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From Scenes Like These – Scottish Review of Books
by Christopher Harvie

From Scenes Like These

June 8, 2012 | by Christopher Harvie

80% of kids from Scottish technical colleges not even up to motor maintenance’. This came after a programme of PFI school/college building had  saddled local authorities with terrific debt and dodgy buildings, often, as in Earlston or Duns, duplicating recent construction that’s now lying derelict.

On the day the Scotsman ran that story I started on the new Oxford Handbook on the Munro’s bus to Kelso – whose lively town-centre shops are now challenged by a massive Waitrose where the ‘distant’ railway station once stood. At the back two grunge-clad teens effed and blinded their way from Borders College: not quite like their granddads in Gordon Williams’ From Scenes like These (1969) – for they were nerds not neds – and even that book’s weather-window of job opportunity has long closed …
… unlike that of Alex Salmond, whose SNP then had only one MP. His stint as oil economist of the Royal Bank had been 1980-87, the era of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981) and John Byrne’s TV Saga Tutti Frutti (1987) and as cheerfully dashing and irreverent. That was half a lifetime ago, when the Royal Bank of Scotland, rescued in 1981, was run by Charlie Winter. ‘A banker’s banker’ was then a compliment.

Its 2008 collapse would rain on Salmond’s party but fail to quench its growth. But turn to the website of the Modern Studies Association: supposed to service the ‘past times and places’ that’s to replace history. Survey the winners of power-point presentation (for S3-4 grades): paste-ups of half-digested citations from Wikipedia, original only in their erratic grammar. The site is – without joining the MSA, only partially accessible – but this fairly represents the quality of its discourse. Not reassuring.

The new Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History ought to be helpful here. Of the two Old English Universities, Oxford has always been the more pluralist, with ‘local’ colleges like Scots Balliol and Welsh Jesus. A Scots academic director, the late Robin Den-nistoun, ensured Oxford University Press didn’t promote an Oxford Peterhouse: Niall Ferguson was self-made. It was, though national, always hybrid. Its grandest twentieth-century Chancellor, Alfred Viscount Milner, kingpin of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, attended Tuebingen Gymnasium, as son of the Lancashire-German doctor who founded my Seminar.

Such a Handbook must also explain malfunction within the Scottish establishment. The Reform Scotland thinktank opined that national wellbeing will improve if Scots local democracy were pruned even further. Tony Benn, women-in-general, and Thomas Carlyle were absent from the new Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Then, anent Waverley, there was the ‘Tapestry of Scotland’. Supervised by Alexander McCall Smith and Alastair Moffatt, it had 107 panels structured by Patrick Crummy, who designed Prestonpans, and was artistically well-conceived, and largely woman-powered. But of the names so far cited, 41 males are balanced by St Margaret, Lulu and Dolly the cloned sheep.

Such distortion is historic, the Scottish ‘estates’ – law, kirk, education, local government, sport – being alas enduringly male, with the result that the domestic, affective, and nurturing will unendingly be disadvantaged. There is a similar malfunction to the Handbook, despite the high quality of its contents, and a good shot at gender balance (a third of the contributors are women). It fumbles recent Scottish history, and fails the accessibility test. Michael Lynch’s Oxford Companion (2001) lost enquirers in an awkward reference system. TM Devine and Jenny Wormald don’t make this mistake but their index is too short to be serviceable: only 20 pages supporting a near-700 page text. Name references extend only to the Stewart monarchs. Up against the Wikipedia generation, the Handbook’s excellence is disadvantaged.

For the content is nearly all good and encouraging. Younger scholars contribute with originality, guided I think in the earlier period by Wormald’s long essay ‘Reformations, Unions and Civil Wars, 1485-1660’ which stood out from the dullness of a ‘British’ counterpart: Jonathan Clark’s symposium A People Apart (2010). She ought to extend it to 1715 as a study of Stewart confederalism, which will come in handy by-and-by.

But it wouldn’t be slighting to the main authors to say that the weight on interpretation has been in the early modern period. The recent past is more contentious and here the Handbook seems to take its cue from the divided sensibilities on show in Cairns Craig’s eloquent tour of a literary horizon defined, not always convincingly, by its bards, and Colin Kidd’s equally emphatic default position: the argument, made by the historian, William Lecky, for ‘nationalist unionism’.

