A Century Of The Scottish People: 1830-1950

  • A Century Of The Scottish People: 1830-1950
    T.C. Smout - Collins, 1986 –318pp - £15.00
Professor Smout's latest book will prove a worth successor to his earlier work – A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 which came out seven years ago. The question which dominates A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950 is reiterated on the last page of all. How did it come about that so little was done to improve the lot of the country's poorest inhabitants at a time when Scotland was among the richest countries in the world? In 1913 Glasgow could claim to be the second city of the Empire without its poorer citizens appearing to notice how unduly modest was their share of the 'super profits of imperialism'. How could the working class remain so conservative in its aspirations when its very skills set it in the forefront of industrial progress?

It is in both asking and answering such questions that Professor Smout opens a door on many new ideas. He begins by analysing the factors leading to the trans- formation of a poor and largely rural country into one that is now both much richer and predominantly urban. In 1851 such a development would have been hard to envisage with 30 per cent of the male working population still linked to agriculture. By 1951 that number had dropped below 10 per cent. More surprising than these figures is the steep rise in population which took place throughout rural Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. Professor Smout singles out the four Lowland and seven Highland counties whose population reached what he calls its 'historic peak' between 1831 and 1861. During the period in counties as far apart as Orkney and Berwickshire numbers were approximately one third higher than they were both before and after. Orkney had 23,000 people in 1755 and 21,000 in 1951. The pattern is similar in the other ten counties.

A study of these figures must affect the view taken of the clearances. In spite of the brutality of the evictions and their scale, there were more people living in the crofting counties after the clearances than before. The real drift from the glens occurred between 1891 and 1931 when the population of the Highland counties declined faster than that of their Lowland counterparts. (26 per cent against 16 per cent).

As industry grew, more and more people found themselves crammed into increasingly overcrowded urban tenements. Until 1914 two fifths of the population lived in two- or one-room houses. Typhus and cholera both flourished. Meanwhile, an insatiable demand for labour drove the women of Dundee into the jute mills and kept children out of school at all ages from eight or nine upwards. The arrival of the Catholic Irish in large numbers (over 1,000 a week in 1848) and the religious disruption of 1843, added to a current of frustrated uncertainty not confined to Scotland.

Yet though gunpowder was not lacking, there was no explosion. Radicalism whether in the guise of Chartists, the ILP, or Red Clydeside, always stopped short of achieving any fundamental change in a society of which they all strongly disapproved.

This lack of a cutting edge Professor Smout blames on the suffocating pressures exerted by an essentially middle-class system of which the working class stood sufficiently in awe to accept in it the role it was offered. The period his book covers he sees as a triumph for the status quo. The country's achievements bred in all Scots a complacency and parochialism which blinded even those who had most to gain from change.

Such views demand serious consideration. The much vaunted educational system is only one of the many pillars of the Scottish establishment in which he discerns cracks.

If this stimulating book has one shortcoming, it lies in the unequal treatment accorded to the three estates. Professor Smout's interest centres on the working class, with a middle class whose limits are hard to define. Of the landed proprietors and their policies he has little to say. Yet for them as for other Scots the period of which he treats was a time for experimentation and change, when a revolution was under way both in farm management and forestry. Some of the photographs in the book seem intended to convey the message that only the misery of the many ensured the comfort of very few. The point should be made – at the same time it might also be remembered that the 1st Lord Weir's promotion of a new type of cheap pre-fabricated steel houses was one of the first attempts made after the First World War to improve working-class housing in Glasgow.

This handsome book is well illustrated with a good index. On page 191 unfortunately, there is a duplication of paragraphs.
  • Christian Hesketh is the author of Tartans (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1961).
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