Fire and Water

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Water Power in Scotland: 1550-1870 by John Shaw
    John Donald, 606 pp, £25.00, April 1984, ISBN 0 85976 072 3
  • The History of the British Coal Industry. Vol. II: 1700-1830, The Industrial Revolution by Michael Flinn and David Stoker
    Oxford, 491 pp, £35.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 828283 4
  • Industry and Ethos: Scotland 1832-1914 by Sydney Checkland and Olive Checkland
    Arnold, 218 pp, £5.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7131 6317 8
  • The Jacobite Clans of the Great Glen: 1650-1784 by Bruce Lenman
    Methuen, 246 pp, £14.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 413 48690 7
  • The Prince and the Pretender: A Study in the Writing of History by A.J. Youngson
    Croom Helm, 270 pp, £16.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 7099 2908 0
  • Canna: The Story of a Hebridean Island by J.L. Campbell
    Oxford, 323 pp, £25.00, December 1984, ISBN 0 19 920137 4

The first three of these books combine to remind us of the role of economic development in our history, and force home the fact that there can be no true separation of economic history from other histories. The dates bounding the Checklands’ volume in the New History of Scotland might seem to be ones of political significance primarily, but 1832 and 1914 mark very nearly the span of the domination of heavy industry in Scotland, the special concentration of population and skill on the Clyde, and the social developments that came from the labour requirements of coal, iron and, eventually, shipbuilding. The political implications of the problems of the coal industry in the 18th century were less conspicuous than they have been in the 20th, but this came from its relative success. If it had not innovated, there would certainly have been a government-promoted Plan for Coal. No major industry could be allowed to languish. But, as Michael Flinn points out, it was not with the actual process of mining that 18th-century government concerned itself, but with the trading of the product. The coastwise traffic in coal was the largest activity of British shipping, a major training ground of seamen for war, and the provider of essential support for the capital: hence regulation and interference. The controls were not only in defiance of the principles of laissez faire but often contradictory, to themselves or to other sections of regulation.

Water power and coal were the sinews of industry. Water power encouraged a dispersed industrial map, for only so many mills could be placed on any one stretch of water. Coal, though its production was scattered, led to massive concentrations of industry and, in the 19th century, to the railways as a means of distribution. Both sources of power therefore give geographic and quantitative indicators for the economy. Some of the maps in Water Power in Scotland stress the sharp upturn in the economy after 1770, and the whole story of the use of this power shows the capacity for technical inventiveness and adaptation which held good for a long time. In the later 19th century it was to lead to water pressure engines in the lead industry and to the water turbine, at a time when steam was becoming a more flexible source of power. High past investment and successful adaptation kept water power in use well after the acceptance in the 1850s of the general superiority of steam.

Coal, Flinn shows, was a success story of the 18th century. Mining is a matter of inexorably rising marginal costs. Coal owners had to retain a skilled labour force, and could not squeeze its reward, so expansion in the industry depended on cost-cutting elsewhere – on innovations in technology and organisation. The industry even managed to keep the rise in coal prices below that of general prices, except for a short period in the early 19th century, and collieries gave a general profit return of 30 per cent. This success was vital to the industrial revolution, but it created problems in respect of access to the coal face, safety and transport, all of which called for frequent new ideas. On coal was founded the Victorian city, the key feature of 19th-century social life, as the Checklands stress. ‘The Scot as seen from abroad,’ they state, ‘is still largely Victorian.’ And it is the urban experience of Scotland, sustained by the special emphasis on heavy industry which their book concentrates on. Scottish cities each developed a strong individual character: Edinburgh was and is the city of government and service, Aberdeen has its resilience, specialised trading areas and fisheries, Dundee had its concentration on low-grade textiles, while Glasgow was the industrial powerhouse and a special area of social dereliction. None could have gained their 19th-century flavour without coal.

John Shaw’s book is a careful reference work of value to all in research on local economic development or on particular industries. It has a sound appreciation of early technology. Its maps show the concentration of Scottish industry in the early days of industrialisation when the eastern Lowlands and the coastal plain of the north-east, areas watered by major rivers and their tributary systems, were the centres of economic growth. The emphasis on the Clyde came initially from trade, not from industry.