Is this convincing? Interestingly Graeme Morton backs it up with the Victorian individualist Duncan MacLaren as typifier. But does this work? MacLaren wasn’t as Morton states a Free Kirk man but that quite different thing, a Scots-English Free Churchman, or nonconformist. He ended in 1886 by following Birmingham – John Bright (his brother-in-law) and Joe Chamberlain – into Radical Unionism. The MacLarens would become the Aberconway china-clay dynasts, bridging Cornwall, North Wales, and the Potteries, and Duncan’s grandson was the highly articulate F S Oliver, Managing Director of Debenham’s, biographer of Alexander Hamilton and associate of Buchan and Mil-ner. ‘Imperial federalism’ as a movement only lasted nine years from 1885 to 1894, vanishing even before the imbroglio of the Boer War, but it showed that a Scots myth could extend into, and exchange with, other places’ myths – the American frontier, Ger-man civil courage – and in due course take on a new relevance.

Kidd has ended up, like the Smiles family themselves, in Belfast: a position as the late A T Q Stewart showed, imbued with self-critical rigour, yet scarcely a broad field, rich in prospects. To look at another Edinburgh group, in St Peter’s Presbytery, Morningside, in which characters as various as Patrick Geddes, Charles Scott-Moncrieff, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon gathered around Father John Gray, is to get perhaps as close as Scotland managed to the ‘reorientation of European social thought’ (Durkheim to Proust, Weber to Mann) that H Stuart Hughes would identify – importantly for a later generation of nationalist intellos – in Consciousness and Society in 1958.

Catriona MacDonald opens up the history of the uphill task undertaken by women of Agnes Mure Mackenzie’s generation, surrendering – see above – their own cause to project that of Scottish patriotism. But more, more … we plead. Where in this come feisty but incalculable elements like Rebecca West, Naomi Mitchison, or Jennie Lee? Lee’s autobiographies were a remarkable seven-veil dance in which the pieties of Lochgelly gave way to the Wife of Nye and later to someone tough, sexy, hard-drinking and against the odds successful. See also Marie Stopes or – why not? – Fay Weldon, brought up in New Zealand, south Scotland, studying in St Andrews, and chucking politics and men about like grenades?

The editors echo Christopher Smout in registering that ‘economic history, formerly the catalyst, has now virtually disappeared into oblivion’. That was in 2007 just before it clambered from the tomb with a cleaver and made for the Scottish banks. The business basis of such history is of course business: when that gets taken over/closed down, the food chain is cut – just as the closure of Ravenscraig in 1992 chopped mechanical engineering lecturers at Motherwell College from 170 to single figures.

What post-historical economics then got up to isn’t alas recorded much in G C Peden’s  study of the economy since the 1960s. He has interesting things to say about the misfit between UK government policy and its indifferent northern implementers, but is made to do too much in too short a space, and alas can’t even start on the historiography.

In the 1970s, an inter-war lefty critique frantically spied neo-capitalism reviving in Scots boardroom networks. In the mid-1980s such ‘villains’ simply sold out their manufacturing interests, followed in the 1990s by their retail holdings. In the noughties the banks, spinning self-serving networks out of bonehead sell-offs like the railways, promoted First and Stagecoach, overdid it and imploded. On the figures connected with this not a finger has been laid, outside the journalism of the likes of Robert Peston’s uneven Who Runs Britain.
But the story needs to be told as, after reading through the Handbook, much undiscovered country remains that way. The charnel-house economics of West Coast Scotland stick around, in which drug-and-booze profit-recycling, incoming Falls-and-Shankill ghetto-gangsterism, periodic injections of ‘jobs on the tar’, get some distance towards south Italian levels of socio-politics: its journalism has declined to suit.

To Cairns Craig, admittedly, romantic Scotland seems totally dead and gone, though the obsequies are done with style. Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me and book-length essay The Death of British Farming get tantalisingly close to an imagination engaging, then back off, just when the migration of ‘sectball’ into the realms of financial finagling seems likely to cause a second Ravenscraig on the terraces. How many Scots, of all religions and none, will weep as ‘The Old Firm’ gives up the ghost? Probably most will cheer, but there’s nothing in the index on recreation, against nearly two pages on religion. The 2008 banking crash ought to have reactivated economic historians, but it may now be too late.

