Playing Scotsman in Mainland Europe’ (2014) as being about ‘white ethnic revivalism’ (p. 415) when it is nothing of the sort. 

The author has truck with the weird notion peddled by Carol Craig in 2003 that Scots suffer (sorry, have suffered; past tense) from a ‘Crisis of Confidence’. The full quote will give a favour of what passes for argument:

Scotland itself has been gradually moving from what Carol Craig identified in 2003 as a crisis of confidence to a much more inclusive and positive sense of self in recent years, though national backbiting, provincialism and self-hatred are by no means extinct, and have indeed received recent reinforcement from the tribalism which is the counterpart of populism, and which is increasingly prevalent throughout Europe, as the political adoption of simple solutions for complex problems finds its natural expression in demonizing those whose “fault” everything is, be they migrants, bankers or governments’ (p. 401).

Phew. And the evidence for all this? ‘Craig, 2003’. Quite apart from being an awful sentence, that contains so many loose threads and assertions, that one hardly knows where to begin. The evidence (the stuff of social sciences) is that there was no evidence of the crisis of confidence to begin with, so just maybe discovering that we were now ‘confident’ is will-of-the-wisp. 

Pittock does rely, at least in the early chapters, on Tom Devine’s scholarly work (‘Sir Tom’, as he is wont to be described here), always properly documented and evidenced. After a while, the reader gives up asking of Pittock’s book: how does he know that? 

The referencing is a bit of a mess. Large gobbits of referencing with some howlers. Bryan S. Gunn is credited with ‘The Scottish Nation at Empire’s End’ (p. 465, note 27), but so also on the same page is Brian S. Glass (note 2) who is also credited with the book. Stuart Maxwell is credited with ‘Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues’ (2012) (p. 467), but so is Stephen Maxwell (whose book it actually is) in note 32 on the same page. All this suggests the book has been put together too quickly and without due care. 

Here and there one gets a glimpse of the author’s desire for evidence: ‘the SNP’s strong showing [post-1999] reflected underlying changes in Scottish society’ (p. 374). Well, yes, but what are these changes, and what brought them about? Shouldn’t we be told? If, however, one writes a book focusing on the Great and the Good (and Not-So-Good), how are we to tell? The odd graph is thrown in (p. 381) but it doesn’t tell us very much. 

The author’s politics show: ‘The Scottish Government has always (even prior to 2007) had a tendency to differentiate itself from England by making more things (things?) free: but is this a rational grounding for the challenging transition to an independent economic policy that follows statehood? (p.395). The SNP is accused on the following page of ‘running the Labour state’, ‘but a Labour state it remains’. There you go.

So what’s its politics?  It sounds like right-wing nationalism of the sort that largely vanished in 1979 when the SNP became ideologically social democratic. Maybe ‘right-wing’ isn’t right; it’s more reactionary, dependent on the story of ‘Great Men’ throughout Scottish history; great deeds, stirring derring-do. A sort of essentialising of the Scottish story running through history from at least 1603, carried on the backs of ‘Great Men’. But it doesn’t convince, and seems oddly old-fashioned. Will this kind of history make a comeback, and possibly antimacassars? Whatever, we are grateful to Pittock for showing us how far we have come in writing about Scotland.


Comments (3)

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  1. 221116 says:

    The peculiarity of Pittock’s book lies in its being a history of the Scottish diaspora rather than of the Scottish nation. Drawing on a goodly amount of data, it charts how expatriates have affected global history over four-and-a-bit centuries of colonisation. I particularly liked the story of how Robert Louis Stevenson championed Samoan tradition by dressing his servants in tartan livery. This seems emblematic of the whole sorry tale of the Scottish diaspora.

    Despite its title, the books narrative begins in 1618 and the Thirty Years War. It continues with a vivid account of our endeavours in politics, science, literature, art, philosophy, and economics that spawned and then globalised the European Enlightenment. He moves with almost postmodern alacrity from the Swedish campaigns of the 1630s to the diplomatic complexities of which the Jacobite risings were little more than footnotes to James McAvoy’s character The Last King of Scotland to the cultural significance of John Byrne’s 80s TV drama, Tutti Frutti. He’s a bonnie dancer.

    Pittock argues that the successful colonisation of the Scottish diaspora rests chiefly on two things: our excellent schooling system and the final defeat of the Jacobite counter-revolution at Culloden. From the Reformation on, our universities churned out graduates that ill-fitted them to the ‘smallness’ of Scottish society and impelled many of them them to seek social, economic, and intellectual satisfaction abroad. The defeat at Culloden, about which Pittock writes superbly, is ‘a world historical moment’ that leads to a big injection of Scots into the British military, large-scale emigration, and ‘an infusion of melancholy’ that is still a key a part of Scotland’s diasporic character.

    There are issues here to make the reader demur. He calls out ‘the crude jingoism of [the] “Wha’s like us?” exceptionalism’ of the Scottish diaspora, to which all ex-nationals and their descendents are susceptible, whatever ancestral homeland to which they trace their lineage.

    All in all, it’s a weird book, which simultaneously celebrates and unmasks the ‘Scottishness’ of the Scottish diaspora and its colonial effects.

  2. florian albert says:

    Any new history of Scotland’s recent past is going into competition with Tom Devine’s ‘ The Scottish Nation’ and, from a global perspective, his ‘To the Ends of the Earth.
    David McCrone’s review suggests that Murray Pittock’s recent book fails in that contest.

    ‘the Declaration of Arbroath, 1314’ Really ?

    1. 221118 says:

      I wonder when the Declaration of Arbroath became ‘the Declaration of Arbroath’ and acquired that historical significance. The letter’s acquisition of that significance is perhaps more historically significant that the letter itself.

      Ain’t history a fascinating multilayered phenomenon?

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