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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in