Graeme Morton. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. 312 pp. £19.99 (paperback)
Nineteenth century Scottish history is a crowded field. A vast range of topics have been investigated by specialist researchers who have published their findings in monographs, essay collections, and academic journals. Distinguished historians have written survey accounts of the era as a discreet period or included much on the Victorian and Edwardian decades in books with longer chronological frames (e.g. T. C. Smout, W. W. Knox and T. M. Devine). Graeme Morton’s challenge then has been to write a book that incorporates the best of what is a formidable body of research, but which also distinguishes itself from an impressive pack, and offers something fresh, in terms of his approach, arguments, themes, and material. In Ourselves and Others he certainly tries on each of these fronts.
Morton’s proposition is that the period c.1832 to 1914 was a singular age, when Scotland experienced more intense movements of people, ideas and information than ever before. Information is key, in that news became an industry (in which if publishing as a whole is included, Scottish firms played a major part), which meant that knowledge about the Scots themselves, and of others including Scots abroad, cascaded from the printing presses. Scots in the nineteenth century therefore came to know themselves not simply as not English or other than Catholic (if indeed it were ever as simple as this), but on the basis of how much more could now be known and understood. History and identity were therefore joined in dialogue. The principal device which Morton utilises to explore this dialogue is ‘objectification theory’, a concept he borrows from gender studies. Put simply, it is where the observer’s perspective is internalised and adopted by the subject. By ‘believing in how others have objectified our history’, argues Morton, we (the Scots) become subjects as opposed to historical agents (p. 5). Conscious of the drawbacks of applying such a model to the exclusion of all else, Morton prudently sets his theorising alongside a socio-economic narrative of Scotland’s history over the near century his book covers. Morton’s central concern however is with Scottish identity which, in his period, he concludes was much more than a response to the ‘other’ but rather, ‘a relentless eddy of historical developments from home and away, some engaged with completely, most only elliptically’ (p.16). Global Scots are very much part of his story.
So does Morton’s book add to our understanding of Scotland in the century or so after the Great Reform Act? Where Ourselves and Others certainly succeeds is in the themes selected, and the fresh material Morton uses to illustrate these. Chapter 2, ‘Weather Scotland Will’ is a case in point. Notwithstanding the influence climate and weather have in determining how human beings in different regions live, they are forces largely overlooked by generalist Scottish historians – although this is clearly not so with environmental historians. If Morton’s conclusions are hardly profound (‘Scotland’s weather did what it always did: the rain fell, the wind blew, the frost came…the sun, on occasion, shone.’ (p. 54)), he does well to remind us that climate and weather are not aligned with national boundaries. But what his chapter does contain are fascinating examples of the Scots’ interest in the weather, from the long-preferred dependence upon folklore for weather prognostics (which was not infrequently confirmed by scientific analysis), to the fact that the Scottish Meteorological Society was evidently the larest and best-organised in Europe, with a reach far beyond Scotland’s shores. Morton’s encyclopaedic reading of secondary and primary sources has allowed him to write a book that is kaleidoscopic in its capacity to throw up unexpected insights. In this sense it compares well with some of the more familiar accounts of the period which (rightly) emphasise industrialisation, urbanisation and their consequent deleterious social consequences. All this is to be found in Ourselves and Others, but in new guises.
For good reason Morton places great emphasis on the ways in which Sir Walter Scott’s influence and created Victorian ‘Scott-land’ (although others too played their part). This is what many visitors sought, and those who found too little of it and were instead exposed to Scotland’s grim industrial landscape or even to parts of Edinburgh that resembled England’s suburbs, left disappointed. Scots too revelled in this romantic, mock historical objectification of their homeland. But one wonders if Morton doesn’t over-egg his argument. Robert Burns features in Ourselves and Others, sometimes in the same sentence as Scott, but has sufficient allowance has been made for differences there were in the ways the legacies of Scott and Burns were exploited by Victorian Scots? If Scott’s Scotland was in the past, Burns’s was only partly so. For the tens of thousands of artisan Scots who found succour in Burns’s works, the example of his life and his emphasis on the dignity of man and above all the democratic ideal, Burns was very much of the present and indeed the future, and an active historical agent. This is evident less in the empire-wide celebration and periodic commemoration of Burns which Morton reports, but in the energy, passion and sheer scale of many of these events in Scotland which contrasts with their more passive character in, for example, Australia and New Zealand.
Perhaps it is Morton’s breathless pace that causes him on this and with other issues to rely on brief description and the creation of a fleeting impression before moving on, when what is called for is reflection and deeper analysis. If class and class consciousness have become unfashionable as the main tools of historical analysis, to interpret nineteenth-century Scottish society without even a reference to them, seems (to this reviewer) to be a step too far. To be fair however, from start to finish Morton sticks with his ‘objectification’ thesis. For this boldness – his preparedness to dispense with former ways of understanding Victorian and Edwardian Scotland – Morton is to be commended.