Monday 6 March 2023



"The cover quotes Irvine Welsh: ‘Every Scot should read it.’ No. Everyone, I say, should read it..."

Graeme Fife is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history and fiction. His novel of the French Revolution, No Common Assassin, tells the story of Charlotte Corday.

The cover quotes Irvine Welsh: ‘Every Scot should read it.’ No. Everyone, I say, should read it, everyone interested in why the society of these islands is what it is, the fault lines, the tensions - we English with our damnable class structure, the Irish riven with unionism and the legacy of Anglo-Irish interference, the Scots, freer of tribalism, these days, if divided on political issues… Little Englanders, imperious and sentimental, sniffily call them ‘dour and practical’ whereas they’re less judgemental, more ecumenical.

I once taught at a public school (groan) whose governors came from the ancient Fishmongers Company and, puzzled, I asked the Headmaster whether they went from rich to not so rich. He replied: ‘From rich to extremely rich: they own most of Scotland and Ireland.’

Still true and if not in practical exactitude, the repercussions linger, our royal family persists in its depredations, the mockery of the tartans continues to astonish…

Of the obvious stars of the Scottish Enlightenment we already know – the engineers, the doctors, the philosophers; their contribution is undisputed and essential to a cultural shift in Europe overturning centuries of stagnation and ecclesiastical strait-lacing. Oddly, one element in Scottish society which contributed to the reshaping of idea and social regeneration was the kirk, that centre of bigotry and fearsome moral control exemplified by extreme Calvinist preachers like John Knox – his polemical pamphlet The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women (1558) insisted that the power wielded by queens ran contrary to the dictates of the Bible. However patriarchal the tone, nevertheless his fierce Protestant belief that the mediation of a priest harms the liaison between man/sinner and God, underpins a more egalitarian principle than in any society structured on class divisions opposing the wealthy few and the lesser many, where people are expected to do what they’re told by those with money, land and therefore power. Such an egalitarian ideal not only proved to be very influential but, in the words of Thomas Reid, an Aberdonian theologian: ‘Settled truth can be attained by observation’ is, incontrovertibly, ‘a science of human freedom’ and, indeed, provided the core impulse of the American revolution against despotism. 

 The grip of the kirk gradually waned, though Burns was still put on what we might call his local kirk’s ‘naughty seat’ for his dalliances. In the Scottish novel Sunset Song (Lewis Grassic Gibbon), the recording angel keeps Burns waiting at the Pearly Gates while he hides the Virgin Mary, in case the lecherous Ayrshire Lothario should corner her. As the kirk’s bigotry faded so a new community of thought informed the thinking of Scottish moral philosophers. Thus Adam Smith, born in Kirkcaldy, fused the ‘soft’ side of the Enlightenment, the belief in man’s innate goodness, its faith in the power of education to enlighten and liberate, and the ‘hard’ side, its cool and sceptical distrust of human motives and intentions. Smith cannot resolve this tension and it continues to permeate modern life and mustn’t be ignored. (The ‘soft’ side informs the French revolutionary insistence that human virtue may be enforced through law.)

Commerce and trade matter: the increasing wealth of Glasgow based on various trading enterprises and industry, Scots venturing out to distant markets and returning to establish a new hub which didn’t depend on ‘English gold’, to cite Burns. Two major cities, now: Glasgow and Edinburgh, new-built, models of grace in design. The eventual erosion of clan feudalism counts, too, in the emancipation of a society more and more independent and free-thinking, sponsoring the main flow of cultural influence from north to south instead of an imposition as it had ever been from south to north. Enterprise and education, the marriage of theoretical and practical, germane to the straight-talking, more open-minded Scot than the hidebound toffs of their more potent neighbour with whom they were – increasingly unwillingly – united. The cruel repression of that determination to shake off the chains – Jacobitism, the violence of the redcoats – stirs much beyond resentment; it fuelled clarity of mind on the issues pertinent. Herman stresses the presence in Scotland of a willingness to pursue a mix of education, religion, language and an ability to manage social contact better, in contrast, for instance, to the more rigid ‘them and us’ of the aristocratic / plebeian travails of England. Education, above all, and a trust of technology – the industrial revolution which ensued on the freeing of minds – ‘mehr Licht’ in Goethe’s last words – show themselves pre-eminent in Scottish society even as England insisted on books books books, the older the better. All very well but where are mathematics, engineering, making? Death to Privilege… the message of the Scottish radicals, out of sterner pious ideals, maybe. If only it were so.

The Scottish Enlightenment is published by Fourth Estate.  

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is reviewed (and highly recommended) by Graeme here.

Read this Q&A with Graeme about his French Revolution novel, No Common Assassin:

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