Site icon Random Scottish History

Chapter IX., pp.81-89.

[How Scotland Lost her Parliament Contents]

The rise of Scotland’s prosperity – Free Education – Literary activity of Scotsmen – Scottish Philosophy – Invention of the Steam Engine, Coal Gas, Steam Navigation, Macadamised Roads – Prosperity due to the genius of her sons.

A MORE pleasing task is now set before us in this chapter – that is, to trace the cause of Scotland’s prosperity. No longer will we dwell on oppression and wrong; the gloom of that night is past. Our happy duty is to record the rise of Scotland’s wealth and the triumphs of our race. This prosperity, falsely imputed to the Union, will be traced to its source, and honour placed where it is justly due. 

It is the fashion of our time to pride itself upon its educational advantages, and the partial establishment of free education in Scotland has been trumpeted over the land as an evidence of the enlightenment of the age in which we live. Our forefathers were not so much behind us as we, in our conceit, imagine, for we find the old Scottish Parliament of 1696* passing an Act by which a parish school and schoolmaster were settled in every parish of Scotland, where free education was given to all the people. Let us turn now to the action of the British Parliament of 1803, and see the amendments they put upon this Act. By reason of the rise in the price of commodities, brought about by the French War, the highest salary of the parish schoolmaster amounting only to eleven pounds two shillings and twopence, was found inadequate to procure him the necessaries of life, so on the 11th of June 1803, an Act was passed to provide for this useful body of men. We may judge of the liberality of our legislators when it was provided in this Act that no schoolmaster’s house was to exceed the limit of a room and kitchen, in fact the ‘but’ and ‘ben’ of the Scottish peasant. The largest salary provided for keeping up this lordly mansion was twenty-two pounds four shillings and fourpence; but as they were perfectly aware that the schoolmaster could not live on such a small sum, and unwilling to tax themselves further, they, by the 18th section of the Act, established a table of fees to be paid to the schoolmaster, and by that selfish provision at once destroyed free education in Scotland, which the old Scottish Parliament had established a century before. The fruit of the wise forethought of the old Scottish Parliament became apparent towards the close of the last century, for never before had Scotland made greater strides in arts and literature. 

David Hume, Lord Elibank, and Lord Kaimes established a standard of literary taste, the first named, by his history of England and his philosophic works, securing for himself immortal renown. The novels of Smollet commanded an extraordinary amount of popularity, but his beautiful verses written after the battle of Culloden, though it stopped his preferment by the Government of the day, will for ever embalm his memory in the hearts of his countrymen. We will only give the opening stanza, but recommend the whole poem to our readers. 

‘Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn, 

 Thy banished peace, thy laurels torn; 

 Thy sons for valour long renowned 

 Lie slaughtered on their native ground; 

 Thy hospitable roofs no more 

 Invite the stranger to the door, 

 In smoky ruins sunk they lie – 

 The monuments of cruelty.’ 

Macpherson’s translation of Ossian for the first time brought before the English-speaking people the wealth of poetry that lay enshrined in the Gaelic tongue. Beattie the minstrel was a poet of no mean eminence, while Allan Ramsay did what no other poet had been able to achieve – produce a pastoral drama with great poetical merits and characters that were perfectly natural. Let any one compare ‘The Faithful Shepherdess’ of John Fletcher with ‘The Gentle Shepherd’ of Allan Ramsay, and they will find how vastly superior the natural graces of the Scottish poet are to the artificial charms of the great English writer. Ramsay also began those beautiful lyrics wedded to old tunes, which were afterwards carried to such perfection by Burns. It is difficult to estimate the amount of good done by these poets, for it was truly said of our old ballads that the music had been composed by angels and the words by devils. The greatest of all our poets, Robert Burns, issued his first volume in the summer of 1786, and is the brightest spirit of the times of which we write. This extraordinary man has done more for Scotland than any other of her literary sons. The nobility of his character, his manly independence, the charm of his verses, which makes him the greatest lyric poet of the world, would alone redeem a nation from obscurity and neglect. But Scotland owes him a deeper debt of gratitude than his mere literary skill. He slew cant and hypocrisy, while superstition had to take leg-bail out of Scotland along with his Satanic Majesty before the shower of ridicule which he poured upon them. We cannot refer to all the literary characters of this remarkable period of our history, so will close with a brief reference to Sir Walter Scott, who has done more than any other writer to make Scotland known to the civilised world. As a poet he is thin and unsatisfactory, but as a romancer he has no rival. Not even Shakespeare himself has created a greater galaxy of distinct and natural characters, while to his immortal honour be it said he never penned a line which would raise a blush upon the cheek of the most modest and delicate of his countrywomen. 

By the above great writers Scotland takes a foremost place in the republic of letter, but she is no less distinguished in the severer studies of the world. Dugald Stewart and Sir W. Hamilton were no mean philosophers, but are read with respect by every scholar in Europe. The greatest of this school of literary men, however, is Adam Smith, whose ‘Wealth of Nations’ has been the text-book of students of political economy in every country in Europe. He, too, was born in this remarkable period of our history. We think it not unjust to ask if these remarkable men were the product of the Union of 1707, to which all our prosperity is ignorantly ascribed, or rather the natural fruit of the wise forethought of the Scottish Parliament in establishing free education, to which we have before referred. 

