Tartan hue in not-so-sweet imperial past

Scotland's Empire, 1600-1815
April 1, 2005

It is evidence of the changing nature of imperial and Scottish history that a book such as this for non-specialists should be published by a major press. Scotland has always had a popular readership for serious history. Even if few academic authors could match the success of T.C. Smout's elegant surveys of Scottish social history, T.M. Devine's The Scottish Nation (1999) showed that a direct style could appeal to a mass market.

The work of John M. Mackenzie and the Oxford History of the British Empire have shown that imperial history is no longer a triumphal story of the success of an elite; and the place of Scots, Scottish ideas and institutions has been one facet of this re-evaluation. "Scotland and the empire" is a theme that has buzzed round seminar rooms north of the border in the past decade, and here, Devine taps into a fresh historiography to produce this clear survey of the topic. It is a sign of the growing maturity of historical debate in Scotland that critical analysis of involvement in the empire can be examined from a variety of perspectives. Indeed, this is the second big book to be published on this theme in recent years, following on from Michael Fry's Scottish Empire . There are dangers here, however; it is important that the empire does not become another venue for the construction of a "wha's like us" version of Scottish exceptionalism. There was some evidence of this disfigurement in a television series broadcast by BBC Scotland in 2003, despite the sobering presence of Devine and a veritable army of academic talking heads.

Devine has drawn on his research - most notably on the tobacco trade and on emigration - as well as that of a wide constituency of scholars. His approach is to take the reader on a cruise of the different geographical locations where Scots were prominent. There are, however, pauses to consider the relationship between the Union of 1707 and imperial ideas, mass emigration (a notable lacuna in Fry's book), the enthusiastic participation of Scots in imperial military endeavours, and the impact of the empire on Scottish economic and social development.

Each chapter is clear and concise, but it is to take nothing away from the discussions of Canada, India or Australia to say that those of the "Caribbean world" and "Cultural relationships and the American Revolution" stand out. The former discusses recent research that has not yet broken out of academic circles and emphasises the extent of Scottish involvement in the sugar trade, with all the miseries and barbarities attendant on an enslaved workforce. In his discussion of the American Revolution, Devine lambasts recent hagiographical depictions of the Scots. This view has mutated in the public and political world to produce parochial excesses such as "Tartan Day", with even Scottish devolved legislators seemingly immune to unease at its uncritical flag-waving.

If this clear summary of Scottish historical endeavour reaches as wide an audience as Devine's previous book, then it may provide an antidote to uncritical celebrations of Scots as the inventors of the modern world, and a platform for the army of younger scholars whose work has made Scottish history such an extrovert subject in recent years.

Ewen A. Cameron is senior lecturer in Scottish history, Edinburgh University.

Scotland's Empire, 1600-1815

Author - T. M. Devine
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 474
Price - £25.00 and £8.99
ISBN - 0 7139 9498 3 and 0 14 029687 5

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