The money’s still out there

Neal Ascherson

  • To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010 by T.M. Devine
    Allen Lane, 397 pp, £25.00, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 7139 9744 6
  • BuyThe Inner Life of Empires: An 18th-Century History by Emma Rothschild
    Princeton, 483 pp, £24.95, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 14895 3

Looking at the imperial magnificence, the Habsburgian gigantism of public buildings in Edinburgh and Glasgow, you want to ask: where did all that wealth go? Looking at the stone ruins in the bracken of Lowland and Highland hills, you want to ask: where did all those people go – and why? These are questions rooted in the history of the British Empire, and they concern the very distinct and remarkable and sometimes shocking part which the Scots – the traders and the plebeians, the Lanarkshire industrialists and the Gaelic poor – played in the development of that empire.

Scottish historiography used to resemble a half-reclaimed landscape: solid fields of established research in an undrained bog of questions. Some ambitious channels were dug by Victorians, with generally Unionist teleologies. But in the first part of the 20th century those channels seemed to silt up again until Marinell Ash published her poignant appeal The Strange Death of Scottish History in 1980. By then, however, Scotland’s cultural and political revival was already underway. Synoptic histories, serious but highly readable, were reappearing as Ash wrote: Rosalind Mitchison, T.C. Smout and Christopher Harvie were among the most successful authors. They wrote mostly narrative or social history, revealing unknown territory to generations who had learned almost nothing of Scotland’s past at school. Now, though, the fashion is more reflexive. Tom Devine, currently Scotland’s leading historian, targets myth – aspects of the past which have been either flamboyantly invented or furtively dropped down the memory hole. What are these tracts of their history which the Scots have distorted or ignored? And why did they do so?

Devine addresses these questions in the third volume of a trilogy which probably wasn’t planned as a trilogy. The first book, The Scottish Nation, 1700-2000 (1999), was an all-round narrative history which became a bestseller and made him famous. The second, Scotland’s Empire, 1600-1815 (2003), covered Scottish trading and colonising before and after the 1707 Union with England, and dealt with the critical 18th century, when Scots – admitted to equal rights in what was now a ‘British empire’ on the brink of enormous global expansion – learned to take full advantage of their chances. To the Ends of the Earth retraces that early period and carries on into Scotland’s paradoxical Victorian apogee of industrial triumph and mass emigration. Then Devine asks that big question: where did it all go? Why has contemporary Scotland benefited so little from those billions of intercontinental profit? And why do the Scots – once, per capita, so much more involved in the empire than the English – now affect amnesia about it, sharing none of England’s imperial nostalgia?

Each of the later volumes repeats and refines material in the previous one. That’s a virtue. Research is now moving fast in Scotland, and it’s exciting to register how Devine’s ideas mature. Take the sombre question of slavery. Could it be true that the immense profits from slave-worked sugar and tobacco plantations made Scotland’s industrial take-off possible? The older myth emphasised Scotland’s role in the abolitionist movement and was assembled by historians who were reluctant to investigate who owned and oversaw the plantations of Jamaica, Grenada or Virginia. As late as 2001, the Oxford Companion to Scottish History had no index entry for ‘slavery’, while the Caribbean was mentioned only as a market for Scottish linen. In Scotland’s Empire, Devine was cautious about this ugly problem, but fresh research has hardened his views. He writes here that capital inflows from ‘the slave-based economies were of fundamental importance in the first textile-dominated phase of Scottish industrialisation’ up to about 1830. As for the slave trade itself, it’s true that Glasgow did not send slave ships to Africa and the Caribbean as Bristol or Liverpool did. But Scots abroad were managing and financing the trade in disproportionate numbers.

