It is not easy to reconcile the Scotland that reluctantly became England’s “poor partner” in 1707 with the “Enlightened”, intellectually progressive country of 108 years later. By the close of the first century of parliamentary union, the once “backward” northern state had become renowned for innovations in economics, literature, philosophy, and architecture. In tracing this remarkable evolution, Michael Fry’s A Higher World: Scotland 1707-1815 highlights the role of – what he terms – a pervasive “national character”, unbroken by union. Operating independently from academic historiography and continuing a course established in A New Race of Men: Scotland 1815-1914, Fry strives to represent the oft-suppressed voices of Scottish high culture, enabling them to be heard alongside the pabulum of agriculture, industry, and poverty that has long dominated academic historiography. By combining familiar material evidence with society’s immaterial, intellectual products, he restores long-deprived agency to a sentient people.
The relentless determinism of existing socio-historical scholarship on the post-union period – typically characterised by its evocation of short-term manoeuvring in the face of economic gloom – is here supplanted by a more nuanced picture of the opportunities available to the new North Britons. Indeed, with a dry sense of humour openly coloured by his personal political conservatism, Fry allows his peasants and crofters to become purposefully engaged in the industrial machine, acknowledging agency akin to that of their landlords in the political arena. His narrative bridges the gap between the widespread dissatisfaction felt in 1707 and the mutual benefits the union had proffered by the start of the following century: “improvement” was widespread, trade reached new shores, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations placed a Scotsman at the heart of international economic debate. Rejecting “Whig” paradigms of complete assimilation and the romantic extremes of nationalist sentiment, Fry as an “independent” historian draws an unusual and worthwhile conclusion. Though arguably little more than an extension of their English partners in economic and social terms, Scotland’s distinctive cultural and political life prevailed.
Works of such breadth and scope often threaten to overspill their conceived boundaries, fundamental research may be ensconced by a rambling narrative. Here, however, the rapidity of change is related with suitably concise brevity, the author rarely daring to linger or digress. Fry cleverly divides his narrative, approaching a century of history both synchronically and diachronically. Though it may seem initially unengaging and seemingly without cohesion, this structure – commencing with century-histories of economic, social, and political life – encourages the application of the early exposition to later chapters covering Fry’s cultural forte; in this way, the study of the century’s intellectual “refinement” gains immeasurably when contextualised by the forces that informed it. Popularly remembered as an “age of reason”, he contends that it “would be more accurate to call it an age of nature”, the diffusion of high culture from the leading minds to the wide circles of a literate population supplanting classical learning when “enlightened Scots” interpreted their world. The familiar rhythms of life were being interrupted and re-assembled to meet new perceptions and needs. Through Fry’s convincing socio-cultural prism, the forces of this change can be observed with singular clarity.
A Higher World holds a mirror to an industrialising, urbanising society undergoing an ascent to cultural heights inextricable from its apparently lowly foundations. Fry’s book reflects this in its own structure; navigation of the narrative’s drier stretches makes the eventual oases all the more rewarding. Though the historian could be accused of overstating the “cultural” case – particularly to the detriment of the political – what he offers is a welcome and refreshing challenge to the established line. In the three centuries after 1707, Anglicisation efforts persisted, but without defining Scottish history. Preserved in Fry’s text is the story of “nationhood with a great deal more life in it yet”.