In 1995, the Samoan rugby team knocked on Murray Pittock’s door at Howard Place in Edinburgh, the birthplace of Robert Louis Stevenson, and asked to be photographed there. The author of Treasure Island was their hero, having settled in the Pacific Kingdom in 1890, dressing his servants in tartan livery while championing Samoan culture. He went only occasionally – once in 1893 to address the Scottish Thistle Club of Honolulu.
Scotland: The Global History, which traces the country’s international influence over four and a half centuries, offers a kaleidoscope of such surreal encounters. It traverses an impressive array of places and arenas of engagement where Scots and a select few women have made an impact disproportionate to the size of their country and its material resources. How did this small nation, with its romantic image as a place of ‘bagpipes, mountains and tartans’, become ‘the same Scotland that provided the finance, technology and innovation that propelled the steam age’?
Despite the title date of 1603, little importance is attached to Stuart King James VI’s accession to the throne or his decision to leave Scotland for the south. Instead, the narrative begins in 1618, the genesis of Scotland’s great waltz with the world as Europe’s nationally defining conflict, the Thirty Years’ War. Engaging, lively and insightful, what follows is a vivid account of Scottish endeavors in politics, science, literature, the arts and business. There can be few historians of Pittock’s importance who can slide so easily from the Swedish campaigns of the 1630s or the diplomatic complexities of the 1745 rebellion to James McAvoy’s character in The Last King of Scotland (a secular Scottish doctor) or the cultural significance of John Byrne’s 1980’s TV drama Tutti Frutti.
Pittock argues convincingly that at the heart of Scotland’s global success was an excellent education system. Since the Reformation it produced graduates with an intellectual and professional training that enabled them to take on tasks far beyond the possibilities within their own borders. Hence the impulse to research geographically, economically and philosophically. This, together with the Scots’ social ‘clan’, especially when away from home, made a winning combination, further salted with the romance of the hapless Jacobites. The defeat at Culloden, of which Pittock writes so beautifully, is “a world historic moment” leading to a huge influx of Scots into the British army, large-scale emigration and an infusion of melancholy that remains a key element of the international Images of Scotland is.
All that said, there are things here that will make the reader refute. Pittock’s exhaustive cataloging of Scottish achievement sometimes lacks the questioning and qualification you might expect. He exclaims “the raw chauvinism of exceptionalism” to which national histories are prone, before excusing his own theme with “Scots and Scotland”. are both demonstrably exceptional”.
Scotland, he argues, with its borders essentially unchanged since the 15th century, is “one of the most enduring of all global nations”. And yet, as Ukraine reminds us, border continuity is not a prerequisite for an enduring sense of nationality (and if much of your border is shoreline, its stability is certainly to be expected). This implies that of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, only Scotland is both a separate nation and part of a larger entity. England’s borders have changed little in a millennium, but are not accorded the same dual status. Of course, it was precisely this ability to decide when to be British and when not that has served the Scots well. Enjoying all the benefits of a larger imperial superstate, it has also sidestepped many of its less appealing associations by invoking the sympathetic pathos of the fake smaller nation.
The final section of the book changes course, offering a closer look at recent politics and the issues of decentralization and independence. At the heart of the matter is whether Scotland, despite its pro-European sentiment, can bring itself to embrace the reality of the European Union, with currency and all, as a necessary condition for a successful exit from the UK.
Pittock charts the ebb and flow of Scotland’s international experience with panache and pace. Global success has given the country an enthusiastic diaspora of tens of millions, but the Scotland they yearn for is not the nation of today. Modernity and innovation are hardly felt at Burns’ Dinners or in the Outlander range. Scotland may indeed be an international icon, but there are downsides to being a place that “to many…is what it used to be, not what it has become”.