Scotland: The Global History by Murray Pittock review – how a small nation made a big impact | History books

In 1995 the Samoan rugby team knocked on Murray Pittock’s door in Howard Place, Edinburgh, the birthplace of Robert Louis Stevenson, and asked to be photographed there. The author of Treasure Island was their hero, having made his home in the Pacific kingdom in 1890, dressing his servants in tartan livery while championing Samoan culture. He left only occasionally – once, in 1893, to address the Scottish Thistle Club of Honolulu.

Scotland: The Global History, which charts the country’s international influence over four-and-a-bit centuries, offers a kaleidoscope of such surreal encounters. It traverses an impressive range of places and arenas of engagement in which Scotsmen and a few women have had an impact wildly disproportionate to the size of their country and its material resources. How was it that this small nation, with its romantic image as a place of “bagpipes, mountains and tartan” came to be “the same Scotland that provided the finance, technology and innovation that drove the steam age”?

Despite the title date of 1603, scant significance is attached to the Stuart King James VI’s accession to the English throne or his decision to abandon Scotland for the south. Instead the narrative starts in 1618, the genesis of Scotland’s great waltz with the world being Europe’s nation-defining conflict, the thirty years’ war. What follows is engaging, lively and full of insight, a vivid account of Scottish endeavours in politics, science, literature, art and economics. There can be few historians of Pittock’s eminence who can glide so easily from the Swedish campaigns of the 1630s or the diplomatic complexities of the uprising of 1745 to James McAvoy’s character in The Last King of Scotland (a worldly Scottish doctor), or the cultural significance of John Byrne’s 80s TV drama Tutti Frutti.

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Pittock argues compellingly that at the heart of Scotland’s global success has been an outstanding education system. From the Reformation on, it churned out graduates with an intellectual and professional training that equipped them for tasks way beyond the opportunities within their own borders. Hence the impetus to explore, geographically, economically and philosophically. This, with the social “clanishness” of the Scots, especially when away from home, made for a winning combination, further salted with the romance of the ill-fated Jacobites. The defeat at Culloden, about which Pittock writes beautifully, is “a world historical moment”, resulting in a huge injection of Scots into the British army, large-scale emigration and an infusion of melancholy that remains a key part of Scotland’s international image.

All this said, there are things here to make the reader demur. Pittock’s exhaustive cataloguing of Scottish achievements sometimes feels short on the questioning and qualification you might expect. He calls out “the crude jingoism of exceptionalism” to which national histories are prone, before going on to excuse his own subject because, well, “Scots and Scotland are both demonstrably exceptional”.

Scotland, he argues, with its borders essentially unchanged since the 15th century, is “one of the longest lived of all global nations”. And yet, as Ukraine reminds us, continuity of borders is not a prerequisite for an enduring sense of nationhood (and, in any case, if much of your border is coastline, its stability is to be expected). The implication here is that among the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, only Scotland is both simultaneously its own nation and part of a larger entity. England’s borders, too, have changed little in a millennium, but it is not accorded the same dual status. Of course, it has been precisely this ability to choose when to be British, and when not, that has served Scots well. Enjoying all the benefits of a larger imperial super-state, it has also sidestepped many of its less appealing associations by invoking the sympathetic pathos of the put-upon smaller nation.

The last section of the book changes tack, and offers a closer consideration of recent politics and the questions of devolution and independence. At its heart is the conundrum of whether, its pro-European sentiment notwithstanding, Scotland can bring itself to embrace the reality of the European Union, currency and all, as a necessary condition for successful departure from the United Kingdom.

Pittock records the ebb and flow of Scotland’s international experience with panache and pace. Global success has given the country an enthusiastic diaspora numbering tens of millions, but the Scotland for which they hanker is not the nation of today. Modernity and innovation are little in evidence at Burns’ dinners or in the Outlander series. Scotland may indeed be an international icon, but there are disadvantages in being a place that “for many … is what it used to be, not what it has become”.

Scotland: The Global History – 1603 to the Present is published by Yale (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may

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