Guide to Scotland
   Gateway to the British Isles since 1996
A Brief History of Scotland

Presented by Peter N. Williams, Ph.D.

Chapter 11: Transformation

In this explosion of arts and letters, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen became centers of a lively press. Papers such as the Edinburgh "Evening Courant" and the "Caledonian Mercury" were matched by the "Aberdeen Journal", begun in 1747 and surviving still as the "Press and Journal". They were eagerly sought by, and had a tremendous effect on, the general reading public. In 1771, the first edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica" began a tradition that has lasted for centuries and which has had an incalculable effect on generation after generation of scholar, pupil, teacher and inquirer of knowledge.

In 1791, an immense leap forward in the difficult art of biography was achieved by James Boswell, whose "Life of Samuel Johnson" remains the standard by which all subsequent biographies have been judged. The discipline of architecture too, was superbly represented by Scotsmen Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers, both of whom were directly employed (and heavily favored) by George III.

The Highland poets were also busy. The great failure of the Jacobite Rebellion provided lots of material for a continuation of the Celtic literary tradition. By this time, Scots Gaelic had evolved very differently from Irish and was beginning to assert its cultural independence by producing its own literature. In 1751, Alexander MacDonald published his patriotic and martial verse, the first literary work to appear in Scots Gaelic. Traditional Highland love songs and paeans to the mountain scenery then appeared in 1768 in the works of Duncan Ban MacIntyre.

In 1763, the "translations" of James MacPherson of the Gaelic epic poet Ossian ("Fingal" and "Temora") caused a sensation throughout literary Europe. Though subsequently denounced by Dr. Samuel Johnson as the work of an impostor, the poems whetted the appetite for more Celtic lore. They helped grow a mythology of popular Scottish romantic heroes such as Robert Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, Rob Roy MacGregor, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald. Of more importance, however for the survival of the Gaelic language was the publication of Dugald Buchanan's hymns in 1767.

In a remarkably short time after Culloden, Edinburgh had become known throughout Europe and North America as the "Athens of the North." Its literary achievements were remarkable. A short list of what was produced there includes Tobias Smollett's "Humphrey Clinker"; Henry Mackenzie's "The Man of Feeling", Elizabeth Hamilton's "The Cottagers of Glenburnie" and three novels by Susan Ferrier. All these before Walter Scott and Robert Burns appeared on the scene to put a cap on this remarkable period of Scottish imaginative writing. If this were not enough, Sir Henry Raeburn and Sir David Wilkie made their own glorious contributions on their canvases. The former in his portraits of those who mattered--the viscounts, chiefs, judges and high-society women; the latter of those who didn't--the simple country folk about their everyday business.

Yet, not everything was well in Scotland, this long-neglected area of the New Britain. Destruction of the powerful clans meant the disappearance of old traditions and a loss of identity for many of the Highland people. The government in London sought to break the patriarchal links between the chief and his clan. Through legislation, they reduced the old powerful chiefs to nothing more than landed proprietors, more interested in making their estates pay than in the welfare of their clansmen.

Thus, a stroke of the pen in London was able to transform a way of life that had existed from time immemorable. To make an estate pay meant clearing land and clearing land meant dispossessing tenants. Hence, the infamous Highland clearances took place. The old English complaint that "sheep do eateth up people" could now be aptly applied to the Highlands if we add cattle to sheep.

It wasn't just the political scene that was affected by union with England. The Act of Union gave a great stimulus to the traditional Scottish industry of cattle rearing which took advantage of the revolutionary advances made in English farming in the early part of the 18th century. When "Turnip" Townsend showed how cattle could be kept fat and healthy even during winter, it was inevitable that Scottish farmers would take notice. The adoption of the simple turnip and the introduction of crop rotation worked wonders. There was a lucrative market for Scottish cattle south of the border. From huge cattle markets such as at Crieff, a flow of capital back to the farms helped transform Scottish agriculture enormously; making it a highly profitable business.

The great Scottish lairds quickly took advantage of what was going on in England and set about making improvements to their vast and hitherto often wasted land holdings. In 1723, they formed the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland. In 1764, James Small invented a light, easily manageable plough that was to become an enormous benefit on the improved estates. In 1786, Andrew Meikle invented the threshing machine that quickly replaced the hand-operated and wasteful flail that had been used since the beginnings of agriculture.

The notorious Corn Laws, which artificially kept the price of wheat high and did so much damage to Ireland, were passed in 1815. Many of its beneficiaries were the owners of the huge landed estates in Scotland, where enclosures brought unwelcome social change and led to further displacement of those who had worked their little subsistence farms for centuries. Despite the introduction in the late 18th century of potato cultivation, which provided a cheap and easily grown food, the displacement of the people of the Highlands, continued unabated.

So, it came to pass that while Scotland as a whole was being completely transformed economically and socially, the Highlands regressed. The loss of lands, population and language continued unabated. It wasn't just Culloden that destroyed the Gaelic culture. Thousands of Highlanders, landless and homeless, now found themselves "clanless" with no option but to join the armed services, or add to the numbers of dispossessed in the rapidly growing cities in the economic transfiguration of the Clyde Valley, or simply to emigrate. There just weren't enough opportunities for everyone to become a fisherman or a crofter. The notorious Sutherland clearances, depriving thousands of tenants of their holdings, lasted well into the reign of Victoria, regardless of the sympathy for and identification with the country the Queen loved to visit. In the 1840's, the situation wasn't helped any by the forced absorption of countless thousands of Irish, forced to flee their native land in an even worse plight brought on by the potato famine.

Chapter 12: Scots Wha Hae