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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

“The Scottish Nation, A History: 1700 – 2000”, by T.M. Devine

695 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670888115

It is difficult, to say the least, to write a general history of an entire people, and to attempt to cover even a mere 300-years of Scotland’s recent past is an endeavor that has to be applauded and commended; in The Scottish Nation, A History: 1700 – 2000, T.M. Devine sets out to do just that. However, his book is not the definitive account that the book flap blurb (or its near-700 pages) would lead us to expect. The absence of a national parliament has meant that the “who’s-who” politics of the Scottish state have only fitfully been present as a container of debate. So the narrative loops in and out of comprehensive accounts of political movements or economic factors, and while Devine does this well in describing Scotland’s truly revolutionary agricultural modernization and its links to trade, early industrialization and the improvement advocated by the literati (in his chapter The World’s Workshop, he goes from 1830-to-1914 in a mere 17 pages).

It’s been said that national historians can be classified as either imaginers of communities or hard-fact types; if true, then Devine falls firmly into the latter camp. This is important because for many people Scottish history stopped in 1707 with the Acts of Union with England, but for many other people the history of the Scottish nation will always be the history of Robert Bruce, William Wallace and the Black Douglases; of knights in armor, cross-border warfare and corrupt priests. Only with the second half of the 20th-Century has greater effort been made to address the modern Scottish nation and to see it as a vibrant and vital entity from the beginning of the 18th-Century to the present day. Scotland has been examined not just as a nation state but as a significant part of the British Isles, the British Empire and the world as a whole. A major part of this increased level of scholarship has occurred in the past decade and is focused on new centers of excellence as well as more traditional venues. Professor Devine has been at the forefront of the reappraisal and renaissance. To take on a project such as The Scottish Nation is a daunting and challenging task, but one fitting for a historian of his stature.

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