Michael Fry: Scots can recapture global admiration

IT’S not impossible that Scotland could once again recapture global admiration as in the 18th century, writes Michael Fry.
A Higher World, Scotland 1707-1815 is Michael Fry's new book. Picture: Neil HannaA Higher World, Scotland 1707-1815 is Michael Fry's new book. Picture: Neil Hanna
A Higher World, Scotland 1707-1815 is Michael Fry's new book. Picture: Neil Hanna

We have seen the eyes of the world on Scotland this autumn, which made a pleasant change, whatever you thought about the result of the referendum.

But there was a time the world’s eyes were often on Scotland – in the 18th century, when, as the French philosopher Voltaire said, “at this day there come to us from Scotland rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening”. Indeed, “we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”.

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Voltaire was a wit as well as a philosopher, and he meant his remark to be funny. Most Frenchmen in his time – come to that, most Englishmen – thought of Scotland as a savage country, mountainous and stormy, with hairy and kilted natives. To connect them with rules of taste and ideas of civilisation seemed bizarre.

Yet usually Voltaire’s barbs were also based in some truth.

He would have had a good picture of the actual level of civilisation in Scotland from all the Scots who went to see and talk to him at his home of Ferney, situated just across the Swiss frontier from his homeland so that King Louis XVI’s police could not arrest him.

The list stretched from David Hume to James Boswell, from the sublime to the ridiculous, a good cross-section at any rate of the nation’s brightest and best.

Epic poetry, then? Certainly James MacPherson’s Ossian, whether or not an authentic relic of the remote Celtic past, was the most famous epic poem of the age, a wellspring of the Romanticism that would define a future era of European history.

And gardening? Again, Scottish gardeners were everywhere in demand (the first US president, George Washington, employed one at Mount Vernon in Virginia) for their skill at making plants grow in places where they ought not to be growing.

I have reached this point without even mentioning the Enlightenment. There was probably something about the Scottish Enlightenment that especially appealed to Voltaire, an easy and tolerant man, despite his acid tongue, compared to the brittle and intellectual French Enlightenment or the idealistic and authoritarian German Enlightenment.

The Scottish Enlightenment, nicest of them all, was an affair of good cheer, good drink and good talk, irresistible to the many foreigners who flocked here to partake of it. They came from as far away as America and Russia, and when they went home again they spread the great ideas round the world.

It is the humanity of the Scottish Enlightenment I seek to bring out in my new book, A Higher World, Scotland 1707-1815 (Birlinn, £25).

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To illustrate it, let me compare two figures who are not normally compared, Robert Burns and Adam Smith. They probably never met, though when Burns first came to Edinburgh, he stayed in the Lawnmarket, while Smith was working as a commissioner of customs in what is now the City Chambers. So near and yet so far – but perhaps they were closer than we usually think.

For the humanity of Burns, it is hardly necessary to advance any argument. He is the man of the people rather than (as poets often like to be) the lonely pioneer, because this status satisfies in him his natural instinct for generosity and inclusion.

We love Burns not for his incoherently contradictory opinions, ranging from the Jacobite to the Jacobin, but as a poor farmer’s son from Ayrshire who had an uncanny connection with all our cares and wishes for a better life: “It’s coming yet for a’ that, that man to man the world o’er shall brothers be for a’ that.”

It may seem weird to suggest there is much of a link here with Adam Smith, generally regarded as the apostle of capitalism.

Yet his great book The Wealth of Nations abounds not just with sympathy for the common man. It is filled, too, with useful examples of what the common man, if also a man of sense, should look out for in life if he wants to make the material best of it (not a matter to which even Burns could be indifferent).

Smith is particularly vigilant against examples of collusion between politicians and businessmen, in what today we call rip-offs. He writes: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Smith did not live into the age of the lobbyist, but he had already got the general idea.

He added that when businessmen put to government some wonderful new scheme of overwhelming benefit to the public, we should always remember that “it comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed the public”. That also seems a perfect description of their role in the Scottish referendum.

These are just two of the high standards, in poetry and in political economy, that Scotland set in many fields in the 18th century. They gave this small nation its one era of truly global significance. Never again was Scotland to be so exemplary – though perhaps we need to wait to see what yet may happen in the 21st century.