Climbing the stairs of Scotland's history

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The Scottish Nation 1700-2000 by T M Devine (Allen Lane/Penguin Press, £25)

The Scottish Nation 1700-2000 by T M Devine (Allen Lane/Penguin Press, £25)

IN A lot of Scottish histories, "the modern age" - after the Union of 1707 and Culloden - comes as a crabbit wee sporran tacked on to the rich weaves of romance. Mary, Queen of Scots is still ahead of Hitler by a neck, so to speak, and Alexander Fleming, John Logie Baird and Sean Connery are fighting it out with the Loch Ness Monster for a mention. After the events of the Nineties, there's a chance that Parliament or Trainspotting may join them after a qualifier. Recent surveys suggest, alas, that something like this is the national memory - and not a tourist delusion.

Tom Devine's book is as big and black as John Knox, but has only the briefest of references to pre-1707 Scotland. The circumstances are favourable: since the "auld sang" of Scottish politics has patently survived, it's time to tell how it fared in the three centuries of Union.

Devine is one of the best modern Scottish historians. In certain areas - agriculture, demography, migration, urbanisation (of which Scotland had the most rapid rate in 19th-century Europe) - he has magisterially imposed order on confused data, and to a great extent dug out that data himself. By tackling politics and entrepreneurship, he has widened the enquiry set in motion by Christopher Smout's epoch-making History of the Scottish People. In the debatable territory of religious and ethnic identity - particularly salient at the moment -Devine is judicious, detached and humane.

But The Scottish Nation is not the definitive account that the blurb - or its near-700 pages - would lead us to expect. The absence of a national parliament has meant that the "who-whom" 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. Devine does this well in describing Scotland's truly revolutionary agricultural modernisation and its links to trade, early industrialisation and the "improvement" advocated by the literati. But in his chapter "The World's Workshop", he goes from 1830 to 1914 in 17 pages.

The effect is almost like David Balfour in Kidnapped, climbing the winding stair in the House of Shaws and finding that it gave on to a void. Where are the 50 shipyards of the Clyde, the foundries and machine-shops, the warehouses and granaries, the sugar and linoleum and tile and pottery works, the thousands of coalpits and slate, sandstone and granite quarries - the whole ingenious, sooty, grasping world created by the Victorian bourgeoisie?

It isn't that the outline of this vertiginous epoch is lacking, but that it remains an outline - as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope. If Carlyle's "captains of industry" are hardly visible (and Carlyle himself wholly invisible) their opponents - trade unionists, co-operators and reformers - are even more obscure. This is emphasised by Devine's expansive chapters on 20th-century politics. David Owen gets his 15 minutes of fame. Robert Owen, whose New Lanark community was a laboratory for the industrial age, does not figure at all.

National historians boil down either to hard-fact types or to imaginers of communities. Devine belongs to the former camp. But Scottish nationality became so indeterminate when manufacturing capitalism both acted globally, and penetrated every aspect of domestic life, that its "monstrous familiar images" have to be interrogated. Carlyle, Hugh MacDiarmid and Walter Scott knew that. Otherwise, "the despotism of fact" can distort.

Agriculture and society are "national" issues in a sense that export industries, proconsuls, agitators and itinerant savants are not. So one can see how the former subjects got their prominence in Devine's account. However, agriculture was a sector that by 1907 made up scarcely 10 per cent of Scots production. Even so, Devine leaves its most famous product (and, these days, second-largest export), whisky, almost unrecorded.

Devine has achieved a sequence of most impressive essays, competitively priced. The title Scotland: Union, Land, People would have fitted them well. That protean creature that was industrial Scotland - with its noise and smoky breath, its fateful world impact - remains to be imagined.

The reviewer teaches at Tubingen University; his latest book is 'Travelling Scot'