Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Off the Shelf:
How the Scots Invented
the Modern World

"Yeah, sure," you're thinking: that's some hyperbole.

Just wait til you get to the subtitle: "The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It."

Perhaps Arthur L. Herman, the history professor responsible for entitling the book with such an ambitious claim, was influenced by yet another big-thinking title—Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Then again, perhaps he has a point. He has enough intellectual fire power to hit his target. His resume boasts positions at George Mason University, Georgetown, and the Catholic University of America, and he now serves as senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. But it was while he was coordinator of the Smithsonian's Western Heritage Program when he noticed, in a class topic on intellectual life in eighteenth century Edinburgh, how many prominent people who had had a significant impact on modern times had come from such a specific geographic location: Scotland.

One would have thought, considering such an epic title and eminently-qualified author, that I would have taken my cue from the book's positioning as a New York Times best seller (not to mention its number five position, for three weeks, on the Washington Post's list and its number one slot up in Canada at The Globe and Mail) and pulled it off my bookshelf to actually read it much sooner than I did. After all, the hardcover came out in 2001.

I didn't discover this book back then, though. It made its way to me through a much more convoluted and unorthodox approach. It was during my homeschooling years when, in a home-educating parents' collective, we hosted an itinerant economist who set as his task the discipling of high school debaters through his coaching blend of politics, history, and current events analysis. Among the many books in tow when he came to visit was this volume. The minute I saw the title, I knew I had to have it.

And then, in the swirl of daily obligations, it soon was forgotten.

It was a bad dream that awoke me the other morning which called the book back to mind. All I can remember of the dream is that I and my companions were trapped inside a humble shack on a remote mountainside—captured by those ubiquitous bad-dream bad guys—and told that the food inside the cabin was all we had to eat. I awoke with a start, not because of the threat of our captivity, but because I realized just where that cabin was: we were in Scotland.

I don't know about you, but having nothing to eat but what the Scottish heritage has to offer seemed almost a fate worse than death. When it comes to fare like haggis, no Madison Avenue spin—or French gastronomical soft-pedaling of the ingredients as "not immediately appealing"—can convince me that such a recipe can result in savory and delectable dining.

That was what woke me up. It also got me thinking: what is it about the Scottish people, anyhow? If nothing else, they have learned to be survivors. Since their heritage figures prominently in my own maternal roots, I owe myself the favor of learning more about this people group, even if it is nearly fifteen years after my good intentions first led me to purchase the book.

In defense of the title, the author had explained, "This is the story of how the Scots created the basic ideals of modernity" and went on to observe,
The point of this book is that being Scottish is more than just a matter of nationality or place of origin or clan or even culture. It is also a state of mind, a way of viewing the world and our place in it.

So the author sets out on his exploratory wanderings through his hypothesis, beginning with the Big Bang of the Scottish Reformation, pulling in strands of the story from the history of the land's politics, education, economics, even nutrition—vindicating me with the observation concerning its cuisine, "it was not a meal anyone sat down to with relish"—in a sweeping view of history both in and imported from Scotland.

The text promises to guide the reader through such considerations as the impact of the immigrating Ulster Scots, their arrival and influence in the nascent New World, the heritage of the key players in colonial America up through the Revolution. I see the context from which some of my Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee forebears emerged and begin to think of how this influence comes to play on my own personal family history.

For anyone fascinated by the evolution of history and cultures—especially those equipped to follow the threads of such an interwoven story line—the book promises to introduce some concepts that might otherwise have never been considered, especially among those of us researching our Scottish roots.



  1. I've actually read this book.

    :) It's an intriguing premise - one has to admit the Scots were influential beyond their numbers.

    1. Intriguing is an apt way to put it, Iggy. Watching how the author unfolded his premise has been a fascinating study.

  2. Of course Iggy has read that book. If my husband was a reader I would have him read it also, he has some relatives from Scotland:)

    1. Ah...too bad it doesn't come in that books-on-tape format. Depending on where your husband's ancestors settled after leaving Scotland, he might find some passages in the book worth considering. I know I'm recognizing some of my Tennessee hill country people in those pages.


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