It’s a cliché that the Scots ‘punched above their weight’ in the empire, and it’s misleading. They seldom competed directly with the English or Irish, but established distinct and almost exclusively Scottish fiefdoms: the fur trade, the tobacco trade, the jute industry, the opium business in China, the ‘hedge-banking’ outfits in Australia, the executive levels of the East India Company. Later in the 19th century, in the second phase of industrialisation, the Clyde basin achieved something approaching world domination in shipbuilding, locomotive and bridge construction and other branches of heavy engineering. Overseas enterprise was a pattern of near monopolies from Scotland’s regions. The Hudson’s Bay Company was staffed by Orcadians; its Canadian rival, the North West Company, was run by Highlanders; the sugar plantations of Jamaica were packed with younger sons of Argyllshire lairds; the great trading houses of South-East Asia were mostly family businesses from Aberdeen and north-east Scotland; the outflow of foreign investment was cornered by Edinburgh solicitors.

The myth that the Scots were somehow closer to indigenous peoples than the English has been well punctured by recent Scottish research. They were indeed closer – by the length of a slave-driver’s lash. Scots, in that sense, were the non-commissioned officers of empire; even Robert Burns, a sentimental abolitionist, planned to take a job in Jamaica as an overseer of slaves. The same myth suggested that Gaelic emigrants raised in a clan system had a special rapport with traditional societies. In fact, Highlanders behaved with sometimes genocidal savagery; among other examples, Devine recalls the Gaelic vigilantes who carried out the Warrigal Creek massacre of Australian aboriginals in 1843. In northern Canada, by contrast, the fur trade could only operate as a joint endeavour with local communities. There, the Hudson’s Bay Company encouraged its men to form ‘connubial alliances’ with Indian women (in 2004, a large Cree delegation travelled to Orkney to visit ‘the home of their grandfathers’). Some Scots gave real support to the ‘first peoples’ in times of crisis. But in the long term, the joint endeavour turned into what Devine calls a ‘historic disaster’ for Indian societies, ravaged by disease, alcoholism and the collapse of the hunting economy.

In an absorbing chapter, Devine studies the ‘missionary dynamic’, the almost forgotten torrent of Scottish men and women who went out to ‘convert the heathen’. Strict Calvinist doctrine objected that preaching the gospel to the heathen was ‘preposterous’; God had already ordained who was to be ‘elect’ and saved. It was not until the evangelical movement tore the Church of Scotland apart in the Disruption of 1843 that Scottish energy flowed into foreign missions to India and then Africa. These missions produced their saints, even superstars: Mary Slessor’s good works on the Upper Niger still earn her an image on Scottish banknotes, while David Livingstone became the world’s best-known Scotsman. They did not save many souls. After 50 years’ work in India, the missions could show only 3359 converts. But their influence on empire was deep and paradoxical, at once the advance guard of colonialism and the engineers of its fall. In Africa, above all, Church of Scotland mission colleges would educate critical generations to struggle against the racism of white settlers. As a journalist on the Scotsman in 1959, I saw at first hand how the Church of Scotland missions in Nyasaland (now Malawi) successfully crippled the British government’s sinister ‘federation’ scheme, designed to put all Central Africa under the control of white Rhodesia.

Through the whole of this book glitters the tartan streak which Devine calls ‘Highlandism’. By that he means the tendency, steadily gathering force since the mid-18th century, to assimilate everything Scottish into largely imaginary versions of Gaeldom. It’s a tendency fostered not only by foreigners but by many Scots, Lowland or Highland. Children leave school believing that all Scottish emigration was caused by the Highland Clearances. Mel Gibson in Braveheart wears a kilt to play William Wallace. George IV squeezed himself into a kilt and pink tights to visit Edinburgh. Livingstone was supposed to get on well with Africans because of his Highland ancestry. It wasn’t until the 1960s that radicals like Tom Nairn and Murray Grigor began to satirise ‘the Tartan Monster’ as the product of a false consciousness which excused Scots from contemplating their real past and possible future.

Highlandism’s most powerful vehicle was the British Army. Within a few years of the 1745 rebellion, the British government was raising Highland regiments for foreign wars in Europe and North America. A region once seen as inherently treacherous suddenly became the source of loyal battalions ready to die for the Hanoverians and the Union Jack. Jacobite refugees who had settled in America almost unanimously rejected the revolution and fought for the king who had crushed them at Culloden. How was that possible? Some say that Jacobitism was always blindly authoritarian. Devine, on the other hand, suggests ‘rampant commercialism’ on the part of the clan chiefs, who simply harvested their dependants and sold them as ‘family’ regiments to the Crown.