The keynote of the late Michael Flinn’s book is his characteristic perception of the interaction of social and economic matters, in no area more conspicuous than in the experience of the labour force in coal. Flinn points out that skilled pitmen had almost always entered the pit as children. Only such men could bring to muscle power and manual skill the knowledge of the material they were extracting and also pick up the warnings of danger that the rock could give. Mostly they had to work in near darkness, relying on touch and hearing rather than sight. Pits were increasingly dangerous places until in 1815 the Davy lamp enabled miners to have light without the risk of causing an explosion, and even then there remained high risks of suffocation and of injury from the collapse of equipment. The terrible explosion at Felling colliery in 1812, which cost 92 lives, is used to give an age distribution of the labour force at work. Ten of those killed were children under ten years old, and nearly half were in their teens. Probably as men approached middle age many would change to the less arduous surface work, but nearly three-quarters of the whole labour force appears to have worked underground. Flinn calculates that in 40 years underground a miner’s chance of being killed at work varied from one in two to one in 20. It is not surprising that there are signs of combination from as early as the 1760s, though whether this was for mutual insurance, very necessary with such a range of risk, or incipient trade-unionism, is not clear, because the law on combining made it desirable to mask the latter activity.

Given the importance of skills acquired early, it is not surprising that there were efforts both to bind labour and to poach the labour of other collieries. In Scotland serfdom was used to hold a labour force until it became clear that this system prevented expansion. In England binding negotiations had to allow a freer choice, but this choice was one influenced by both money and other inducements. This is shown in the bill of a Durham colliery, for £636 in money gifts and £249 in drinks, as binding expenses. An industry which had to employ £200 in capital to create any new job was not likely to wish to expand rapidly, but it was essential for the nation’s economic growth that some moderate rate of expansion should exist. Flinn and his associate have gathered figures from a long list of archives to show that output grew from nine hundred-weight a head of British population in 1700 to 37 in 1830.

The industry had also to create and partly manage a transport and distribution system. A landlocked mine without local wayleaves was almost valueless. Tyne traders had a fleet of over three hundred collier vessels for the coastal trade, there were also special ‘keels’ on Tyne and Wear which took the coal down river to these colliers, and the special waggon-ways which got it to the water. This book is a fine reminder of Michael Flinn’s remarkable capacity for seeing a historical subject in depth and for writing about it in a way which takes the reader easily through technical matters to the social realities they dictate.

Scotland was slow to set up an effective system of local government, even though her medical men manned the English public health movement, and slow to see the growth of secular radicalism, for all that it had staged the weavers’ strike of 1812. The development of Chartist churches in Scotland is a reminder that it was in religious issues that Scottish radicalism was effective. It was on ideas derived from a somewhat warped folk memory of the religious split in 1843 that the Scots of the late 19th century made their party structure. At the same time, the Church, while deep in politics, was steadily withdrawing from its long-established role as the provider of social services. Perhaps the Checklands pay too much attention to the Scots who conformed to the image the Churches put out, and not enough to the Scots reprobate.

The Checklands place the growth of class in an urban context, though they also perceive the bitterness of class hostility in Highland society. The Highlands are in fact the only area of rural Scotland to which they give reasonable space, as well as some minor factual errors. Rural society should not be seen as cut off from urban by some plate-glass barrier: this is shown by the movement of population from country to town. The success of Lowland farming even through the depression years of the last quarter of the 19th century and the special social features of the country-side – poor housing, weak communications, the snobbery and residual power attached to landowning and the attitudes of the labour force to the established Church – would all have merited more attention. This book is thin also on the physical effects of poverty, on middle-class culture, on the early women’s movement, and pays little attention to the dynamics of demography. But it succeeds in conveying, if not a new story, a vivid impression of the special features which heavy industry and Presbyterian intransigence gave to Victorian Scotland. Scotland might no longer be in a position to determine the main policy decisions which affected her, but a great deal was happening benorth Tweed, and happening in a characteristic way.