While the writers towards the close of the last century added so much to the literary wealth of the world, the material prosperity of the present age must be sought for elsewhere. In the year 1736 there was born at Greenock, James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, or perhaps more correctly, the perfecter of the steam engine – a sickly, melancholy, desponding man, whose life was one long gloomy toil; where hope was generally absent, and anticipation of evil ever present. But the divine spark of genius was there, and good fortune, or the wise direction of providence, brought the sanguine, hopeful Mathew Boulton into partnership with Watt. The genius of Scotland linked to the business capacity of England, in these two men have revolutionised the world. It is not necessary that we should dwell upon their work; the fruits of it surround us everywhere, and has made the British Isles the workshop of the world – brought the whole earth under the dominion of man, for the invention of the steam-engine is the foundation of all modern mechanical science, the special glory of the age in which we live. In close alliance with Watt and Boulton was William Murdoch, another mechanical genius of the first order, who was born at Auchinleck, Ayrshire, in 1754. During a long life his inventive genius never flagged, but he will be best known to posterity by the production of coal gas. His invention for boring steam cylinders did more for the perfection of the engine than perhaps any other minor inventor of the age, for every mechanic knows that perfect accuracy in the cylinder alone can command the full force of the steam. Murdoch was not alone an inventor; he was a first-class workman, and made the first marine engine for Fulton, by which the Clermont made her first voyage on the Hudson. 

While these inventors were conquering the earth, there was another class of minds bringing the sea under subjection. James Symington, the father of steam navigation, was again one of Scotland’s sons. The first steamboat was a mere toy, which glided over Dalswinton Loch at the rate of five miles an hour; the last steam vessel launched on the Clyde is a floating palace, rushing over the trackless ocean at a speed of twenty-four miles an hour. The busy brains of Scotsmen have brought about these triumphs; for although Robert Fulton, the American, must be honourably mentioned in connection with steam navigation, he was not an original thinker, and but for Henry Bell would never have thought of a steamboat.** The pleasure seeker who starts from the Broomielaw will find each side of the Clyde lined with shipbuilding yards, while the clang of ten thousand hammers bears testimony to the genius of the sons of Scotland. If we turn eastward from Glasgow the night is aglow with the glare of the furnace; the iron smelter, the steel plate roller are busy in their workshops transforming the mineral treasures of Scotland to minister to the comfort and luxury of the world.

In reading the novels of Fielding and Smollett we are struck with the deplorable condition of the roads in England. If they were bad in England they were worse in Scotland, the natural result being that a journey of a few miles was both tedious and hazardous. All this has been changed by John Lauder Macadam, who was born in Scotland in 1756, but first got a chance of displaying his powers in 1819 in the Bristol district of roads. Macadamised roads are now household words, and nothing strikes our American cousins more with wonder and envy than the highway running through every parish. We have not leisure to go into the particulars of innumerable inventions which have made Scotch engineers take the foremost place among the mechanics of the world. Is it not to the rise of mechanical science that this age owes all its material prosperity? Need it be wondered at that a portion should be retained by the people whose genius gave the foremost impulse, and who still keep in the van? But it was, of course, the Union, not these things, which brought about our prosperity! A more impudent lie was never cast upon the page of history. We have thriven in spite of the Union, not because of it;*** and had it not been for the Union, which has enabled England to despoil us of the fruits of our own industry, Scotsmen would have been richer than Englishmen, not poorer, and our population, instead of four millions, would have been eight. 

We must be pardoned for dwelling a little longer upon this part of our subject. There are some mean Scotsmen and interested Englishmen who are constantly referring to the ancient poverty of Scotland and ascribing all our present prosperity to the refining influence and civilising qualities of England, which only had an opportunity of acting upon Scotland after the Union of 1707. Those who have followed us thus far know what truth there is in these assertions. The Union had the very opposite effect of contributing to the prosperity of Scotland, for the Government being removed out of the country, the nobles followed, and drained the little wealth that remained in Scotland into England. This was so much the case that our best sons had to leave the country and give the first fruits of the genius to England – Watt, Murdoch, and Macadam being notable examples. But the prosperity of Modern times is not confined to England and Scotland. France, Italy, and Germany have all prospered, and notably Belgium since its recent separation from Holland, and Norway since its separation from Denmark, while we have only to look at the United States of America to see what giant strides in the path of progress a free, self-governing people can make. We repeat that the prosperity of modern times is mainly due to the genius of Scotland, and that we have reaped such a scanty share of the emoluments springing from such good work is due to the fraud of 1707.

*  This was a continuation and enforcement of the 1616 Education Act (Scotland) The aim of which was to ensure that “the vernacular English tongue be universally planted, and the Irish language, which is one of the chief and principal causes of the continuance of the barbarity and incivility amongst the inhabitants of the Isles and Highlands, may be abolished and removed.”
**  It’s mentioned in Helensburgh‘s chapter of ‘Select Views on the River Clyde‘ (1830) that;
   “Mr. Bell did not reap the fruits of his ingenuity. Wealthier speculators followed in his footsteps, and the waters of the Clyde soon bore numerous larger and more commodious steam vessels than his. Application has been made to government for a national reward to this enterprising man; but without effect. The magistrates of Glasgow, however, with praiseworthy liberality, have settled an annuity of L50 yearly upon him; and the river trustees have since followed their example by a similar annuity. The public sensible of the benefit he has conferred on his country, have also shown their gratitude by a liberal subscription at present going on, and from which we trust Mr. Bell’s talents will be rewarded.”
***  This is the view taken of  Mr Daunt in our chapter ‘How much of a Blessing has the Union been for Scotland.’
Exit mobile version