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History of Scotland - Modern Scotland

My great aunt, Stella McKellar, shared my birthdate. She was 70 years old on the day I was born and died when I was 26. I reflected then on her lengthy life and wondered what had been happening in the world when she was 26. It was 1912, the year the Titanic sank.

The sinking of the Titanic can be a metaphor, if we like, for the waning of the British Empire, the rise of America, and the end of an era - the era of aristocratic rule and unbridled imperialism.

After the Act of Union in 1707, the Scottish aristocracy fled to England, eager to gain new titles and preferments at court. Their allegiance, as always and inevitably, was to their own interests and their own class. In time, there came to be no cultural or national distinctions among the nobility of the British empire. Later, this same process would repeat itself in the defection of wealthy businessmen, eager to gain "aristocratic" social status through marriage and title.

In America, we pride ourselves on a classless society. This is nonsense. Every society is a class society - here in America class is based on wealth. In Britain it was (and to an extent still is) based on birth. But here is the major difference between our countries during the period 1707 - 1945: The largest class in America was the middle class and the middle class had the vote.

In Great Britain, the middle class was smaller and had no vote. The largest class was the poor. In all of Scotland in the early 1800s, it is estimated that only 5,000 men had the vote. Think about that.

So, the wealthy and high-born ruled the British Empire. Their aim was to make Great Britain the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth and they succeeded. For many, many people these years of technological and industrial advancement were highly beneficial. The middle class grew and many low-born men of diligence and intelligence achieved great things. Scotland prospered with the draining of the Clyde near Glasgow, becoming shipbuilders for the world. The rise of rail travel created the heyday of the Scots iron and coal industries. These are the years where the Scots built their reputation as engineers, scientists, astute businessmen, statesmen and remarkably talented military men.

Yet, the Scots bled. They bled their people around the world - United States, Canada, Australia.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Highland chiefs found they couldn't make any money off their lands with the clan system no longer in place (it was a subsistence system anyway). So, they leased their lands to the sheep farmers and the tenants had to go. Some of the people were forced to move to unproductive lands near the sea to participate in the extremely lucrative kelp farming business (a residue was used in military manufactures during the Napoleonic Wars). When the bottom fell out of this market after 1815, more had to go. This process continued for about 25-50 years and is known as the Highland Clearances.

The Highlands were affected in the same way as Ireland during the Potato Famine of the 1840s. Many died, more emigrated. After the turn of the 20th century, the iron and coal industries were about played out. The expense of mining made the product uncompetitive in the world market (eg, the US). More unemployment, more poverty, more emigration.

Those who could afford it and had the courage left for the New World. Others flocked as unskilled labor to Glasgow and other cities. Throughout these years, the underclass of unskilled labor in Britain suffered unbelievable hardship and inhuman living conditions. "Decent people" simply avoided huge sections of London for a hundred years. Historical studies actually show that prior to World War I, the English aristocracy was taller and had a much longer lifespan than other classes.

Because Britain (and all of Europe for that matter) had lived with an aristocratic class system for well over a thousand years, the mindset of the ruling class was different than what we find here in the United States. It is a natural human failing to regard the poor as somehow deserving of their status. Here, many rationalizations were used to justify slavery. However, America was built on poor immigrants and we have always granted the inherent equality and capabilities of all people (okay, it took a while to include everyone, but we've always been moving in that direction).

In Britain, the ruling classes genuinely believed they were superior intellectually and, more importantly, in terms of leadership to the mass of the people. They really believed it was their God-given task to rule (born to rule). I am belaboring this point for two reasons:

First, socialism and trade unionism became much more pervasive, violent, and long-lasting in Europe than in America. Western European governments today provide much more social support and higher taxes than in the United States, and that is the outgrowth of the failure of the dominant class to provide relief when they had the chance. Due, I believe, to the fact that the ruling class simply balked, balked and continued to balk at giving the people a voice in government and any measure of self-rule until the point of complete social overhaul was reached, we see a social system in Europe today that exceeds anything currently acceptable to the American people.

Second, Scotland was hit far harder than England by all the vicissitudes of economics and poverty right up to the present time. There are several reasons for this. When Scotland and England were joined, Scots gained economic opportunity, but still had to come up with their own capital (of which there was little), so they were behind "off the mark" so to speak. Additionally, England never treated Scotland as anything but an unloved stepchild. For example, if there was an economic downturn and companies needed to scale back, they would naturally (for them) close down operations further from the hub of London, eg, the Scottish branches. Most social welfare was voluntary charitable giving; naturally more was given where the rich actually lived.

For all these reasons and more, Scotland's standard of living, while rising throughout this period, never matched England's. As the franchise was slowly extended, a disparity can be observed between voters in Scotland and England - far more Scots consistently voted first Liberal and then Labour (after 1900) than they did Conservative. In fact the first Labour MP to sit in parliament was a Scot, James Keir Hardie.

But while the Labour party sought to improve conditions for the working class, their outlook was "British" and they, too, viewed Scotland as a part of Britain. There was not even a Secretary of State for Scotland from Culloden to the 1890s. All issues were taken in context of what was best for the "nation" as a whole, without considering Scotland's needs in particular.

