Scottish Society 1500-1800 
edited by R.A. Houston and I.D. Whyte.
Cambridge, 298 pp., £30, February 1989, 0 521 32522 6
Show More
Show More

For too many British historians, Scotland still remains another country. So-called ‘British histories’ remain predominantly Anglocentric, though more writers nowadays either acknowledge guilt or confess lack of expertise when passing off English history as if it were British. Until about twenty years ago, the isolation of Scotland from an English historical heritage was understandable, if not pardonable. Scottish historians, many operating within the secure ramparts of ‘departments of Scottish history’, produced solidly researched and aggressively insular treatments of their nation. These had the effect of discouraging cross-border fraternisation almost as effectively as the incursions of their territorially-minded 14th-century forebears had done. Scottish history, it seemed, was both too serious and too separate a business to risk dilution either by incorporating historical ideas and techniques developed further south or by seeking to share insights to advance a truly ‘British’ history.

Within Scotland, at least, much has changed in the past two decades. Christopher Smout’s History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830, published in 1972, was pioneering social history, and much of Professor Smout’s subsequent work on religion, literacy and the economy in Scotland has been widely read throughout Britain. Rosalind Mitchison’s work, especially on the Scottish poor in the 18th century, has been similarly influential. Both authors pose large questions which require response in a British context. Houston (who has worked extensively on both Northern England and Scotland), Devine and Whyte have followed in this broadening tradition and it is entirely appropriate that this excellent volume of essays should include contributions from all of these pioneers. It is both appropriate and significant, too, that one of the best-known of the new generation of Early Modern English social historians, Keith Wrightson, should contribute ‘An English Perspective’ as the final chapter.

Wrightson’s is neither an apologetic postscript nor an attempt to invest the book with spurious ‘Britishness’. He offers a sophisticated and penetrating critique of the notion of ‘separateness’ in Early Modern Scottish history. Taking his cue from the preceding Scottish contributions, he is sceptical about easy models of English advance and Scottish ‘backwardness’. Late 17th and early 18th-century Scotland had much more in common with England – mean household sizes, marriage patterns, population pressure, the commercialisation of agriculture, rapid urbanisation and the advance of trade – than is usually recognised. To extend Wrightson’s argument, Scotland also had most of those famous ‘preconditions’ which used to be essential analytical tools for explaining why England was first to industrialise. Lanarkshire’s claim to be considered the world’s first industrial region is scarcely less strong than Lancashire’s.

Wrightson is more concerned, however, to stress regional diversity both in Scotland and England. It is not sufficient merely to divide Scotland into simple Highland and Lowland zones. Nor is it acceptable to assume any kind of uniform development within England. A proper agenda for British history in the 1990s will not integrate Scotland and Wales into a predominantly English story. It must address problems of both identity and development within the regions of Britain. It will also need to become much more tough-minded than hitherto about themes of integration and diversity. Wrightson’s readers will be ambivalent about what ‘national’ history properly is, as I am sure he intends.

About Scottish social history in the Early Modern period, however, readers of this volume will become much more familiar. It brings together in accessible form much detailed research done during the past decade on topics which have interested British historians as a whole, including demographic change, diet, urbanisation, poverty management and gender. Only two of the nine chapters, those by Devine on social responses to the Clearances and by Dodgshon on the nature of the Highland clans, are on themes which could be identified as exclusively Scottish. It is significant that education and the law (as opposed to problems of public order) have a subordinate role here. The book is particularly effective in demonstrating how much can be learned, given immense assiduity and modern techniques of data management and record linkage, about a society with no official census and very partial and selective computations of any kind.

Gibson and Smout present an appetising hors d’ oeuvre to their projected book on prices, wages and the standard of living. They argue that famines and specific crises apart, the Scottish diet was impoverished between the 16th century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. By the latter period the diet was oatmeal and potato-based. Less meat and dairy produce was being consumed per capita. The new diet, however, was not self-evidently less healthy and it certainly enabled a larger population to be supported.

Ian Whyte, drawing on the researches of Houston and Cage as well as his own, demonstrates how apprenticeship, kirk sessions records and marriage registers can all be used to chart population mobility. As might be expected, long-distance migration into Edinburgh was substantial and grew during the 18th century. Most population mobility in Early Modern Scotland, however, was short-distance and more extensive than old models of ‘stagnation’ would allow. Farm service, which was not under as much pressure in Lowland Scotland and Northern England as it was in lowland England during the second half of the 18th century, accounted for much mobility, with movements of teenagers in search of farm work particularly significant. Though the pace of migration undoubtedly increased with the growth of the economy in the 18th century, Whyte argues that this represented only a change in scale, not in kind. Scottish migration in the 16th and 17th centuries seems, on present evidence, to have been closer to the model of ‘dynamic’ England than to that of the Western European nations.