Whatever its origin, the cult of the Highland soldier grew more extravagant from campaign to campaign, from Quebec through the Peninsular War, from Waterloo to the Crimea, the Indian Mutiny and the two world wars. In the Napoleonic Wars, Devine estimates, some 50,000 Highlanders were recruited from a region with a population of fewer than 300,000. Queen Victoria adored her Highland warriors, and so does her current successor (a deafening pipe-band in full kilt and bearskin still tramps round the table during state banquets at Windsor). Highlandism soon ensured that all Scottish soldiers would be to some extent tartanised, to the distaste of ancient Lowland regiments such as the Royal Scots. Bagpipes spread to every army in the British Commonwealth, and to many beyond.

The Scottish martial tradition, the ‘sojer laddie’, still lives proudly on as a component of national identity. Unlike many traditions, it is more genuine than invented; as Devine puts it, ‘Scotland was born fighting.’ But it may be that it belongs more to the Lowlanders, who after all fought the Wars of Independence, than to the Highlanders. Wherever the Gaelic clans and their claymores were in 1314, it wasn’t at Bannockburn.

Emigration and the formation of a diaspora are the central topic of To the Ends of the Earth. Here Devine is once again dispelling a popular legend: the belief that all emigrants were and are unwilling ‘victims’ of clearance or deprivation. He points out that emigrating is something Scots have always done, and will probably go on doing, almost irrespective of what may be happening at home. Scots were settling in Europe – Poland, Scandinavia, the Low Countries – by the 15th century. In the 17th century, hordes of Protestant Lowlanders were scrambling into Ulster. The Union of 1707 opened the way for emigration to the Americas and the Caribbean and also, increasingly, to England. Later came the colonisation of Australia and New Zealand. Devine calculates that if Scotland’s population in 1825 was about 2.3 million, a total equivalent to that had left by 1938. Between 1951 and 1981, 753,000 Scots left, nearly half of them going ‘down south’ to England. The net migration loss between 1951 and 2006 was 825,000 from a population of only five million.

Before 1815, emigrants to the overseas empire were mainly Highlanders. Most families went voluntarily, even eagerly to the ships, while their chiefs and lairds tried to deter them. It was not until the early 19th century, after the collapse of the kelp industry and the disaster of the potato famines in the 1840s, that landlords in the Highlands and Islands opted for sheep rather than people and set about forcible eviction – the Clearances. But one of Devine’s most striking feats as a historian has been to demonstrate that there were also ‘Lowland clearances’, equally drastic in their changes to landscape and demography, which released a flow of landless men and women into overseas emigration or into Scotland’s new industrial cities. After about 1860, most out-migrants were non-Highland.

Emigration is not a straightforward subject. It’s easy to assume that people queued up at the shipping offices when unemployment was high and living standards low. But that won’t wash. Devine points to two periods during which Scotland was thriving and yet emigration soared. One was the later 19th century, when Scotland was the expanding workshop of the empire and rolling in a surplus of investment capital. The other was post-1945, when, with the introduction of the welfare state, life and health became secure, jobs were available for all and decent housing was beginning to replace foul urban slums. England also had a postwar surge in emigration, but it fell away in the 1970s. In Scotland it has continued strongly into the 21st century. Why? Devine calls it ‘aspirational’. Prosperity gave people the optimism and confidence to move. And for Scots, after so many generations of emigration, a future in Canada, Australia or the US did not seem unfamiliar. In a small nation, few families lacked a friend or relative in the global diaspora.

As diasporas go, the Scottish one is a dozy elephant. Enthusiasts suggest that there may be 40 million people in the world who can ‘claim Scottish descent’. But apart from Burns Suppers and Highland Games, they have done little or nothing about it. The contrast with some other great diasporas – the Poles, the Greeks, the Irish above all – is startling. The Scots overseas never saw themselves as political exiles from some independence struggle. On the contrary, they have taken almost no interest, economic or political, in actually existing Scotland.

