World Was Their Haggis
By Steve Forbes
bestseller a few years ago told us how the Irish saved civilization
during the Dark Ages. Now comes a book that explains how Scotland
gave us modern civilization. An exaggeration? Not by much, as
this absorbing history amply documents. Even those of us predisposed
to such a thesis (my Scottish-born grandfather and Forbes magazine
founder, B.C. Forbes, came to these shores at the turn of the
last century) will be surprised to learn how this climate-challenged,
resource-poor, often overpopulated land laid the cultural and
commercial foundations of the modern era.
was a starving, poverty-stricken nation at the beginning of the
18th century when it was forced into a union with England, a union
many Scotsmen found oppressive. Over the next 150 years, however,
there was hardly a facet of Western life -- the Enlightenment,
theology, the American Revolution, education, medicine, political
reform, philosophy, law, economics, engineering, literature, commerce
-- in which the Scots didn't play a leading role, if not the leading
accomplishments are even more remarkable given that English was
a second language for most Scots during this period. Well into
the 19th century, Scots who moved to England were routinely ridiculed
for their accents and for lapsing into Scottish phrases or words.
glance at a list of notable Scots gives us a flavor of what this
supposedly subjugated nation achieved. David Hume was a giant
in philosophy, reshaping our understanding of politics and morality.
His notion that "the overriding force in all our actions
is... the desire for self-gratification. In order to survive,
society has to devise strategies to channel our passions in constructive
directions" is one we grapple with, for good or ill, today.
Frances Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson and other
names less well known to the lay person also made critical contributions
in philosophy and historiography.
"How the Scots Invented the Modern World"
(Crown, 392 pages, $25.95) James Boswell penned the finest biography
in the English language. Adam Smith became synonymous with free-market
economics. James Watt gave us the modern steam engine, the true
instigator of the Industrial Revolution (like many Scots, he improved
someone else's invention, widening its applicability). Robert
Adam revamped architecture, promoting a neo-classical look and
emphasizing the importance of interiors. John McAdam devised what
became known as the macadamized road.
Kames described what he believed are the four stages in the evolution
of civilization: hunter/gatherer; pastoral nomadic; agricultural;
and commercial society. He viewed history as a work of progress,
a theme subsequently taken up by Englishman Edward Gibbon, Scotsman
Thomas Macaulay and others.
Herman notes that in medicine the Scots, unlike the English, believed
in "close clinical observation, hands-on diagnosis, thinking
of objects such as the human body as a system -- not so different
from the practical approach of engineers such as James Watt."
Cutting-edge physicians were schooled in Edinburgh, including
Richard Bright, Thomas Addison and Thomas Hodgkin, "each
of whom gave his name to the disease he was the first to diagnose."
Scots were the first literate nation in Europe. They advanced
education by defining it into firm fields of discipline. One early
and enduring fruit of the Scottish Enlightenment is the Encyclopaedia
Britannica. Sir Walter Scott invented the modern historical novel.
The universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh were hothouses of philosophical
debate, and the Edinburgh Review was "for more than a century...
the most politically influential, the most intellectually exciting,
and the wittiest reading matter in the English-speaking world."
in the Constitution
made their mark overseas as well. Immigrant John Witherspoon took
over the presidency of what is now Princeton University. His less-than-exalted
view of human nature was lapped up by student James Madison and
is reflected in the division of power and the checks and balances
embedded in the U.S. Constitution.
Scots played important roles in developing Canada, Australia and
New Zealand. They took the lead in creating a new empire for Britain,
particularly after the American Revolution, starting with India.
The Scots saw this imperialism not as a mission of conquest but
rather as an opportunity to display the Lord Kamesesque steps
needed to achieve true civilization. One Scottish imperialist
said that the empire's "most desirable death" in India
would be "the improvement of the natives reaching such a
pitch as would render it impossible for a foreign government to
surprisingly, given their violent warrior tradition in the Highlands
(clans were perpetually fighting one another or at least stealing
each other's cattle), the Scots were a formidable presence in
the British Army.
men of the North were shrewd marketers. Smart distillers such
as Tommy Dewar and John Walker realized that their English neighbors,
not to mention the Americans, didn't much like the traditional
Scottish malts. They responded by making whiskey "smoother
and more appealing to the Southern palate." And Dewar exploited
"the association between whiskey, romantic lands, tartans
and bagpipes with advertising."
Scots were powerful figures in finance. And Andrew Carnegie's
steel company, which became the core of U.S. Steel, was the first
fully integrated industrial enterprise.
is fascinating stuff, and in the aftermath of Sept. 11 it's more
than just "history." Western diplomats and policy makers
are asking themselves whether Islam can find a constructive place
in the modern world. Scottish history shows that a traditional
culture can adapt and thrive in modern times.
great insight of the Scottish school was that politics offers
only limited solutions to life's intractable problems," Mr.
Herman explains. The Scots "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... and how a
strong faith in progress also requires a keen appreciation of
Scots didn't simply yearn for a mythical past. They romanticized
it and made it into great literature (Walter Scott being the most
famous example). And they modernized as they did so. They demonstrated
how people can live with seeming contradictions between a premodern
past and a fast-paced, tradition-shattering present without sinking
into apathy, nihilism or alienation. "The Scots became English
speakers and culture bearers, but remained Scots. Instead of forgetting
their roots they acquired new ones. Men such as Boswell, Hume
and Robertson freely conceded the superiority of the English culture
so that they could analyze it, absorb it and ultimately master
it." They practiced "reverse cultural imperialism."
Forbes is president and CEO of Forbes Inc. and editor in chief
of Forbes magazine.
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