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.

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