Attempts to imitate Ireland’s example and rally them into a ‘diaspora engagement plan’ – rich returnees investing in a ‘smart, successful Scotland’ – have not come to much. Instead, the diaspora has cultivated a harmless minority identity through Burns Clubs and mutual-help St Andrew Societies. Only in the last 30 years has there been an upsurge of enthusiasm for ‘Scottish heritage’, a spreading craze in North America and Europe which is all about kilts, Highland Games and gruesome invented ceremonies like ‘The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan’, and has nothing to do with the small European nation now hesitating over a possible return to independence. Braveheart produced a stampede to join clan societies in the United States, and encouraged Trent Lott to mobilise Scottish-Americans in the South into an ominous Celtic warrior movement, especially attractive to heavily armed white males wearing ‘Confederate tartan’. The US now celebrates an annual Tartan Day to promote the ‘Scottish-American heritage’, accompanied by much baloney about Scotland’s contribution to the Declaration of Independence. The Tartan Monster is alive and stamping over the globe. But there is a compensation: in reaction to the craze, serious centres for Scottish studies have begun to flourish in Canada and the US.

Where did the money from Scotland’s empire go? Devine answers this by defining several phases. Up to the early 19th century, profits from the Americas, the Caribbean and Bengal came home to prime agricultural improvement and the first, ‘textiles’ stage of industrial revolution. This generated enough domestic capital to power the next phase: iron and steel, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. Production took place in Scotland, but the product itself was overwhelmingly exported. By about 1870, there was a surplus of capital for domestic use, and Scottish savings began to pour overseas, often through the new Scottish device of the investment trust.

This was a fateful change of direction, in Devine’s opinion. Between 1870 and 1914, money ceased to flow into new domestic branches of industry or into modernising Scotland’s social fabric. Wages remained lower than in England, often by as much as 20 per cent, while the fetid working-class housing thrown up during Scotland’s breakneck urbanisation was allowed to decay. The outcome was that Scotland largely missed the third phase of the industrial revolution, the turn towards consumer production for the domestic market. Underpaid workers, rural and urban, lacked the purchasing power which might have encouraged manufacturers to diversify. Instead, Scottish industrialists stayed in an increasingly unreal export economy of heavy engineering, kept alive as time passed by war production and state subsidy. When that economy began to collapse in the 1960s, there was little to replace it.

And the wealth of empire? Grand municipal palaces in three or four cities, damp pseudo-baronial castles built by retiring nabobs in Argyll, some fine museums of global loot, the Carnegie libraries … Few other traces remain. In a way, the money’s still out there. It’s in Asian railways and canals, the infrastructure of Canadian cities, the colleges of New Zealand, the rubber plantations and tin mines long since nationalised by post-colonial governments or taken over by American conglomerates. Modern Scots feel that such relics have little to do with them. They are wrong, but who can blame them?

Henry Raeburn’s ‘John Johnstone, Betty Johnstone and Miss Wedderburn’ (c.1790-95).
Henry Raeburn’s ‘John Johnstone, Betty Johnstone and Miss Wedderburn’ (c.1790-95).

Emma Rothschild has a written a strange, immensely thoughtful book which at first glance ought to complement Devine’s work. But it does nothing of the sort, attending instead to the history of sensibilities rather than of nations. It is based on the lives and milieux of 11 Scottish brothers and sisters, born into a minor landowning family in the 18th century, who in very different ways built their lives round the new British Empire. Most of the brothers were slave-owners at one time or another; among the destinations of the siblings and their children were the American colonies, the islands of the Caribbean, Florida when it was a British possession, Bengal, Penang, the United States and once – when pursued for rebellion – France. Some became nabobs and built or bought grand houses in Scotland; one died young in war; two governed indigenous peoples in vast provinces; four became MPs. All cultivated connections with financial and political power, and shared those connections in lively letters which circulated round the family and round much of the known world. It was the accidental discovery of one cache of those letters that set Rothschild off down the track to this book.

