An insight into changing Scotland in the 1700s

Scotland’s greatest historical controversialist brings us an engaging and very readable examination of the exemplary yet volatile political, economic and cultural landscape of 18th century Scotland.

Among the many subjects the ever-provocative Michael Fry examines is the gradual, and often painful, evolution of a feudal land that shook up every facet of society, detailing how the rejection of antiquated farming methods threatened the dissolution of Scottish tradition and identity.

In agriculture, Fry discusses the competition between livestock and the Highland people, which triggered the demographic shift that saw families move increasingly towards Scotland’s productive centre.

Equally as transformative was the move from subsistence farming based around runrigs – widely referred to as the ‘open field system’ where land was divided into smaller, individual plots owned by different peasant families – after the Act of Union, to the emergence of big, capital-intensive farms that yielded greater productivity.

However, this transformation was not solely in the fields. As Fry eloquently explains, the increasing prevalence of larger estates cultivated a new class structure where the gap between landowner and worker, the top and the bottom, widened infinitely.

Likewise, Scotland’s new coalfields drove a deeper line between the employer and his workers as coal, an industry that up until 1760 had been what Fry refers to as ‘no more than holes in the ground’, became mechanised and capital-intensive.

Fry explains how the prosperity and industrialisation of the textile industry, and in particular cotton following the decline of linen production and the emergence of the power loom, created class distinctions between unskilled and skilled workers, creating a schism in the working class.

In upper circles, Fry looks at the first steps that were taken to bring Scottish politics into a new age by replacing the aristocratic courtiers in their ivory towers with the people’s parliament of today.

Fry also looks at Scotland’s place on the international stage, for example, her strong links with Canada and the east, following the economic liberation of political union in 1707, and consequently, how emigration has continued to shape Scotland’s fluctuating population.

For the most part, Scots emigrated to increase their means; Fry looks at the individual motivations of Robert Burns, who almost set sail for the West Indies, and his overall role in the development of 18th century Scottish culture and language.

Fry examines how Scotland became socially and economically integrated into the rest of Britain, but never culturally or politically, and explains why this has shaped recent Scottish history.

Most of all, Fry successfully captures Scotland’s struggle with its post-1707 dual identity as Medieval Scots attempt to become modern Britons.

An essential read for those wanting to get underneath the skin of modern Scottish history.

A Higher World: Scotland 1707-1815, by Michael Fry, published by Birlinn, £25.

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