Book review: The Oxford Handbook Of Modern Scottish History

Picture: Donald MacLeod
Picture: Donald MacLeod
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The French thinker Jean-François Lyotard defined the postmodern condition as “distrust towards meta-narratives” – in other words, that the “grand narratives” of history, whether conceived of as the rise of capitalism, the triumph of reason or the inevitability of democracy, are treated with a degree of scepticism.

The Oxford Handbook Of Modern Scottish History

Picture: Getty

Picture: Getty

edited by TM Devine and Jenny Wormald

Oxford University Press, 720pp, £95

This erudite yet accessible volume on Scottish history from the early modern period to the present day is thoroughly imbued with Lyotard’s insight.

Scotland has had more than its fair share of grand narratives. We have had the myth of Scotland as a backwards, poor, underdeveloped nation that required redemption through the 1707 Union of Parliaments, and received the Enlightenment and the Empire as its reward. We have had the myth of persistent patriotism shading into nationalism across such diverse groups as Reformers, Covenanters, Jacobites, lairds and trade unionists which made devolution (and perhaps independence) predestined. We have even had contradictory myths. The Kirk is, on one hand, the cradle of democracy and the Welfare State, and an essential component in the creation of constitutional monarchy; and on the other, a repressive sect of fundamentalists comparable with the Taliban, from whose joyless grip the country has only recently slipped. It is to the credit of the editors that this volume treats all these stories of possible Scotlands with equal incredulity.

It is extremely refreshing that this collection of essays manages to negotiate between the Scylla of treating Scottish institutions and politics as somehow pale imitations of their English counterparts and the Charybdis of treating them as exceptional and without parallel in the rest of the world. This approach is seen best in Daniel Szechi’s excellent essay on “Scottish Jacobitism in its International Context”.

Firstly, he proposes that “despite the very real ideological divisions … the Jacobites never separated from the rest of Scottish society. Kinship, friendship, and business complicated political commitment on both sides, and intermarriage never ceased”. The past is more complex and contradictory than the harsh outlines of political theory presumes: he cites the wonderful paradoxical cries of the people of Kelso – “No Hannoverian! No Popery! No Union!”. One wonders quite what they would support. Szechi then provides a European context by comparing French support for Charles Edward Stuart with the relationship between Louis XIV and Prince Ferenc Rákóczi, who rebelled against the Hapsburgs in the name of Hungarian liberty. The Scotland that successive essays illustrate is both part of a wider picture and yet dealing with situations that are specifically its own.

The opening piece on the Scottish environment, by TC Smout, is typically judicious. Part of the brief was to highlight the areas where more research might feasibly be undertaken, and time and again, what emerges as an urgent priority is the need for “micro-histories”. Against the Bruce, Mary and Charlie sweep beloved of TV historians, what is required is “fine grain” analyses sensitive to the nuance of local experience. Only a healthy parochialism can counter the grandiose claims of ideology.

Our more complex understanding of Scotland is reflected in the decisions about the scope of the book. “Modern” Scotland does not begin with 1707, or even 1603: neither of those events is explicable outside of an already existing set of religious, political and cultural norms. The essay on the Renaissance by Andrea Thomas highlights this. The very idea that Scotland had a Renaissance was unthinkable a few generations ago – indeed, when I did my finals at Oxford, the only paper devoted to Scotland was entitled “Scottish Literature Up to 1603”, and the essay question was C S Lewis’s contention that the Reformation may have been good for religion but it was a disaster for culture. Thomas’s piece goes some way towards re-establishing that there was a thriving and outward-looking culture under the later Stewarts (though I was curious that Gavin Douglas’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid was rightly described as “fine”, but no mention was made that it was also the first translation of Virgil into the vernacular: a singular instance of Scotland being far in advance of the rest of Europe). That said, even more might be done to counter the idea of Scotland’s cultural backwardness in the 16th, and, even more so, the 17th centuries. The Reformation was carried out in poetry, dramas, histories and music as much as it was thundered out of pulpits, and the prose of Knox and Melville (as well as Rutherford, Calderwood, Spottiswoode and others) is due a proper reappraisal.

As the book approaches the 21st century, the conflict between “nationalist” and “unionist” versions of historiography becomes more pronounced. It is telling that one of the historians most frequently referred to in the bibliographies is Colin Kidd, whose Subverting Scotland’s Past and Union and Unionisms have done so much to revitalise thinking about these issues and move the debate beyond dichotomous thinking. Iain McLean offers a succinct and fair-minded appraisal in “Challenging the Union”, including by far the best answer to the West Lothian Question I have yet read: the answer is, he says “because that is what asymmetric devolution entails”.

The book also reveals perhaps the most understudied aspect of Scottishness: the English. David McCrone’s final chapter has two statistics that require hard thinking: the largest minority group in Scotland is the English (400,000 or 8 per cent of the population) – and 800,000 Scots are resident in England. Although Hugh MacDiarmid, the titanic herald of the “Scottish Renaissance”, could claim that Scotland was culturally disenfranchised at the start of the last century, seen from another perspective – that of London – Scots such as Buchan, Barrie, Conan Doyle and Mackenzie, not to mention Lord Reith were at the heart of culture.

When The Oxford Handbook To Modern Scottish History arrived on my desk, I mischievously wondered whether there was an editorial meeting at Oxford University Press to discuss delaying it for a few years. After all, one way or another, we will be adding a new chapter to our history in 2014, and the Handbook may have seemed like Hamlet with the role of the Prince omitted by design. By the time I finished it, however, it seemed even more important that the book came out before 2014. There are ongoing debates which will shape Scotland’s sense of itself whatever the outcome of the independence referendum.