George Romney’s portrait of George Johnstone’s mistress, Martha, and their son (c.1775-80)
George Romney’s portrait of George Johnstone’s mistress, Martha, and their son (c.1775-80)

So the Johnstones of Westerhall could offer Devine and his Centre for Diaspora Studies multiple examples of Scottish empire-building in its early phase. But that isn’t what interests Rothschild. A contribution to Scottish history is one of several things The Inner Life of Empires is not. Instead, she is after

the history of the inner life, in the sense of the interior of the household or the home, and the interior of the mind, or the intentions, character and conscience of individuals that were discussed so endlessly in the Johnstones’ own lives and in the sense, too, of the ideas and sentiments that are the subjects, or one of the subjects, of historical understanding.

Her book is a sort of prosopography, a study of a human group in operation. She fancies the Johnstones precisely because they were ‘so often unestimable’; living through the most dazzling years of the Enlightenment, acquainted with many of its Scottish stars (David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith) and yet constantly muddled about what they should think and how they should act, about how to respond to newfangled notions of human rights, about where the shifting frontier between universal law and private greed might run.

Thomas Gainsborough’s 1772 portrait of William Johnstone.
Thomas Gainsborough’s 1772 portrait of William Johnstone.

Their mother bore 14 children. Eleven survived, growing up in a decaying mansion in back-country Dumfriesshire. There was an old baronetcy but no money. Each child took its own path. Barbara, the eldest, married fast to get away, was dumped by her husband for ‘ill-nature’ and settled in Edinburgh. Margaret rode into battle as a fanatical Jacobite, married another one, was imprisoned after Culloden, escaped to France and died in exile. James (‘poor unlucky Jamie’) was huge and clumsy, jilted an heiress, married a penniless English widow and eventually became a Dumfriesshire MP. Alexander began as a soldier and bought a slave plantation in Grenada. Betty never married but stayed at home until her parents died; she was the key information hub, writing and receiving letters with sibling news. William married a colossally rich English heiress, changed his name to Pulteney and moved south; as an MP, he owned but never visited several slave estates, developed English town properties and was rated one of the wealthiest men in Britain. George became governor of West Florida, where he lived with his mistress, Martha, and his improbable lieutenant, James ‘Ossian’ Macpherson. Charlotte ran away with an exciseman, who turned out to be an intellectual genealogist. John went to Bengal for 15 years with the East India Company, where he acquired a vast fortune in bribes (the equivalent of six million pounds in one deal alone) and shocked Clive by denouncing him for corruption. Patrick, aged only 18, was killed in the Black Hole of Calcutta. Gideon, the youngest, knocked about the world in the Royal Navy and made a few bucks in India selling bottled Ganges water to pilgrims.

In Rothschild’s words the Johnstones were ‘unusually intemperate, unusually literary, and there were unusually many of them.’ They lived through three ‘founding moments of the modern Anglo-American world’. These were the East India Company’s acquisition of power over Bengal’s finances in 1765, which eventually led to the rule of the British Raj over the whole subcontinent; the American Revolution; and what Rothschild calls the ‘construction’ (between 1772 and the abolition of the slave trade in 1806) of ‘a new and less impure British Empire in the West Indies and the South Atlantic’. But she observes that the Johnstones persistently came down on the losing side of big issues. They were wrong – some of them – about Jacobitism, and wrong about the American Revolution. They approved of Adam Smith and free trade in principle, but in practice stuck to a closed, protectionist family economy. That was a very Scottish ambiguity. So was their deep reluctance to see that the empire could not remain a matter of trading and shipping but was turning inexorably into a Roman system of territorial conquest, annexation and settlement. The Johnstonian vision – George was the visionary brother – was of ‘a society of persons, or merchants … more than an empire of land and settlement. It was an empire without a state, with the protection of naval rather than military power.’