This isn’t however something that’s going to take root in a chamber like Holy-rood, where the ceaseless toil by bright young graduates over the fin-de-jour wine-and-canapes produces endless beautiful handouts, helping the colour pics of the country’s fading quality press. Does it  impact on the footbollocks of the Sun and the Record? Tabloid political writing has produced in Andrew Nicoll as good a comic writer as George MacDonald Fraser, but despite electoral high jinks, constitutionalism is defined by the poll stats of dour John Curtice: a zone where discursive history ventures at its own risk.

What’s not to find? Iain McLean on Scot-land’s now far-from-local government? In the 1970s he financed England’s best regional rapid-transit system: the Tyne and Wear Metro, so could have tackled Edinburgh’s Other Disgrace. He wrote illuminatingly of the Red Clyde and Aberfan; of working-class-heroes mutating into ‘Municipal Peter the Greats’. But a younger Nuffield political historian, James Mitchell, would have more to offer on the grandeurs et misères of devolution and the Salmond decade.

Assessing Scotland’s quangocracy is only marginal in the essays of GC Peden and David McCrone. 1970s Fabians, thought devolution would come from Labour’s extension of the state sector. Nor does the Scots tradition within the Open University figure or the oil boom of the 1970s. Until derailed by Scots local government and such ‘grand eccentrics’ out of a very British elite as Tam Dalyell and Lord Dacre. This would probably have bought a federal Britain as part of a tripartite social-democratic Europe: Eurocrats in hourly electric trains running the London-Paris-Bonn triangle. You get the character of this in Roy Jenkins’ unmannered and engaging European Diary, 1977-1981, for those young in the aftermath of the Prague Spring and the Dissenting Academy, annual rekindlings of high culture at the Usher Hall, anti-Polaris marches, the recovery of feminism. And despite the handsome work of a new generation, you look in vain for these here.

The problem about the Handbook’s wonky reference system is that you’re likely to start at the beginning with Smout’s ‘Land and Sea’ essay and this would be a terrible mistake. You might be too affected to read further. Save it until the end, because Smout writes like Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four but with such ease and wit that only afterwards do you register that ‘flash of lightning in a grocer’s shop’.
Its impact – from minute observation to devastating conclusion – is best summed up simply by quoting:

‘Sheep graze close and tread lightly, their small hard dung sits on the surface and oxidises in the wind, whereas the old black cattle had grazed high, punctured the ground with their hooves, and the runny dung got into the sward.’

‘0nly 6 per cent of the land surface was under wood in 1960, but 17 per cent is afforested today, mostly by conifers.’

‘… by 1939 there were reckoned to be 250,000 deer in the Highlands (but 347,000 by 1990) … Fraser Darling reckoned that sixty thousand was the highest population the land could bear without damage.’

‘Donald Trump in 2008 gained permission from the Scottish government to destroy the largest mobile dune system left in Scotland to build a golf resort.’

‘Scotland reckoned it got a raw deal in the allocation of catch quotas … but in the widespread evasion of quotas and ‘black fish’ the Scots were excelled by none.’

‘The productivity of the North Sea today is about one-tenth of what it was in 1883.’

‘Scotland in the early twenty-first century was apparently set on the road to  environmental disaster.’

It’s particularly depressing to calculate that Bambi – farting pure methane – is more of an ecological pest than all the cars in the Highlands. The wrecking of sustaining ecol-ogies by subsidised ‘enterprise’ and technical primitivism will have to be paid for. Trump was a comic turn flogging his toothsome schemes in the USA’s Springfields, selling out at the right moment to suckers. Attempts to warn Ministers about the pest … we tried, God knows we tried … failed against high-pressure PR, and Scotland got hurt.
Reading ‘Land and Sea’ ought to be compulsory for every secondary schoolkid, a skelp to comatose politicians and PR-drip-fed journalists.

The Handbook, however, costs a third of, and weighs twice as much as the ‘netbook’ on which I accessed the other material needed to write this. Its illustrations are few and arbitrary, and its index inadequate. More seriously, does it really enable younger writers with a launchpad for their own ideas, where wider-ranging interdisciplinary and international debates can be mounted?

