Tom Devine on his landmark book: The Scottish Nation

A LANDMARK book credited for having a transformative role in Scotland has reached sales of 100,000 in the UK alone.

Published 21 years ago as the Scottish Parliament reconvened, The Scottish Nation has been hailed as the “go-to” book for anyone wanting to learn about Scotland’s modern history. Written by eminent Scots historian Professor Sir Tom Devine, it can be frequently seen on politicians’ and commentators’ bookshelves in video interviews during the current lockdown.

While it has gone through several editions and reprints, it still bears the original dedication to his son, John, who died tragically. Professor Devine said he decided to write the book partly to assuage his grief and also to preserve John’s memory. His desire was to bring the “brilliant” new findings of historians researching Scotland’s past to the people as, although there had been a resurgence of interest in Scottish history in academic circles, the research was not very accessible.

Here Professor Devine outlines the background to the book. 

Historians and commentators explain its importance in a separate sister article you can read here.

THE first edition of the Scottish Nation 1700-2000 was published by Allen Lane in 1999, followed a year later by a paperback under the Penguin imprint.

Just before that, I had finished my term of office as deputy principal at Strathclyde University and, as was the custom then, had been promised some sabbatical leave to allow me to return to research, scholarship and writing after my managerial duties had come to an end.

Then a terrible family tragedy occurred. My twin son, John, who had been suffering from serious mental health problems, died tragically at the age of 21 a few days after Christmas 1996. To say his parents, twin brother, sisters, other relatives and friends were utterly devastated would be a profound understatement.

As the miserable months passed following that grievous loss, I eventually decided to write a big book during my sabbatical, in part to help assuage the grief which gripped me and at the same time to do something to preserve John’s memory. So, to this day, after several editions and reprints, there still remains in the dedication of the book: “For my beloved son, John, 1975-1996, Aig fois a nis” (Now at peace).

Soon the specific idea of writing a general history of Scotland in the modern period from just before the Union down to the present day came into focus.

In 1964, the year I went to university as an undergraduate, the new Burnett-Fletcher professor at Aberdeen, John Hargreaves, remarked in his inaugural lecture that “the history of modern Scotland is less studied than the history of Yorkshire”.

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Ironically, however, very soon after that statement was made, things started to change dramatically. As a young lecturer in the late 1960s and then as a professor of Scottish history from the 1980s, I was able to experience the radical transformation of the subject at first hand. Intellectually it was an exciting time.

There began an unprecedented outpouring of books and articles on virtually every conceivable aspect of the modern Scottish past. In an important sense a new subject was born, precisely at the same time as political developments in Scotland created a deeper interest in the historical roots of the Scottish nation.

There was, however, a major problem. Most of this brilliant work was written by scholars for scholars. Precious little of it filtered outside the academic domain either to the general public or into the schools curricula. In the late 1960s, Christopher Smout and William Ferguson had indeed published key books with wide horizons. Smout in particular has shown that it was possible to write a scholarly volume in a style which engaged non-academic audiences. But his seminal, A History of the Scottish People, stopped in 1830 and was essentially a social history of Scotland up to that point in the early 19th century.

Most of the treasures of the new research had therefore still to be revealed to a wider audience beyond scholars and students.

To deliver that revelation became the main objective of The Scottish Nation when it was originally published. The book had to be written in a clear, coherent and engaging style, with analysis and interpretation at its core. It was also designed to encompass the totality of the modern Scottish historical experience: politics, economy, culture, society, religion, thought and the diaspora, among other topics – “histoire totale” in the French tradition.

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That might have been the architecture but those who helped to build the fabric were the many scholars and doctoral students who created the golden age of modern Scottish historiography in the second half of the 20th century. Up to that point I myself had written books on the Tobacco Lords, Highland history, the rural Lowlands and articles on a range of other topics. But this was not a book which could be written on the basis of the work of one historian. Without the seminal publications of the many others on which I could draw The Scottish Nation could not have been written.

It is now clear that the research of that generation for the first time gave the people of Scotland a soundly based narrative of the nation’s recent past and with that a fresh understanding of the roots of present day circumstances.

This new history has also shaped the curriculum in secondary schools where at long last modern Scottish history has achieved its rightful place as an integral part of the teaching of history in the broader sense. Future scholars will also have to ponder and unravel the relationship between the historical reawakening and the political dynamics of nationalism and independence.

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