On slavery, the Johnstones were both right and wrong. Some of them changed their minds, but then enlightened opinion was changing all around them in the later 18th century. Their friend Adam Smith was a consistent opponent of slavery, whereas Hume notoriously said in a footnote that ‘I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites.’ The family itself was divided, inconsistent. All the brothers except for Patrick (who died too young) at one time or another owned field and domestic slaves in the Caribbean or Bengal; they used them for sex as well as sugar, and some of the slaves they brought back to Scotland were almost certainly their children. But Alexander, owner of the plantation he named Westerhall after the family home, attacked the governor of Grenada for using torture on slaves. James, who inherited the property from Alexander, argued in Parliament for immediate abolition – while still owning Caribbean slaves. George denounced the enslavement of Indians, but praised the ‘kindness’ of American plantation owners to their human chattels. John brought at least two slaves back with him from Bengal, and yet subscribed to an abolitionist society. Only William, the richest of them all, forcefully defended slavery and the slave trade in the House of Commons. As Rothschild mournfully observes, ‘their language of enlightenment – their discourses on rights in the midst of conquest, and on freedom in the midst of terror – is still extraordinarily difficult to make sense of.’

She gives close attention to the fate of two Johnstone slaves, whose cases in different ways made history. Bell or Belinda was brought back by John from Bengal to serve in his Scottish mansion. There, in 1771, she had a baby whose corpse was found in a nearby river. (Suggestively, nobody asked who the father was, but somebody unknown paid her legal expenses.) Bell was sent for trial in Perth on presumption of infanticide, but the case was dropped for lack of witnesses and she was ordered to be transported to Virginia and there sold: her price to be remitted to John Johnstone after deducting the transport costs.

This was the last case in Scotland to recognise that one human being could be the property of another. Joseph Knight, a Jamaican brought to Scotland by Margaret Johnstone’s son-in-law John Wedderburn, won an appeal against his enslavement. In 1773, Joseph decided to leave his master, who went to law. But the sheriff depute of Perthshire found that ‘the state of slavery is not recognised by the laws of this kingdom and is inconsistent with the principles thereof,’ and his judgment was upheld by the Court of Session in 1778. The ‘Somerset case’ in England, in 1772, had released a slave by deeming him entitled to habeas corpus. The Joseph Knight case, however, was the first ‘general determination’ in England or Scotland that slavery was illegal.

The family correspondence does not so much as mention Bell/Belinda or Joseph Knight. They were ‘invisible’ in polite intercourse. Instead, the letters are about sibling news, money and, above all, about things: teacups, bad claret, cuttings and seeds sent out to distant places, and repeatedly about textiles – linens, shawls, muslins, ‘Dutch Pretties’, ‘Patna Chints’ and so endlessly on. Rothschild delicately brings all this cloth to life, showing how each had significance for the Johnstones’ inner lives. (Docile Betty’s only rebellion against her parents came when she thought her mother had taken a special piece of Indian muslin which John had meant her to have; the row was so fearsome that she left home and didn’t come back for two years.)

The letters are also about advancement. The book is a lexicon of how ambitious young Scots made their way. You ‘waited on’ important figures, to beg for a job or at least for a recommendation. You wrote ‘solicitations’, letters asking some connection or acquaintance to put in a word for you. You tried, with family help (and the wealthy Johnstones unfailingly funded the poorer ones), to buy a military commission. You married money (as William spectacularly did, and ‘poor unlucky Jamie’ didn’t). And, as Rothschild points out, advancement was not possible without information, without the rapid distribution of news and gossip and debate which fuelled the Enlightenment and was the purpose of the Johnstone family letters.

In discussing how to get on, the Johnstones also revealed the dense web of connections through which they operated. Scotland then held just over two million people, of whom only a tiny number owned property or hung around Edinburgh salons. It was natural for the Johnstones to know and be known in the small worlds of the law, philosophy, science and literature, even though none of them – with the exception of George – was what we would now call an intellectual. Hume admired and corresponded with William and George; William studied under Adam Smith and boarded in his house; Adam Ferguson was George’s secretary on a mission to Philadelphia.

