Review of: “How the Scots Invented the Modern World”, by Arthur Herman

This book describes the development of intellectual life and related events in Scotland from about 1700 onward. Scotland in 1700 was a small, poor, largely agrarian independent nation, still characterized in large part by feudalism. In much of the country, clansmen in their kilts constantly robbed and fought each other. By 1800, it was an economically thriving section of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and a huge contributor to modern thought on many levels. The subtitle on the front jacket of the book expansively portrays its contents as: “The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It”.

A key event which helped launch this flowering was an economic one. The 1690’s were an unusually cold decade, leading to famine and poverty in the more northern European countries like Scotland. Scottish trade and industry were constricted by the policies of England, their more powerful neighbor to the south. Other nations of Western Europe in the 1600’s had colonies in the Americas, which seemed to be a source of national wealth and influence. Scotland tried to found her own colony, called Darien, on the coast of the Isthmus of Panama. A huge fraction of the wealth of Scotland was invested in this venture. It failed, for various reasons, which was an economic disaster for the country.

This led to a willingness on the part of the Scottish elite to surrender their independence in return for the chance to participate in commerce on the same terms as the English and under the protection of the Royal Navy. An Act of Union between the two kingdoms was approved in 1707. This led to a rise in prosperity and helped set in motion various influences of modernization.

A lively intellectual life in the burgeoning cities of the Scottish lowlands put Scotland at the forefront of the 18th century enlightenment. The Scottish Enlightenment was more practical and aligned with common sense than was the Enlightenment of the French philosophes.  David Hume and Adam Smith are just two of the significant Scottish thinkers of this era. The works of Hume and of Smith (e.g. The Wealth of Nations) are still required reading today in the fields of philosophy and of economics.

Scots likewise made great contributions to science and technology. Today we measure power in terms of “watts”, a tribute to James Watt, whose improvements to steam engines made them finally practical for widespread use. We drive on “macadam” roads, initially developed by John McAdam.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World weaves all these themes together, going into enough detail with key actors to make them come alive as real persons. Since there are so many books and so little time, I rarely go back and reread a book. Also, I ruthlessly pruned my collection as part of our recent household interstate move. But I have found myself picking up this volume from time to time, and so it survived the cut. I recommend it as an entertaining and enlightening read.