Book review – A New Race of Men: Scotland 1815–1914

Rab Houston considers a bold take on a century of Scotland's history, and the factors that made the nation so distinctive

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Reviewed by: Rab Houston
Author: Michael Fry
Publisher: Birlinn
Price (RRP): £25

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With just months to go until Scotland votes on whether to resume independence, new books about Scottish history are especially welcome. In the two centuries after the union with England in 1707, Scots developed a glorious intellectual life, unprecedented economic growth, and intense pride and participation in Britain’s army and empire. Here, Michael Fry brings an unusual perspective to an era when Scots enriched the British union – that of a pro-devolution Tory turned Scottish nationalist. He sets out to discover not what was subsumed within ‘Britishness’, but what kept 19th-century Scotland different: its experience of ‘Scottishness’.

Fry finds the answer in deeply rooted moral and ethical values associated with Whiggism, then the dominant political creed north of the border. This was a Protestant, constitutionalist, and legalist tendency, which manifested itself in ideas of democracy, egalitarianism and nationalism, while also standing for self-help, free trade and temperance; after 1859, it morphed into liberalism.

Readers will, however, have to comb through the book’s many bite-size stories in search of its arguments. Impatient and judgmental, this is a curious if often invigorating mix of myth-busting and myopia, particularly successful in revealing the roots of the left-leaning (but not necessarily socialist) tradition that represents the mainstream in modern Scottish politics. The overall tone is celebratory, but it brings out contradictions in the Scots’ character, including racism directed not only by Scots against Irish, but also by lowlanders against Highlanders.

Never knowingly understating his case, Fry spins a bold, lively and readable tale. There is a degree of modern political spin and the book’s present-centred focus creates problems in assessing how Scots saw themselves in the century before the First World War. Scotland’s separate legal system and its religious establishment, both ring-fenced in 1707, were at the core of a sense of difference, shaping how people pursued civility, equity and improvement. For example, most Scots were assuredly Protestant, but their faith was far removed from Anglicanism. Yet Fry’s discussion of religion is about churches rather than believers. He is most comfortable with Scotland’s elites and its institutions, high culture and political ‘personality’, leaving ordinary people in the background.

Shortcomings aside, the erudition and depth of understanding of this book make it worth reading. Written with flair, Fry’s take on Scotland’s past is likely to have more impact than his duller peers on our perceptions of its possible future.

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Rab Houston is author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008)