They were physically related to many denizens of those small worlds. Rothschild’s minute research shows, for instance, that in the Joseph Knight case the sheriff’s brothers had been close friends of John in India and George in the navy, that John Wedderburn’s first counsel was his first cousin, whose father, Lord Pitfour, had been the judge in the Belinda case, that Wedderburn’s second counsel had studied under Adam Smith with his wife’s uncle William, that Sheriff John Swinton had also been Bell/Belinda’s agent at her original precognition. It surely says a lot for the Scottish Enlightenment and its wider ‘disposition’ that such a bold and independent judgment emerged from that bramble-bush of relationships.

What were the Johnstones like to know? Would we take to them, if resurrected? Probably not. Rothschild calls them ‘remiss’ by Enlightenment standards; lacking moderation and consistency, they were erratic, quarrelled often and seldom cared about what happened to human beings outside the family and its circle. Having said that, much of what comes out in the letters is touching. John, for example, damned in public memory as a monster of colonial greed and corruption, was endlessly kind, generous and patient with his family, who adored him. George had noble dreams of a realm in Florida in which settlers, Choctaws and Creeks would have equal rights ‘to shew we are all one people’. John’s mother wrote to him in India: ‘you say fiveten years in indes has made a great choing [change] in your constitution it ought to be now in its prime all it can afoord you is not worth risquing it oh come home.’

There must be – there is – far more to know about the Johnstones. But Rothschild is writing an inquiry into thoughts and values rather than biography. The boundaries of her interest are rather austere. It’s almost incredible, for instance, that there are no illustrations at all in the book, with the exception of an absolutely beautiful Raeburn on the dust-jacket. This shows a young girl, the granddaughter of that Margaret who was a Jacobite rebel, eagerly reading a book to two smiling, faintly sceptical old people: her great-aunt Betty (the one who stayed at home) and her great-uncle John, the nabob of Bengal. Where are all the other family portraits by Gainsborough, Angelica Kauffmann, Romney and probably many others?

Where, come to that, is Scotland? A perspective which would set this extraordinary family into the narratives of empire and expansion being assembled by Devine and others is without interest for Rothschild, who is travelling down a quite different historical path. In short, there is a large Scotland-shaped hole in the middle of The Inner Life of Empires. It’s symbolised perhaps by the publisher’s misspelling of Adam Smith’s home town Kirkcaldy in seven separate references.

It would surely not have been digressive to mention that James Johnstone was a political hero for Burns, who wrote election songs about him (‘Up and waur them a’, Jamie’ and the scorching ballad ‘The Five Carlins’). Or that William financed and promoted Thomas Telford, who gave Britain its first modern infrastructure. Or to say at least something about the Darien Scheme disaster in the 1690s – did the family lose its savings in the mania, like so many other laird houses, and how did it colour their approach to the new British Empire? Or to measure the distance the Johnstones had travelled in a few short decades after the Union. By about 1720, the family had reached at least relative security, emerging from a terrible century which had devastated south-west Scotland with famine, full-scale civil war and the fanatical guerrilla struggle of the Covenanters. Rothschild identifies underlying anxiety in the Johnstone letters, a constant fear that everything could revert to chaos. She considers that this anxiety sprang from the Enlightenment’s undermining of certainties. But family memories of Scotland’s bloody and beggarly 17th century must have been another, perhaps stronger source.

It’s pointless, though, to lament what a book is not. Within the limits it sets itself, The Inner Life of Empires is original and unforgettable. It’s not an easy read. But trouble taken to copy out the names and careers of the 11 siblings, who will otherwise grow jumbled in the reader’s memory, is well worth the while. So are the 152 pages of endnotes. Some will protest that their content should be in the main text, but I found their immensely detailed ramblings a rabbit-warren of intriguing information. The success of this book is that, once familiar with the Johnstones and their passions, doubts, hypocrisies and ambitions, a reader will always yearn to know more about them.