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Scotland and the British Empire

By Bernard Porter | Posted 27th June 2012, 14:57
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Scotland and the British Empire
Edited by John M. MacKenzie and T.M. Devine
Oxford University Press   344pp   £35

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The British Empire was never wholly English, of course, or even predominantly so. Scotland had its own colonial enterprises before the Act of Union (1707), and afterwards arguably contributed more to their joint imperial project than its southern neighbour. Of course you don’t find the Scots celebrating this much now, as imperialism is no longer generally considered to have been A Good Thing and the idea that they were colonial victims seems a better card to play for a people striving (some of them) for national independence. Today’s academic Scottish historians, however, know that ‘it is far too simplistic to consider the British Celtic fringe (and Scotland in particular) as somehow in a quasi-colonial relationship with the central and dominant English power.

'Victimhood' and even 'collaboration' are ‘inaccurate and inadequate’ to describe it. As imperialists – whether you want to see them as benefactors or oppressors – the Scots always (as the editors of this volume put it, though acknowledging the cliche) ‘punched above their weight’.

They also punched subtly differently from the English; and it is the distinctive contribution made by Scotland to the Empire that this book seeks to disentangle. It is not always easy. Scots seem to have hugely dominated certain colonial occupations: for example, Indian (but not African) administration, medicine, education, missionary work, surveying, conservation, engineering and certain financial activities. That at least is the impression given by contemporary hearsay; but it has not yet been backed up by any quantitative analysis and could just be the result of Scots abroad being louder in their nationalism than the English. (Probably not; but it needs to be checked.) Quite apart from this, Scottishness was never a pure, unsullied quality; even the famed ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ was part of a much broader European one; and the long union with England was bound to have produced a certain amount of cultural hybridity. Still, there were exceptional Scottish factors, whose influence it is perfectly possible to trace in the Empire; most of them emanating from Scotland’s distinctive social, religious and – especially – educational structures; but not, incidentally, from her equally distinctive legal system, which lost out to English common law when it came to the colonies. 

There is no chapter here on law, therefore; but there are on Scottish migration (by Angela McCarthy), trade and finance (T.M. Devine, Philipp Rössner and John MacKenzie), the East India Company (Andrew Mackillop), the Scottish intellectual diaspora (Cairns Craig), environmentalism (MacKenzie again), Scottish regiments (Devine again), missionaries (Esther Breitenbach), literature (Angela Smith) and various issues to do with Scottish national identity and its relationship to the Empire more generally (Richard Finlay, and touched on in the introduction).

Finlay argues that, as well as being disproportionately important to Scotland while it was a going concern, the Empire lingered longer in the Scottish consciousness afterwards than it did south of the border. There seems to have been more support for the 1956 Suez campaign there than there was in England, for example. Finlay suggests this may have had something to do with local pride in the regiments, which had always played such a disproportionate part in the forcible maintenance of the Empire, as witnessed by the ‘Save the Argylls’ campaign in the 1960s. 

Scotland and the British Empire is the latest in the series of ‘Companion’ volumes to the Oxford History of the British Empire (1998-99): the ‘Companions’ being intended to fill perceived lacunae.  Scotland was undoubtedly one of these; there is no discrete chapter on it in any of the original five volumes, though of course references to Scotland are scattered throughout. What this excellent volume does is not only fill a gap, but also provide a fresh perspective both on Scottish and on imperial history. They seem to have been more tightly interwoven than used to be thought. Both Scots and English should take note.

Bernard Porter is author of Battle of the Styles: Society, Culture and the Design of a New Foreign Office, 1855-1861 (Continuum, 2011).


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