So where was Scots nationalism in all this? Well, for many (especially in the middle and upper classes) it simply lapsed. The lowland Scots had enough in common with the English (language, religion, trade) that they never took the route of Ireland, bloodshed was avoided, and up until the present day many would prefer union to an independent Scotland simply for practical and economic reasons.

Scottish culture is a different story and was saved through the work of two great literary sons of Scotland - Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Composing hundreds of poems and songs (set to traditional Scottish tunes) in the late 1700s, Burns almost single-handedly saved the Scots language and personal pride. For a young man of short life and profligate habits, there is no underestimating his importance to the survival of Scots culture. Sir Walter Scott both saved and immortalized (albeit exaggerating) Highland culture, rehabilitating the image of the clans in the early years of the 19th century.

In the early 20th century, Scottish culture and language was again revived by poets and authors such as Hugh MacDairmid. In the past 50 years, there has been a tremendous revival of interest in Celtic music and poetry, resulting in efforts to save the Gaelic language as well.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Scottish nationalism survived "underground" but was of little interest to most, as their concerns revolved around practical issues of voting rights and social reform. The idea of "working within the system" held true right up to the 1990s.

But the power of a small but vocal group is indispensable in seeking real change. The Scottish National Party (SNP) was formed in the late 1920s with Home Rule as their goal. For years, they had about as much success as the Green Party has currently in the US. However, they kept the issue of Home Rule alive in Great Britain for decades and their agitation eventually won the hearts and minds of the Scottish people.

In the 1960s and 70s, Scotland was in dire economic straits and many Scots felt they couldn't afford Home Rule. The finding of oil in the North Sea changed that picture and made self-rule seem more of a practical possibility, yet not enough were convinced and a 1970s referendum failed. During the 1980s, the Tory policies of Margaret Thatcher produced prosperity in England, but great economic difficulties in Scotland, particularly for workers in heavy industry, and many more came to desire Home Rule.

Since Labour (the majority party in Scotland) had no chance to take the government from the popular (in England) Thatcher, Scotland's Labour Party began to think Scotland might indeed be better off "on her own" where at least they could control the government. Additionally, a new group, separate from the SNP, began a "Campaign for a Scottish Assembly" calling on Scots of all parties to join hands in a Constitutional Convention.

When large political parties see which way the wind is blowing, they are quick to change their tune. Labour jumped on the bandwagon and dominated the Convention. On the far right and far left, neither the Tories nor the SNP participated. National feeling took a profound upswing and there were many rallies in favor of disunion. Once Labour took up the cause, the Scots had their opportunity. In 1997, they voted for Home Rule, and the Scottish Parliament met for the first time since 1707 on July 1, 1999. However, in an historic vote on September 18, 2014, the Scots turned out in record numbers to reject independence and remain a part of the United Kingdom.

For the members of the Scottish National Party, there is yet much work to be done. Scotland is not a commonwealth country like Canada, free in all respects except allegiance to the Crown. England is still in charge of foreign affairs, defense, monetary policy, and some social policy (social security, for example). Rather than a "Prime Minister", Scotland has a "First Minister".

The policies of the Scottish government would be considered "leftist" here in America. Their priority is to renew their people, economically and socially. It will be an uphill climb, due to the ravagements of both emigration (Scotland's population is virtually the same now as in 1900) and the social problems afflicting the urban poor everywhere in this century. Their approach may be different from ours, yet their goals are the same - unity of spirit, preservation of tradition, and individual freedom.

The legacy of Scotland's people, far vaster in numbers throughout the diaspora than in their homeland, is exemplified in the government and ideals of the United States, which American Scots helped shape and form. In turn, the United States has influenced the governments of English and non-English speaking countries all over the world. Now, for the first time in over 300 years, the Scots themselves have the opportunity to share in the gift of freedom they have so generously given others.

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Additional Resources: Modern Scottish History Books

New Penguin History of Scotland
The New Penguin History of Scotland

A must-have for any student of Scottish history. From prehistoric times through the present, each chapter is written by an expert in the field.

Scotland: The Story of a Nation
Scotland: The Story of a Nation

by Magnus Magnusson

An engaging, lively history of Scotland - heavy on the swashbuckling. A great read.

The Road to Home Rule
The Road to Home Rule

By Christopher Harvie and Peter Jones

Well-illustrated history of 20th century Scotland's rising nationalism. Fascinating, readable, a fabulous portrait of a nation that couldn't die.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World
How the Scots Invented the Modern World:...

By Arthur Herman

This book is a best-seller and no wonder - talk about "ego feed" for anyone with Scots blood. Still, who can resist? And, of course, it's all true! From the flap: "Who formed the first modern nation? Who invented our modern ideas of democracy and free market capitalism? The Scots."

Heritage of Scotland
Heritage of Scotland : A Cultural History of Scotland and Its People

Beautifully illustrated, engagingly written, each chapter focuses on a different aspect of Scottish culture and history.

The Mark of the Scots
The Mark of the Scots : Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature and the Arts

Makes you proud to be Scot!

The Scottish 100
The Scottish 100: Portraits of History's Most Influential Scots

Includes those famous Scots born outside of Scotland

The Lunar Men
The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World

Fascinating new bestseller about how five incredibly talented men - including Scotsman James Watt - shared their lives and ideas in their self-styled "Lunar Society" - and started the Industrial Revolution. Highly recommended.