A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950

by T. C. Smout
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A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1953

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...

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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 realizes the effect his recital will probably have on readers and warns, early in the work, that the assumptions of the present may not always be appropriate criteria for judging events of another period. What we may regard as insupportable or even immoral was not necessarily insupportable or immoral to those experiencing it. While life must certainly not have been particularly pleasant, it is difficult if not impossible for twentieth century readers to say at this distance that the people of the lower orders were or were not “happy”—whatever that word may have meant at the time. Smout is writing history and not a tract. Thus he tends not to moralize or read lessons, though the conclusions from the evidence he presents are often inescapable.

One of Smout’s themes which may surprise readers is the depth and strength of the fear that the lower classes inspired in the middle and upper classes. Quotation after quotation from the Victorians themselves reveals not only a widespread loathing of the lower orders, especially the urban working class, but also the actual physical fear with which such people were regarded. If one listened only to the voice of middle-class Scotland, one could easily gain the impression that the lower classes were concerned only to revolt, hang every “aristo” from the nearest lamppost, and plunder every shop and mansion in the country. (Though the author does not say so, this attitude certainly suggests a remarkably bad conscience upon the part of those well-off and in authority.) Further reinforcing this fear was the assumption by the middle classes that they were not only economically superior to the lower classes, but morally and spiritually superior as well.

In this light it is paradoxical that, in spite of the conditions faced by the workers, in spite of the fear of unemployment, the lower classes never, in fact, boldly threatened to rise against the middle class. No doubt it looked somewhat different at the time, and there were certainly protests and petitions, but the fears of the middle classes were never to be actualized. In the final two chapters of the book, Smout analyzes the working-class radical tradition and the rise and fall of socialist idealism. Several factors seem to have prevented any particularly violent uprisings against the status quo. First, the largest and best organized movement, that of the Chartists, typically preached the power of moral force rather than violence. Second, while Scots of all classes were loyal to the memory and traditions of Scotland, their patriotism did not have in it much of an urge to separatism or nationalism. Smout notes that the radical tradition, descending from the working-class Liberals of the late nineteenth century, insisted strongly on no government intervention and a tradition of self-help which lasted almost until World War II. The working class itself presented difficulties to organized programs of change or protest; the divisions within the working class, such as that between craftsmen and ordinary laborers, caused many of the same attitudes as existed between the middle classes and the working classes generally. (In this context, it was always possible for the Scots lower classes to look down upon the growing number of Irish immigrants—perhaps there is something in human nature which requires everyone to have someone to look down on.) Finally, Smout documents the power of the urge to “respectability” which, reinforced by kirk and educational system alike, influenced all classes of society, and not least the lower classes.

Another theme which emerges from the book is the way in which government intervention came about, when it did come. In the earlier part of the period, a number of farsighted individuals and organizations attempted to ameliorate some of the worst effects of slums, bad housing, and poor sanitation. It quickly became evident that the problems were far too large for individuals, however wealthy, or voluntary organizations, however well-meaning, to achieve any substantial or lasting reforms. The only forces that could realistically handle the organization and capital requirements of slum clearance were, first, city governments and subsequently, central governments. Thus, elements of socialism or of the welfare state were introduced because it finally became evident that a certain job had to be done (for whatever reasons—economic, religious, humanitarian) and that the only authority with sufficient power and resources was the government. To the people of the day and to the present reader, no doubt such reforms and interventions came too slowly and perhaps not on a sufficient scale, but they did come, however, gradually and grudgingly. They arose from necessity, not from political ideology.

The most controversial views espoused by Smout in this book will no doubt be those in his chapter on education. Scots have traditionally afforded a great respect to education, and Scottish education has often been praised, not least in England, as a sort of model. Smout finds this respect exaggerated: “It is in the history of the school more than in any other aspect of recent social history that the key lies to some of the more depressing aspects of modern Scotland.” The general spirit of Scottish education aimedfirstly at providing, as cheaply as possible, the bulk of the population with the bare minimum of elementary education combined with adequate social discipline, and secondly, at giving a small number of children of all classes, but especially of the higher classes, a more respectable academic education, to qualify them for their role as a controlling elite.

The myth of democratic education in Scotland, whereby any young lad of parts could rise, is, in fact, merely that—a myth. The reasons for the gap between myth and reality are not surprising. A goodly number of people continued to believe that to educate the laboring classes was wrong because to do so would cause them to be less content with their lot, making them bad servants. The continuing demand for child labor was probably the greatest enemy of school attendance. (In Glasgow in 1857, fewer than 50 percent of the children between five and ten years of age were attending school.) Religious differences, too complicated even to summarize here, also militated against universal, quality education; for example, during much of the nineteenth century, many of the Irish Catholic children received little education because of the choice of other sects to have as little to do with them as possible. Under Smout’s critical eye, the great reputation of Scottish education is shown to be totally unjustified.

In such space as here provided it has only been possible to summarize and generalize. The reader should be aware, however, that Smout is most discriminating; he makes numerous qualifications of his interpretations; he distinguishes between regions and between cities. Clearly, not everything he says is always true of all places—and Smout knows it and tries to explain. The book is furnished with extensive notes and most useful annotated bibliographies at the end of each chapter for further reading. This book is not only informative but also wise and thoughtful. It is to be hoped that the author does not wait too long before bringing his social history of Scotland forward from 1950.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52

Booklist. LXXXIII, February 15, 1987, p. 871.

British Book News. February, 1987, p. 73.

Choice. XXIV, May, 1987, p. 1457.

Chronicle of Higher Education. XXXIII, January 21, 1987, p. 6.

Contemporary Review. CCXLIX, September, 1986, p. 166.

The Guardian Weekly. CXXXV, July 13, 1987, p. 21.

History Today. XXXVI, October, 1986, p. 57.

London Review of Books. IX, January 22, 1987, p. 19.

The Observer. June 29, 1986, p. 22.

The Spectator. CCLVI, June 14, 1986, p. 27.

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