Scotland's Empire and the Shaping of the Americas Summary

T. M. Devine


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When most people are asked to give their impressions of Scotland, they rarely advance beyond the famed Highland views or the cool, damp climate. Then there are the persistent clichés that seem to dog the Scots at every step: bagpipe playing, kilted and tartan-clad inhabitants, countless sheep, single-malt whiskey, and golf. Aside from these images, there seems to be little distinction in the popular imagination between England and its chilled neighbor to the north. T. M. Devine's splendid book Scotland's Empire and the Shaping of the Americas, 1600-1815 informs the reader that there is much more to this nation than the stereotypes often associated with it.

While modern Scotland is part of Britain, Devine reminds the reader that this was not always the case. Scotland and England, it is important to note, have been steadfast foes throughout much of their joint history. From about the late thirteenth century, patriots such as William Wallace sought to keep Scotland free and independent from its larger and more powerful neighbor to the south. In practical terms, this meant that the two countries were economically, as well as ethnically, distinct well into the seventeenth century. It is true that—at least on paper—England, Scotland, and Ireland achieved a synthesis of sorts upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. At that time, James VI of Scotland became the monarch of all three countries as King James I, the so-called Regal Union.

It was from this time that Britain came to encompass these discrete cultural and linguistic entities. It was less a marriage than an uneasy courtship. As Britain slowly assembled its growing empire in the seventeenth century, Scotland had relatively little to do with such ventures as the American colonies. As Devine makes clear, the Scots were the consummate wanderers from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. This was less a matter of choice than of necessity. Due to its unpredictable climate and poor, rock-strewn soil, Scotland was never very well off and nearly always one step away from starvation. As a result, the most mobile members of each generation—unmarried young men—were compelled to travel abroad, both to feed their families and earn their keep. Although the subject of Devine's book is Scotland's role in empire building, he wisely precedes that discussion with an examination of how the groundwork was laid in the seventeenth century.

The Regal Union failed to unite the three disparate nations, partly because of prejudice but also as a result of substantive legal barriers: England's trade restrictions against Scotland were not lifted, and both nations had their own independent parliaments. Scotland began its role in empire building by first helping other European nations build theirs. In the early seventeenth century, for example, it is astonishing to learn that a significant portion of Scotland's emigration was directed toward Poland. Granted, much of this consisted of peddlers seeking a ready market for their goods, but a few Scots worked their way into the Polish government.

Devine is to be commended for unearthing these little-known facts, which prove that the famous Scottish wanderlust extended far beyond the British Empire. It was the reputation of its soldiers, however, that really made Scotland's presence felt by the various European nations. This was due in part to the culture of Scotland's Highlands, where the idea of a warrior society flourished before 1600. Again, the same climatic and economic forces that made peddlers ply their trade in Poland also compelled Scotland's young men to sell their services abroad as professional soldiers. In Scandinavia, Devine notes, Scottish officers managed to work their way into key government positions; in Russia, one Thomas Dalyell was named a general in that nation's army. Of greater importance, though, was the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), where the vast scale of the conflict demanded a steady supply of new recruits. For the Scots, homeland famine compelled young men to feed the European war machine.

Scotland's contribution to British imperialism effectively began with emigration to Northern Ireland. The British government actively encouraged Scottish settlement of confiscated Irish lands as a means of firmly planting Protestantism in that manifestly Catholic nation. Once again, this was a case of the Scots following the path of least resistance. Chronic penury and geographic proximity motivated this relatively easy move, but there were salient differences between this...

(The entire section is 1843 words.)