Some blame can be put on the acrobatics of the Research Assessment Exercise’s ‘metrics’; more on the atrophy of bookshops, publishers and student literacy. We must reach the young men on the Kelso omnibus.

One possibility might be to organise such projects with the aid of the editorial staff of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, incorporating the sorts of internal reference that the ODNB makes possible. A virtual version of the Handbook coupled with shorter paperback volumes, might multiply its teaching effectiveness.

Devine and Wormald may have produced something akin to a projection of the First Minister: big, combining industry, power and style – but tending where? The incremental, clever blending of myth and ideology teased out by Cairns Craig, makes one reflect that history does not appear at all as any one of Robert Crawford’s Scotland’s Books (Penguin, 2008). Is Salmond Walter Scott’s Bailie Nicoll Jarvie, shrewd, strategic, word-skilled, or the equally perjink James Pawkie in John Galt’s The Provost, as clever yet thirled to a power network that he can’t open, and which could ultimately destroy him?

Devine’s two robust essays could valu-ably be attached to his The Scottish Nation as preface and To the Ends of the Earth as epilogue. His emphasis on the ‘sojourner’ both develops and cuts across Kidd’s legitimate but limiting preoccupation with the mythic, because it implies the processing of information acquired through travel and research, then recapitulated at the centre: the systematics of Edinburgh’s maps and encyclopaedias, the Murchisons, Bryces and Geddeses equally at home in the Arran hills and the Caucasus; the practical Jacobite Sir James Steuart writing to the proto-feminist Mary Wortley-Montagu from Tuebingen’s Ammertal in exile after the Forty-five: the necessary etatiste pendant to Adam Smith.

It’s important to reflect how much the Handbook owes to another Oxford Scot, Colin Mathew, remembered from May 1996, toasting with a generous Laphroaig the fall of the place’s last Tory councillor, a writer with the didactic imagination of Matthew Arnold and sharing his friendliness to Britain beyond England. As the shadows darken, one sets against the bogles of overelaborated myth and mind-forged manacles of ‘Britishness’ both Arnold’s intricate understanding of nature – deployed in Smout’s defence of ‘wildness and wet’ – and his brilliant metaphoric use both of The Wealth of Nations and the Scots creation-myth in the Arbroath Declaration, in the exhilarating coda to ‘The Scholar Gipsy’:

Then fly our greetings, fly our speech and smiles!
As some grave Tyrian trader, from the sea,
Descried at sunrise an emerging prow Lifting the cool-hair’d creepers stealthily, The fringes of a southward-facing brow Among the Aegean isles;
And saw the merry Grecian coaster
Freighted with amber grapes, and Chian wine,
Green bursting figs, and tunnies steep’d in brine;
And knew the intruders on his ancient home,
The young, light-hearted masters of the waves;
And snatch’d his rudder, and shook out
And day and night held on indignantly O’er the blue Midland waters with the
Betwixt the Syrtes and soft Sicily
To where the Atlantic raves
Outside the Western Straits; and unbent
There, where down cloudy cliffs, through sheets of foam,
Shy traffickers, the dark Iberians come; And on the beach undid his corded bales.
Oxford University Press has provided more of a force for global good than more consciously-structured research bodies – as those shrewd Arran Gaels, the brothers Macmillan, did in Arnold’s own day. Getting the presentation right is thus all the more important. The handbook fails on this count, but the talent on show is immensely reassuring: ‘Our Scholar travels yet the loved hillside.’
* * *
And that’s enough rhetoric. Switch to Prof Alex Kemp’s Official History of North Sea Oil (Routledge, 2012) for a corrective taken from contemporary history. Turn to footnote 2 on p. 610 of Volume One:
‘Notable examples of files which have been destroyed are all those of BNOC (the British National Oil Corporation) and those of the Offshore Supplies Office relating to the period from 1982 onwards.’
These bodies were the UK’s equivalent of Norway’s Statoil, which will have brought the Norwegian people $ 717 billion by 2014. Those responsible for this act can only be regarded as subject to charges of treason.


TM Devine and Jenny Wormald, eds.
PP. 707, £ 95. ISBN: 978 019953692

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