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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Did England Conquer Scotland?


Someone once criticized Thomas Sowell (at this blog) as follows:

"I am sorry, but after I read in one of Sowell's books that England conquered Scotland (and here he is referring to the period AFTER Robert the Bruce) I just cannot take any of his historical accounts seriously."

Now, at the time I pointed out that getting a fact wrong does not make you a bad historian. But now, after just having finished Murray Pittock's A New History of Scotland, I'd like to go further: Sowell got this particular fact right, and my supercilious commenter does not know whereof he speaks.

Now, it is true that there was an Act of Union in 1707, which was devised by both Englishmen and Scots. But consider the following: The Scots signing the act were under both economic and military pressure from England. The signatories were an elite who wanted desperately to participate in England's overseas trade, which, before Union, they could not. It is estimated that three-quarters of the Scottish people were against the Act.

After the Act passed, England repeatedly violated its terms, with impunity. They put down a number of Scottish revolts, and kept permanent garrisons stationed in Scotland. They finally hit upon the scheme of sending Highlanders overseas to be slaughtered so that they could not rebel at home, with the result that Scottish troops died at several times the rate of American and English troops in the Seven Years War and other such ventures. The English also suppressed Gaelic as much as they could, and didn't much like Scots being spoken either. And many Scots saw themselves as a conquered nation.

So, Sowell was essentially correct: England did conquer Scotland.


8 comments:

  1. Serious question.

    What do you think of Rothbard as a historian? I've read the first volume of "An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought" and there were some amazing discrepancies in his account (for example, an exaggerated criticism of Adam Smith and his misinterpretation of Francis Bacon's work).

    What do you think of "Conceived in Liberty", which as far as I've heard is better documented than his book on the history of economic thought?

    The reason I ask is because this post reminded me of Rothbard (being "loose with the facts" and all).

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  2. Well, what's in a word? Its usage might be justified when speaking of certain historical events, but any one word might be misleading and not fully show the exact nature of the event.

    Conquer is a word that can have so many connotations.

    We might say of a particular event that the Scots conquered Norwegian territory, but that may make it seem like they forced land away from the original Norwegian inhabitants of...well...regions once forcefully occupied by Norwegians. So "conquer" might be correct, but it would be misleading. That is the concern here.

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  3. Professor Callahan:

    There is no need for you to post this comment, unless you so desire.

    I was wondering if you would mind listing some of the books that you have found to be most enlightening. I imagine that your list would be quite long, and I also imagine that the content of the reading would not be accessible to all people -- myself included. Nevertheless, I believe that it's always important to continue learning and growing, and what better way than by reading great works.

    If you have an objection -- whether a lack of time or desire or something else -- so be it.

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  4. Jon: I don't think Rothbard had any interest in history per se. He was interested in scouring the past for things that could back libertarianism. And this becomes evident in the examples you gave, for instance.

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  5. Well, right you are, Prateek... but that wasn't the point that "Mister" was making when he dismissed Sowell as an historical ignoramus!

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  6. Some interesting thought, however ...

    Gauging public opinion? By this measure Scotland also conquered England.

    Futhermore, the Scottish exchequer was bankrupt (see the Darian project), the English Parliament had a pretty lively debate over whether they should bail out Scotland and whether this was a good idea for England. An odd state of affairs for a "conquest"?

    "They put down a number of Scottish revolts". It's not clear which revolts you're refering to, but given the time-frame I suspect that this is Jacobitism rather than something like the all too often forgotten Covenentors. Jacobites were not just Scottish (eg. they were also strong in Lancashire) and the aim was not a seperate Scottish throne but to put the Stuarts back on the British throne. Also, the Jacobites encountered massive opposition from other Scots and the armies opposing them fielded more Scottish troops (led and organised by Scots) than were in the Jacobite armies.

    The Highlands does not equal Scotland. This is a fundamental mistake to make and leads to all sorts of mistakes. Troops were in the highlands to deal with the Highland threat, garrisoned overwhelmingly by Scottish troops, Scottish officers and Scottish commanders. The general Scottish attitude towards the Highlanders was that they were backward, thieving untrustworthy barbarians. That is until the time of the so-called "tartan revival" when they were reinvented as something else they had never been. A common thread through many conflicts; just see the parralels with the North American Indians. When the military threat has been disposed of the society effectively destroyed, the formerly brutish enemy is reimagined and their suppression can even be criticized in romantic terms. The Romans were pretty good at this too.

    The highland clearances was not an act of Englishmen alone. It was a brutal strategy to clear the highlands for profitable sheep farming, carried out by Scots and English, a joint enterprise. This type of barbarity for gain by the upper classes is not just an English trait.

    " And many Scots saw themselves as a conquered nation."

    Every nation has it's founding myths, and as myths usually are, they are simplistic and incorrect.


    A caveat: This is not a peon to British Imperialism, a denigration of the hghlanders who were as good and bad as the rest of us and often treated pretty badly by all. However, Scottish nationalists are to wont to forget the activities of their own ruling classes, their involvement in the British (not English) Empire and dress everything up in a tartan veneer which is historical nonsense.

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  7. Well, andrew, my point was that Sowell was not an idiot for saying what he did, not to enter into an historical debate about Scotland. I quoted a respected academic who would, I think, back Sowell. Perhaps your view is more accurate than his, and while it is interesting to me, I'm not an expert on Scotland, and I can't afford the time to wade into this debate. Sowell said something defensible, even if perhaps wrong -- fair enough?

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