It is high time that a dose of common sense was injected into the history of Highland Scotland. It is also time that attention in this area be paid to the historical problems which interest us today. There sit on library shelves dusty books which recount 17th-century slaughters in the Western Isles, indulge in genealogical ramblings, take sides on issues where there is no perceptible appearance of right on either side, romanticise individual chieftains who treated their followers with remarkably little kindness, and concentrate on narrative to the exclusion of analysis. It is true that recently some long, cool looks have been taken at 19th-century Highland society, but Bonnie Prince Charlie has done much to prevent this for the 18th century. The romance of lost causes is one source of trouble. For over four centuries Highland culture and traditions have been losing to Lowland Scottish or to English pressures. A further reason for backward historiography lies in the un-willingness of many, though fortunately not all, Gaelic-speaking historians to publish the results of their scholarship. Those who would like to know more of what went on in the Highlands are put off by Gaelic orthography and grammar. Some Anglophone historians have romanticised Highland society, some are simply hostile, most are ignorant.

The Jacobite Clans of the Great Glen is a book, not about the clans, but about the aspirations and intrigues of their chiefs. To break through to the social structure of the clans, and the views and concerns of the lesser ranks of society, is almost impossible for the 18th century or earlier, though the late Eric Cregeen made some progress in this direction.

The preferences and attitudes of the bosses had much to do with the eventual assimilation of Highland to Lowland culture and law. The junction of the English and Lowland Scottish societies, proceeded peacefully. The Lowland Scots learnt much, borrowed institutions and techniques, and were eventually able to offer back their own and to proclaim their institutional, moral and cultural superiority. But the assimilation of Highland society, which does not seem to have differed much from Lowland society in the 15th century – language apart – was very much a matter of musket and bayonet. The most valuable part of Mr Lenman’s book is his exposition of the way in which Highland troops, with these weapons, showed their loyalty and won British superiority in America; later they made a brave show in resisting the loss of all but one of the American colonies. Led by Simon Fraser of Lovat, who co-operated with the Hanoverian government and so regained his father’s lands, the chiefs raised and officered a disproportionately large part of the British Army, and if it was a part given to mutiny, this came from the refusal of the high command to abide by its promises.

It is often asserted that the Highlanders of the 18th century were a martial people. Certainly they were a people who knew that sooner or later it would be necessary to use weapons, but there is little evidence that this was their wish. Indeed the number of skivers and deserters in both the Fifteen and Forty-Five suggests that many were not keen to fight on either side. But warfare was sufficiently likely in inter-clan relations for the chiefs to regard commanding troops as a routine activity, and for clansmen to be prepared, once forced into war, to carry out military duties well. A typical example of the acceptance of war is the career of Ewen Macpherson of Cluny, who was swept from the Hanoverian militia into the Jacobite army in 1745, used his considerable organising talents within it and ended his days in French service. He would probably have preferred to have spent his life in his chosen peacetime activity, organising a protection racket in the north-east Lowlands. Mr Lenman points out that the passionate hatreds of 17th-century Highland warfare has no real echo in the 18th: there was little incentive towards the rigours of a military life if one could find other ways of enlarging a skimpy rent roll.

Mr Lenman has already done much to slim down the mythology of Jacobitism, but he shows signs of replacing it with an alternative of exaggerated national consciousness. He can point out that the ideological content of clan rivalry was nil, but does not take the debunking far enough, since he asserts that the Highland chiefs were hostile to the Union of Scotland with England. The removal of the seat of government and legislation for Scotland by four hundred extra miles is unlikely of itself to have been a cause chiefly for dismay among men who did their best to avoid the attentions of central power. In any case, though all governments in the 18th century felt obliged to stamp out real clan warfare, there was not at first any wish to present an effective presence in the Highlands. What disadvantaged the chiefs in the new structure of politics was the loss of their bargaining power. Union was an important step in the achievement of political security, and in the more settled world which it introduced the weight of local leaders would relate to their rent rolls rather than to the number of armed men they could force to follow them. The Earl of Islay wrote in exasperation in 1715 that ‘the Captain of Clanranald ‘has not £500 a year and yet has 600 men’.

