When one thinks of Scotland, the first thing that is apt to come to mind is the violence and turbulence that characterized it during most of its history. It is at once a saga of kings and desperate men—Duncan meanly slaughtered in the keep of his host and vassal Macbeth; Robert Bruce stabbing his rival the Red Comyn in the church at Dumfries; the Earl of Moray, Mary Stuart’s ambitious half-brother, shot from ambush in 1570 by a member of the Hamilton family in the streets of Linlithgow; the harassment of the Covenanters, groups of Presbyterians who took oaths to defend Scotland against English Anglicanism, in the notorious Killing Time of Charles II. It is also a tale of feckless gallantry and lost causes, in which victories like Bannockburn, where in 1314 a Scottish army led by Bruce defeated an English army twice its size, were always outnumbered by crushing setbacks like Flodden in 1513 and Culloden in 1746, in both of which the English inflicted devastating defeats.1
Arthur Herman, a former professor of history at Georgetown University, is not unaware of this melancholy record, but his attention is fixed on another story and another Scotland. He is intent on demonstrating how the inhabitants of a land that in 1700 was Europe’s poorest independent country created the basic ideals of modern life, which he equates with democracy, technology, and capitalism, and how starting in the eighteenth century those ideals transformed their own culture and society and the lands to which they traveled. Herman’s exuberant title, which will strike some readers as intended only to shock, is in fact meant quite seriously, and his book is a well-argued tribute to Scottish creative imagination and energy.
He starts by reminding us of modern Scotland’s debt to the Reformation. It had been the ambition of the sixteenth-century religious reformer John Knox to turn the Scots into God’s chosen people and Scotland into the new Jerusalem, and something of that spirit survived, in secular form, in the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Knox’s Presbyterian Church, moreover, had the most democratic system of church government in Europe, and the National Covenant of 1638, signed in protest against Charles I’s prayer book, was an early version of democracy in action.
Equally important was Knox’s call in 1560 for a national system of education, which was elaborated by a number of statutes in the course of the next century, notably the Scottish Parliament’s “Act for Setting Schools” in 1696. By the beginning of the eighteenth century Scotland had become Europe’s first literate society, with a male literacy rate 25 percent higher than that of England. Herman writes that “despite its relative poverty and small population, Scottish culture had a built-in bias toward reading, learning and education in general. In no other European country did education count for so much, or enjoy so broad a base.” This was notable in the case of Scotland’s universities, which were distinguished enough to draw students from across Protestant…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.