Fresh insights into the nature of Scottish urban society are provided by Lynch, who compares the hearth taxes of the 1690s with the burgh rent taxes raised by the Covenanters in 1639. This yields interesting results. Lynch suggests that Glasgow’s population, at more than ten thousand by the 1640s, already made it the fourth-largest town behind Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. The base from which Glasgow’s famous Atlantic-trade-based growth developed in the later 17th and 18th centuries was evidently firmer than used to be thought. More generally, the Scottish experience of fitful, though ultimately substantial, urban growth in the period 1500-1650 fits the European picture well enough, though Lynch points to something of an urban crisis in the second half of the 17th century. In this period, only Edinburgh and Glasgow grew substantially, while medium-sized and smaller towns either stagnated or decayed. The total rental value of Ayr (Scotland’s 12th most prosperous town in 1639), for example, had fallen almost by a half by 1691.

Lynch has interesting revisionist points to make about the social structure of Scottish towns. There was no massive transformation based on injections of merchant capital. New occupations, with their newly-recruited specialist workforces, tended to be located in the suburbs of larger towns, nourished from investments by merchants who remained involved in more traditional commerce. Until late in the 17th century, furthermore, the social structure of Scottish towns reflected the interdependence of land and industry, since a sizeable proportion of the urban population was engaged in finishing, for export, leather and textile products from the land. Given this, the relative smallness of the textile sector in towns seems unsurprising – it was not ‘the touchstone of urban wealth and industry’.

Rab Houston’s piece on women in the Scottish economy offers fewer new insights, perhaps because the norms of cultural and economic domination have been so clearly established in the literature of the last twenty years. Many readers will, no doubt, feel that it is no longer necessary to borrow the ponderous prose of other disciplines to make the self-evident point that women have to be studied within ‘a predominantly masculine rendering of historical discourse’. The assertion that ‘concepts drawn from social sciences such as anthropology and sociology have been employed to add greater conceptual clarity to the analysis’ will be treated by the same readers with the same scepticism, not least because the most securely-grounded conclusions turn out to derive from good quality research in orthodox historical sources.

As employment structures became more extensive and complex, women’s status in particular industries declined. The foundation of the Society of Brewers in Edinburgh in 1596 seems to have coincided with the marginalisation of women in this trade. The professionalisation of medicine produced a similar decline in reliance on women as ‘healers’. By the end of the 18th century, women were doing lower status work on the land, and earning less than half the wages of their male counterparts. Any improvement in legal status during the 17th and 18th centuries was limited. Dr Houston’s overall conclusion is predictable: ‘Throughout, it is hard to escape the impression that women were denied a central part in society.’ The perpetually declining status of women, it seems, has now replaced the perpetually rising middle classes as the least challenged historical axiom of the generation.

Professor Mitchison builds on earlier work to attempt a narrative account of the operation of the Poor Law throughout this period. Scottish Poor Law statutes, as is widely known, were usually dead letters and Professor Mitchison carefully and effectively re-creates the story of provision for the poor, largely from the very slender empirical resources provided in surviving kirk sessions records. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, aristocratic power and independence rendered the emergence of any national system of relief impractical. As church and government controls slowly increased from the mid-17th century, so more parishes began to make tolerably effective rate assessments on landowners for the relief of poverty. This process was greatly hastened by responses to the famines of the 1690s.

A clear south-north divide emerged, since few Highland parishes were known to have implemented these assessments. No Scottish system of poor relief was possible until the passing of the Poor Law of 1845. The extent to which charities, kinship and neighbourhood support made good the difference in northern parishes where assessments were not made must remain a matter of conjecture. Despite Scottish support, especially by clergymen, for attacks on the creaking and increasingly expensive English Poor Law at the end of the 18th century, the strong balance of probabilities is that the Scottish poor received less inhuman treatment in the south, where rate assessments were by then normal.

The two chapters on exclusively Scottish themes are impressive. Devine’s account of social displacements in the 17th and 18th centuries uses the term ‘lowland clearances’ to describe the process, familiar in some of its aspects to students of English agricultural history, whereby smallholders became landless under the combined pressures of conversion from small arable farms to large-scale pastoralism in the early 18th century, of the ending of multiple tenancies as a result of the concentration of land in fewer hands, and of the disappearance of the large group of ‘subtenants’, often craftsmen with families engaged in subsistence farming. The dispossession, over time, was very substantial and Devine attempts to explain why it was effected with so much less resistance than the Highland Clearances encountered. Stress is laid more on the earlier stratification of Lowland society than on the supposedly shorter and sharper shock administered to the Highlands. Dr Dodgshon does not deny the enormous problems of lack of evidence confronting scholars attempting to understand the clan system. Drawing on recent work in social anthropology, he enters a cogent plea for the clans to be seen, not as archaic groups of extended kin but as complex organisms with kinship developing in different ways against a background of limited resources – control over which in Highland society was crucial for clan chiefs.

The book suffers from few of the usual disadvantages in edited collections. Not many of the authors are natural stylists and too many offerings are densely and craggily written. All, however, repay the close study they need. The pieces are consistently strong and the book, printed (praise be) with footnotes at the end of the page, greatly enhances our understanding of Scottish society in the Early Modern period.

The editors are to be congratulated on bringing the fruits of so much effective scholarship to a wide audience and on their imaginative commissioning. It is to be hoped that readership for Houston and Whyte will be as much English and Welsh as Scottish, since most of the essays here are significant contributions to British history.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences