Cropping the bluebells

Angus Calder

  • A Century of the Scottish People: 1830-1950 by T.C. Smout
    Collins, 318 pp, £15.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 00 217524 X
  • Living in Atholl: A Social History of the Estates 1685-1785 by Leah Leneman
    Edinburgh, 244 pp, £15.00, April 1986, ISBN 0 85224 507 6

Professor Smout has had the difficult task of providing a sequel to a book which now looks like a landmark in Scottish historiography. Published in 1969, his History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 combined economic, social and cultural history to provide a new overview of Scotland in transition which dissolved mythologies and liberated imagination. Its effects have been seen in many valuable monographs published since. As the Scottish landscape was once transformed by lairdly improvers, so Smout and his followers have created fertile fields where there were once intellectual bogs. Thus, while Dr Leneman’s Living in Atholl is not going to shake post-Smout conceptions – it is essentially a conscientious sifting of the Atholl Muniments in Blair Castle and shows signs of necessary deference towards the ducal line whose latest representative honours it with a foreword – it contributes new tinctures and shadows to our picture of 18th-century Scotland. The Atholl estates straddled Highlands and Lowlands. Dr Leneman, who makes enterprising use of Gaelic verse, quotes in translation a poem of 1781 which salutes the Duke’s lovely province:

You lie in the middle of Scotland,
Your air is pure, your water is fast flowing ...
Your straths are pleasant and productive,
Clad with grass and corn ...
Your people live in tranquillity and sufficiency ...

As she points out, this helps to confirm the judgment of an English traveller six decades earlier (Captain Burt): that Atholl and its people were exceptional in the general ‘gloomy’ Highland vista.

Though the gentry – including some of the ducal family – were Jacobite in Fifteen and Forty-Five, ordinary countrymen showed little enthusiasm for that cause and had to be bullied to fight for Prince Charlie. A recruiter complained that the men of Dunkeld were ‘quite degenerat from their Ancestors, and not one spark of Loyalty among them’. But Atholl Highlanders, who had eagerly welcomed the Hanoverian Campbells, supposedly their traditional foes, were rewarded by brutal oppression from Cumberland’s soldiers, acting on their general’s belief that all Gaels were Jacobites. Dr Leneman’s lengthy quotations from documents point to a complex situation, contradicting mythological simplifications, yet showing where the roots of such may be found.

Likewise, she confirms, so far as this area goes, the traditional view that lower-class Scots showed an unusual thirst for learning – as when the people of remote Glen Tilt petitioned the 3rd Duke in 1769 for a school convenient for their ‘bairns’, who would otherwise ‘be lost for want of education’ – but undermines the myth that Scottish education was egalitarian. Free and cheap instruction was deliberately limited in scope: ‘for the majority, all that was considered necessary was to be able to read English in order to understand the Scriptures,’ and there was little chance to go further, since charity schoolmasters were ‘expressly forbidden’ to teach Latin. On the other hand, the assumption that coalminers in Scotland, as serfs, must necessarily have been downtrodden, is called into question by evidence from the Dukes’ Lowland mine at Blairingone in Clackmannan, where colliers in 1740 earned wages eight or nine times as high as the average for agricultural workers. Dr Leneman’s study insinuates pretty effectively the view that the Atholl estates were successfully managed in a spirit of ‘enlightened paternalism’. Perhaps the jocundly pastoral, fresh-faced musicians and dancers in David Allan’s famous painting of a ‘Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl’, which is reproduced as her dust-jacket, are less idealised than one has supposed.

Whatever good there was in 18th-century ways of life in Scotland – and notwithstanding the brief Jacobite irruptions, it was on the whole a more peaceful land than England, and increasingly dedicated to Improvement – industrialisation wrought transformation. Smout covered the early stages of the process in his History of the Scottish People. Despite his realism about conditions in the new industries and the sad fate of the handloom weavers, despite his regret at the eclipse of Enlightened rational optimism as Evangelicalism secured a blighting grip on the blackening cities, and despite his conclusion that the tendency for decades before 1830 had been for the culture to become ‘more British and less specifically Scottish’, that book ended with a sense of upbeat. Smout had explored and attempted to explain an astonishing afflatus of intellectual discovery, creative talent and entrepreneurial drive – a ‘cultural golden age’ in one small country which had had, and went on having, world-wide consequences.

A Century of the Scottish People, however, takes up the story again in a different, a sad spirit. One reason for Smout’s change of temper may be that, whereas in 1969 he could half-hint at a coming upsurge in favour of Home Rule, he now writes in the aftermath of the abortive referendum of 1979. He extols the belief, partly inherited from the Enlightenment, which he finds in Scottish radicalism down to the 1920s: that ‘by the exercise of political will, the people hold their own future in their own hands.’ In 1979, offered some measure of greater democratic control, two-thirds of Scots preferred to leave their future in the hands of Southerners. This, Smout seems to believe, was already prefigured by 1950, the terminus of his oddly inflated ‘century’. Scots then seemed mostly content to opt, under Westminster governance in a capitalist and inegalitarian order, for ‘the fruits of the collectivist State, of the rule of the expert, and of a policy of welfare determined from above and afar’. He admits that the material quality of life went on improving, down to the mid-1970s, but laments the loss of a ‘vibrant political culture’. So his instincts as a radical democrat are at odds with his role as compassionate historian of everyday life.

Further, he finds that ‘the perspectives of the social historian and the economic historian show our century in very contrasting lights.’ The latter sees a ‘triumphal progression’ from the success of textiles in the first phase of industrialisation through that of iron and coal in the second, followed by a surge in ‘steel, ships, jute, tweed and high farming’ which crashed dismally with the post-1920 depression. But the social historian notices that life in the heydays of success was commonly brutish and that the inter-war years show a marked improvement for ordinary people in terms of health and housing, real income and recreation. The grandchildren of the ‘vibrant’ Scots who worked for heroic industrial success under Beardmore, or strove for a new world order with Keir Hardie, have settled cannily, Smout’s overview implies, for bread and circuses, alias sliced loaf and East Enders. This he most controversially tends to attribute to what he sees as the malign effects of the Scottish education system – still complacently admired by many of those whom he deems to have been its victims.

The general ethos of Scottish education, he argues, was throughout his ‘century’ anti-egalitarian. It aimed ‘firstly at providing, as cheaply as possible, the bulk of the population with the bare minimum of education combined with adequate social discipline, and secondly, at giving a small number of children of all classes, but especially of the higher classes, a more respectable academic education, to qualify them for their role as a controlling élite.’ Following the Education Act of 1872, old burgh schools which had given some kind of general access to learning were either transformed, as in 13 cases, into ‘Higher Class Schools’, fee-paying at first, or made into essentially elementary board schools. Edinburgh’s professional middle class successfully captured for its own purposes the funds of the Merchant Company schools and of the Heriot Trust, which had originally been intended for the unprivileged. As a present-day resident, I can confirm that educational snobbery is uniquely widespread in Edinburgh.

For the mass of the population, education thus came to involve a syllabus restricted to the three R’s, thrashed home with the tawse, instilling what A.S. Neill called ‘a gigantic inferiority complex’. Smout sees this as the key ‘to some of the more depressing aspects of modern Scotland’, where there are ‘too many people who fear what is new, believe the difficult to be impossible, draw back from responsibility, and afford established authority and tradition an exaggerated respect.’

Well, followers of George Davie and his vision of the ‘democratic intellect’ in Scottish education might dispute Smout’s emphases while necessarily admitting many of his facts. Readers of certain recent Scottish fiction and poetry, on the other hand, will find the image of the crass and brutal dominie vividly present, as with Tom Leonard’s ‘Mr Johnstone’:

Jenkins, all too clearly it is time
for some ritual physical humiliation;
and if you cry, boy, you will prove
what I suspect – you are not a man.

But comparison with other educational systems is needed to prove Smout’s case. And is contemporary Scotland, relatively, so servile and depressing? Its teachers have long been engaged in industrial action which has commanded wide public support, and which they seem to have conducted with greater élan and skill than their English counterparts, against a Conservative government for which, currently, only some 15 to 25 per cent of Scots are prepared to vote, and of which the middle-class supporters seem increasingly demoralised. Much fresh creativity is to be seen in literature and other arts. Smout is perhaps out of touch with the manifold local sources of liveliness. The stultification which his book purports to explain is not now so dominant as he suggests, and may not have been so even in 1950.

Had Smout explored in this new book the same range of materials with which he coped so well in his History of the Scottish People, he might have avoided the tone of humane gloom against which I reacted on first reading his Century and which made me, as I now find, underestimate it greatly. In the History, he discussed literary culture with great verve, and responded zestfully to Scottish achievements in architecture. In this sequel, he has narrowed his aim to the exploration of a ‘complex world of deprivation and social division’, and has decided to minimise treatment of ‘artistic or intellectual endeavour’. It is true that many who strove in these fields expatriated themselves, but this had also happened in the 18th century, and Orchardson, RLS and the later Haldanes did not spring from nowhere. Still less, so to speak, did Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Such large mainly home-based figures as Rennie Mackintosh, MacDiarmid, Joan Eardley, still inspirational today, are not admitted into Smout’s pages to tease us or to cheer us up. More seriously, Smout neglects, not indeed all popular culture – his pages on football are insightful if joyless – but some of its most important forms.

It is sad that he does not respond to the continuing vitality of folk music in Scotland, an object of surprised envy in some other parts of Europe. It is amazing that he can write a book with such a title without referring once to the D.C. Thomson press or to Harry Lauder. Inspired by Tom Nairn, Murray Grigor and Colin Macarthur, much interesting acerbic comment has latterly been passed on the semiotic nexus of Kailyardism, Brigadoon-ery, Sunday Post-ness and Tartanry where tourists and also many Scots have perceived regional or national identity. The sound of the pipes is not heard in Smout’s pages, nor is the swish of the kilt descried – and this is because he also leaves out of his survey the very significant position of the Army in Scottish life. I don’t claim that deconstruction of ‘Loch Lomond’ or Barthesian analysis of the Beano and the Broons would have lifted his spirits, still less that Scottish militarism is other than a distasteful subject. But perhaps the vigour, however perverted, of popular culture might help to explain how Scots have survived the dire conditions to which Smout draws attention.

I am being ungrateful. Within the scope which he has chosen, Smout’s book is excellent. He writes with due shock about the ‘dark exterior’ of life in industrialised Scotland. ‘What was the point of all those triumphs of the great Victorian age of industry if so many people were unspeakably oppressed by its operation?’ The ‘triumph’ of the shipbuilders and the juteocracy depended on low wages. Along with these went peculiarly bad housing conditions, which middle-class persons who profited from them contrived to attribute to the fecklessness of the poor themselves.

In 1861, 34 per cent of all Scottish houses had only one room and two-thirds of the entire population lived in one or two-room houses. ‘The “but-and-ben” and the “single end” were, in fact, the normal environment in which to bring up a family.’ Fifty years later, half the population were still so housed, compared to 7 per cent in England and Wales. Even in 1951, 15.5 per cent of Scots still lived more than two to the room, when the figure for England was 2.1 per cent. Smout attributes this disparity to the absence of a Poor Law in 19th-century Scotland, which led people to favour the cheapest possible housing rather than face disaster when unemployed, and to the feuing system, under which sellers of building land demanded the highest possible annual duties as well as big down-payments, so encouraging builders to maximise returns as fast as possible by rushing up small tenement homes.

From the Addison Act of 1919 which conceded subsidies to local authority housing, matters should have improved vastly. But, in fact, this and subsequent legislation contributed to the dismal aspect of urban Scotland. ‘Our hearts sank at the grimness of the towns,’ said Simone de Beauvoir when she and Sartre toured Scotland after the Second World War. Working-class people were decanted from centres which were ‘at least compact’ to ‘segregated and ill-served housing estates’. The tendency towards social apartheid was, typically, taken furthest in Edinburgh, but even in Glasgow, under Labour control from 1933, council officials ‘perpetuated the ancient distinctions between the respectable and the unrespectable poor’. The ‘unrespectable’ were given ‘Re-housing’ homes in a ghetto which became a by-word for sickness and violence, while the ‘respectable’ received ‘Ordinary’ accommodation.

