A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950 Analysis

T. C. Smout

A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Currently Professor of Scottish History in the University of St. Andrews, T. C. Smout has, in the present volume, written a worthy successor to and continuation of his earlier, well-received A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830 (1969). Though the volume is presented as social history, its concentration on the rural and industrial poor and working class is clearly the result of Professor Smout’s long interest in those classes in such earlier work as Scottish Trade on the Eve of Union, 1660-1707 (1963), Comparative Aspects of Scottish and Irish Economic and Social History, 1600-1900 (edited with L. M. Cullen, 1977), Scottish Population History from the Seventeenth Century to the 1930’s (1977), and The State of the Scottish Working Class in 1843 (1979).

The focus of the present study is slightly more limited than the simple title might indicate. First, this is social history; while politics are inevitably mentioned, there is no attempt to provide a consecutive recounting of the ins and outs of various political parties and governments. Second, the book does not attempt to deal comprehensively with the full spectrum of society; as mentioned above, Smout concentrates upon the poor and the working classes, to the extent of having virtually nothing to say of the life of the upper or landed classes, of those who might usually be classed as the opinion makers of the period. The middle classes receive only slightly more attention. Finally, there are certain elements of what would normally be called “social life” which are either not addressed or treated only briefly, for example, the artistic and intellectual life of the period, the popular literature of the period, transportation, or sports other than football (soccer). Had the author attempted to cover all these topics and classes, the result would have clearly been unwieldy. Thus, if the reader wishes to know about Scottish baronial architecture, the growth of Scottish industry, the life of the clans, or details of Scottish relations with the central government in London, this is not the book to which to turn.

What the author does do—and that is still considerable—he does very well indeed. After a brief general introduction on the state of Scotland in the 1830’s and 1840’s, the author looks at his social history under a number of different topics, rather than attempting to juggle the different topics within a straight chronological narrative. Thus Smout presents separate chapters on such topics as the tenement city, working conditions in industry, drink, sex, churchgoing, and education; within each chapter he deals with the particular topic on a generally chronological basis, though it must be said that the majority of his material deals with the years before 1900 rather than after. The reader is, in effect, presented with a series of very sharp essays on particular elements of Scottish social history within the period covered.

To concentrate as Smout does upon the lower orders of Scottish society is certainly understandable, if for no other reasons than that the upper classes have certainly been adequately covered in the traditional history books, and that, after all, the classes under discussion here in fact form the great majority of the population. This concentration upon the lower orders, however, does present the historian with a practical problem, namely, that the lower classes, especially of the nineteenth century, are relatively inarticulate. It is difficult for the historian to have specific, firsthand documentary evidence from people of whom many could not read and write, and most of whom were far too busy earning a living and keeping body and soul together to be able to take time out to describe their lives and circumstances. The inevitable result is that the book leans heavily on statistics and government papers and reports to speak for those who were generally unable to speak for themselves. It is a measure of the author’s ability that he has used these materials judiciously, telling a story that is firmly grounded in hard evidence yet not lacking in the human touch, even occasionally moving.

From the viewpoint of the casual modern reader, the story which is told in these pages is a horrific one. Page after page, report after report, statistic after statistic lay bare, as more impressionistic or anecdotal narration could not, the wage slavery, the appalling sanitary conditions, the almost barbaric housing, and the fear of unemployment. Though the writer is by no means a Marxist historian, his work will certainly give no comfort to staunch supporters of the proposition that unrestrained capitalism and free enterprise (much praised in nineteenth century Scotland) are good for all, owner and workingman alike. Smout...

(The entire section is 1953 words.)