This book uses a wide range of sources, but lays emphasis on the papers of Simon Fraser Lord Lovat. Mr Lenman tracks Lovat’s disreputable activities through his smoke-screen of mendacity. Intrigue was the breath of life for Lovat, and he lacked the realism to see that the main result of it was widespread distrust of everything he said. Mr Lenman points out that among Lovat’s vast production of verbiage there are some sentences which show ‘a remarkable capacity to forecast the trend of events’: I am reminded of Lewis Carroll’s statement that a watch which has stopped is more use than one that is fast because it is bound to tell the right time twice a day. We are given a clear view of the nastiness of Lovat, and Lenman is also sceptical of that pseudo-romantic figure, MacDonald of Keppoch, whom he describes as a professional bandit: but he is not critical enough of the total selfishness of every successive MacDonell of Glengarry.

The book probably goes as far as is possible in explaining Highland society as an author can who is without access to the Gaelic language. Lack of Gaelic does not cut the historian off from any appreciable amount of written records, for Gaelic culture was oral: when Highlanders tried to put a few words of Gaelic into a letter the absence of correct orthography shows that the language was not in their minds a written instrument. But someone with a command of it might gain by an understanding of the mental patterns and mental furniture of the society.

A.J. Youngson’s book uses the theme of the Forty-Five to illustrate the problem of historians’ subjectivity. After discussing the topic of historical perception he takes us through the story twice: once as it might have been seen by a Hanoverian supporter and once by a Jacobite. In both cases he is keen that no dubious hearsay or non-contemporary sources are allowed to intrude. The two stories differ not only in their evaluation of the decisions made during the year of the rebellion, the stress placed on particular outrages, the characters of the leading figures, but also by virtue of a different attitude to the previous hundred years. Youngson stresses that it was of great significance to the Jacobites in Scotland that the Stuart line represented the ancient Scottish kingship, and so his Jacobite account has to spend time on the 17th century, a period on which his grip is not very strong. The real weakness of this practical exposition of the problems of historiography is that while exposing the problems of partiality he fails to engage with an important element in historical writing – the interplay of fact, judgment and the individual personality of the writer. The historian is a single person, and as such usually has divided sympathies which warm many aspects of what he writes: his partiality is not all of one kind. This little book has tried so hard to keep cool and detached that it ends up cold and flat.

John Lorne Campbell’s work is the completion of a lifetime of study and generous devotion, and it is to him that we owe much of our knowledge of Gaelic poetic imagery. Canna was an attractive backwater, owned for long by the impecunious and inconsiderate MacDonalds of Clanranald. Eventually, after experiencing the restoration of Catholicism, the severance from its chief, and depopulation, the island was bought by the author and presented to the National Trust for Scotland. Now we have the necessary handbook for visitors to it: a collection of what can be discovered of its history, place-names, stories, flora and fauna. Mr Campbell keeps carefully to his sources, though he may take them too seriously. It is engaging that he believes a mid-17th-century chief of Clanranald could and would himself write a long letter to the Pope in Latin. His weakness is a failure of historical detachment: the grievances about the pressure of Protestant evangelism in the 17th and 18th centuries are too vivid to him. For all that, there is here displayed a microscopic social and ecological unit of great charm.

What this book does is to bring home the recurring defeat of Highland society. The chiefs abandoned the role of fathers to their people, which at best had been patchily fulfilled, and became unsympathetic landlords. The Protestant Church had little manpower at first for outlying areas, and never much in the way of a Gaelic-speaking ministry, though in the 18th century it tried to obtain one. Lowland Presbyterian society believed that civilisation and virtue were synonymous with Whig politics, the English language and the extirpation of Popery. The islands could not produce good incomes for their owners and also sustain a large peasantry. Eventually most owners chose money rather than men. In the 20th century the area has suffered from cheeseparing on communications, by local and central agencies, with all important decisions made by people lacking local experience. The integration of the Highlands and Islands into Lowland society and government has seen the meagreness of local resources matched by a meagreness of government spirit.