Smout is acute about ‘respectability’. The Lowland Scottish artisan or skilled worker (around 1900 over 70 per cent of employment in the Glasgow region was more or less skilled) was, but was not, radically-inclined. Samuel Smiles was a Scotsman, and self-help and thrift were in his native air, inspiring the growth of co-operative societies and a most significant Temperance Movement, which arguably played the same role in the origins and early days of the Labour Party as Non-conformity did in England. The appalling ‘whisky culture’ of urban Scotland was finally given its quietus, not by militant teetotallism, but by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s discovery in 1909 that the Government could make money by taxing spirits heavily. However, the movement enjoyed a last moment of glory in the 1922 General Election when a Prohibitionist, Edwin Scrymgeour, defeated Winston Churchill in Dundee. One tragic aspect of the inter-war period was the battering of traditions of respectable ‘independence’ by slump in the great industries and by mass unemployment. If the Scottish workforce was demoralised – and Smout has a clear case here – it was, more likely, by this crude economic factor rather than by tawsewielding schoolteachers.

But the language of class throve. Independent working men had found it strongly present in the usage of the Liberal Party, which dominated Scotland electorally for decades: but when Gladstone spoke of the war of ‘class against masses’, this was a rallying cry against aristocrats and rural landlords. With many signs of reluctance, from the 1880s through the First World War, more and more Scottish workers realised that their interests were not, as they had supposed, identical with those of their employers. The insecurity of skilled men in the first two decades of the present century underlay those famous displays of militancy on the wartime Clyde, then the precociously large Labour vote in the West in 1922 which firmly attached the adjective ‘Red’ to the river. Both were reactive rather than revolutionary. Smout deplores seemingly ingrained class feelings, believing that Sweden and Japan have shown how harmony can bring economic success. But they seem to have been the inevitable outcome of that disparity between ‘economic’ and ‘social’ history to which he is so sensitive: so long as the economy was buoyant, evil material conditions could be tholed. When it faltered, working-class mistrust was inevitable.

Meanwhile Kailyardism and Tartanry were pulling Scots’ sense of identity yearningly towards regions of clean air, to the ‘wee bit hill and glen’ invoked in our recent nationalist anthem, ‘Flower of Scotland’. Regarding what really went on in the country places, Smout is judicious and balanced. Reaction against Highland clearances, and then the later ‘Crofter’s War’ of the 1880s, dramatised a development of class feeling beside lovely lochs which preceded and influenced urban bitterness. Whatever pastoral unity had existed, as maybe once in Atholl, between lord and commoner was destroyed as the values of industrialism advanced into glens now overpopulated. Smout can sympathise with the special attachment of the Gaels to their ancestral lands. But he is alert to ironies. People imagine that the Highlands were drastically depopulated by the Clearances, which certainly occurred and which were in some cases without doubt brutal. But Argyll had a population of 66,000 in 1755, and 63,000 in 1951. Half-way between these figures, the seven Highland counties, well after certain classic episodes of clearance had occurred, reached the historic peak of their populations. Pressure on the land was intense, and the famine caused by potato blight in 1846 vividly demonstrated that it could not reliably support so many. Recognition of this, rather than cruel landlordism per se, seems to have been the decisive cause of heavy emigration. The hard-won Crofters’ Holding Act of 1886 made it virtually impossible to evict a Highlander from his land: yet population over the next half-century fell markedly faster than in the rural Lowlands, where, up to this point, it had declined at the same rate. Smout has risked odium by coolly exposing the truth, anathema to passionate mythologists, that the Gaelic Highlands was merely one region among many in Europe over which the normal processes of industrialisation acted nastily.

Highlanders flocking to the USA and the colonies of settlement commonly did well, as did Lowlanders. It is a vast pity that Smout says so little, even speculatively, about the effects of emigration on Scotland over his ‘century’. Exodus on a significant scale was a perpetual feature of Scottish life, Lowland as well as Highland. It peaked in the first two decades of the 20th century at about 50 per cent of the natural increase of the population. Scottish consciousness has been enormously affected by this factor. To oversimplify: Scots who have emigrated and done well have looked back with mingled guilt and nostalgia. They provided bases for the enormous commercial success of Kailyard novels and of Harry Lauder. They have responded avidly to sentimentalisations such as Brigadoon. The international fame of Caledonian kitsch, brought home by ancestor-hunting tourists, has impressed Scots still in Scotland and convinced them that it is their true heritage. Hence Tom Nairn’s ‘great tartan monster’, a creature we have to live with since we now possess no alternative national symbolism.

But the wonderful array of photographs which Smout has assembled provides many haunting depictions of tartan-free ordinariness. They are an important feature of an important book, one which is sure to become, like its predecessor, a source of reference for many further studies and both stimulus and corrective to the imaginations of all who read it.