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More than just Bobby Burns
on 8 February 2006
Reviewing Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization evoked a nagging question: "Why hasn't someone done this for the Scots?" Now, someone has, and a highly worthwhile read it is. Herman tears down a few misconceptions about the Scots as he rebuilds their image as original thinkers and practical achievers. Herman is not the first to consider John Knox as the taproot of the Scottish expression. Knox's Calvinist severity, however, often clouds the fact that the Scots severed from the Catholic church only a generation after Henry VIII achieved that for England. And they accomplished it without the power of a monarch. Herman sees Knox's thinking as planting seeds leading to a flowering of democratic ideals.
These ideals weren't lofty theoretical flights, however. In an excellent summary over two chapters, Herman outlines the Scottish Enlightenment and the men who created it. Unlike the Continental Enlightenment, the Scots version had a deep religious base. They sought their deity through rational investigation, searching for its expression rather than pushing it to a distance as did the Deists. These Scots saw "the proper study of mankind" as a practical question leading to social betterment. Education became a universal in Scotland at a time when most schooling remained under the cloak of religious authority.
Herman contends the Act of Union as of immense benefit to Scottish society at many levels. The chief result was the elimination of prejudicial economic policy. As long as they remained independent, the Scots were unable to compete with English mercantilists. While many Scottish nationalists see the Act of Union as a subversion of local values, Herman, along with many Scots, view it as providing new opportunities. He stresses the opened doors to trade led to rapid enrichment of the port cities of Scotland and world-wide contacts. Ships meant shipbuilding and many Scots later brought their talents to the New World resulting in the speedy clipper ships.
Herman follows the exodus of Scots around the globe - North America, Australia, India. Each place they entered, they left a mark. Most of it seems positive today - strong commercial enterprise, extending education, uplifting political ideals. Herman paints a glorious picture, deftly omitting a few blemishes. His descriptions of the Highland clans verges on the romantic, but fails to note their signal of the burning cross emigrated to become the image of America's Ku Klux Klan. Scots driven from their home lands resulted in many becoming the slave overseers of the South's plantations.
These are minor points. The scope of Herman's book, as he states, is global, both physically and intellectually. He has assembled a wealth of material, presented it forcefully and cogently. There's much more to deal with here than simply learning something [more?] about the Scots. Too often portrayed as backward romantics, Herman has shown the Scots to be an essential foundation for today's intellectual, commercial and political environment. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]