How the English Invented the Scots

By C.P. Champion


“When I find a Scotchman to whom an Englishman is as a Scotchman, that Scotchman shall be as an Englishman to me.” — Samuel Johnson


Mr. James Kerr, Keeper of the Records: “Half our nation was bribed by English money.”
Johnson: “Sir, that is no defence: that makes you worse!”



How the Scots Invented Canada. Ken McGoogan. HarperCollins, 2010.

A Fleeting Empire: Early Stuart Britain and the Merchant Adventurers to Canada. Andrew D. Nicholls. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History. Hugh Trevor-Roper. Yale University Press, 2008.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Arthur Herman. Random House, 2001.

THE SCOTS RANK AMONG history’s great self-mythologizers, mostly at the expense of the English. Much of the bluster is quite tolerable. The vainglorious “here’s tae us” refrain, to which the rest of us are subjected, is almost endearing. Yet the mighty Scot is now credited not only with devising golf, bagpipes, whisky, curling, and haggis but with “inventing the modern world” and “creating” or “inventing” Canada. Ken McGoogan’s How the Scots Invented Canada is not the first iteration. In 2003, Matthew Shaw wrote Great Scots: How the Scots Created Canada. This was followed by an academic collection under the more temporizing title, Kingdom of the Mind: How the Scots Helped Make Canada in 2006, the same year as Paul Cowan’s How the Scots Created Canada.

The obvious, belaboured role played by Scots in shaping Canada is really a facet of their wider role as empire-builders. They not only scaled the Heights of Abraham for General Wolfe, but laid siege to Bangalore, Saringapatam, and Pondicherry before charging the gates. Despite McGoogan’s ten pages devoted to William Lyon Mackenzie as an ostensible “maker of 1867” (a curious anachronism), Mackenzie was not the only Scot in the 1837 rebellions. Scots did their part to suppress the rebels too: at least one Montreal volunteer regiment wore tartan stripes on their trousers. According to a fellow Scot, Robert Sellar of the Huntingdon Gleaner (overlooked by McGoogan), “It is safe to say that had Lyon McKenzie been a resident of Montreal instead of Toronto, he would have shouldered a musket to put down rebellion instead of leading one.”(1) Few would dare deny that Scots invented their share of machines and techniques, that they braved oceans, rivers, and wastelands, and turned vast colonies into loyal and prosperous federations. What these authors are less keen to say, presumably because it would sell fewer books, is that Scots did all these things in ardent (and self-enriching) service of the larger British project; hence the title of Tom Devine’s Scotland’s Empire 1600-1815, published in 2003. When, as Herman notes, Scots produced an ambitious English-language encyclopedia they did not call it “Caledonica” but Britannica, a detail Herman omits.

Even so, the ingenious Scot manages to shift any blame for the sins of conquest and empire onto the shoulders of Englishmen, all the while assuming the air of victim of primordial highland spoliation. Wha’ll gave the much-abused Anglish his due? After all, for every Scottish inventor,  there was at least one English pioneer: James Watt’s path was blazed by English steam-engine inventor Thomas Newcomen (or by another Englishman, Thomas Savery, as McGoogan observes), and so on.

The intertwined history of Scots and English suggests that if misery can make for strange bedfellows, so too can shared interests. This dates back at least as far as the middle ages, brought to the masses by the “great big steaming haggis of lies” that was Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart,” as a Guardian reviewer described the film in 2008. When Scottish armies defeated Charles I in 1640 in what turned out to be a prelude to the English Civil War (the one that ended with the king losing his head in 1649), the king’s enemies — both English and Scots — joined in celebration: “We must now stand or fall together,” declared the Treaty of Ripon, for “We are Brethren.” Once the civil war had played out, however, Cromwell’s English republic proved to be no friend to Scots.

The formal Union in 1707 (whence the United Kingdom) under Queen Anne, a Stuart and a niece of Charles II, imposed a practical modus vivendi. Lowland Scots had long since transformed themselves into collaborators, Samuel Johnson’s “crafty, designing people, eagerly attentive to their own interests.” But whatever the benefits, many Scots mourned the loss of independence: “As for the embodying of Scotland by England,” lamented one, “it will be as when a poor bird is embodied in the hawk that hath eaten it up.” But while the Union ended independence, and doomed the ancient highland culture and the Jacobite cause, it did not destroy Scottish identity. It might not even be too much to suggest that for all its subordination and subornation, the impact of English rule in fact generated much of the Scottish identity that we know today. Herman admits as much on page 119: “Far from leading educated Scots to abandon or forget their Scottish identity, Anglicization seems to have encouraged them to keep it alive and intact.”

Since Britain’s empire was also Canada’s, it is no surprise that confederation in 1867 was a high-water mark of Scots influence, with Scots predominating among the founding fathers in Canada’s transcontinental enterprise, supported and financed by London. What’s odd — and typical of missing the British forest for the Scottish trees — is that McGoogan has written a 400-page book without much to say about this collaborative reality. The “How the Scots did such and such” genre is lucrative because readers seem to crave being told they did it all on their own. But if the Scots invented Canada, they did so in a kind of junior partnership with the English. And we should not lose sight of the prerequisite: that the English had invented the Scots.

As with the parade of inventors, for every Scottish trader, soldier, and settler who followed the path to America there had already been a 16th- or 17th-century English adventurer blazing the trail — a Raleigh, Guy, or Gilbert; a Falkland or Calvert. Even the Cabots were English by adoption, men of Bristol hired by local merchants. English trailblazing shines through the Scotch mist in Andrew D. Nicholls’s A Fleeting Empire: Early Stuart Britain and the Merchant Adventurers to Canada.

Nicholls charts Anglo-Scottish cooperation under King James VI and I, the first to rule both kingdoms as King of Great Britain, and under his son Charles I. The collective security of the British Isles and the subjugation of Ireland by Anglo-Scots Protestants provided two sources of unity under royal patronage. “Opening up English overseas ventures to Scottish investors and participants marked a third way of encouraging greater co-operation,” Nicholls writes. Sir William Alexander, planter of New Scotland in 1621 as a complement to New England, sought to “forestall further French ambitions” in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In turn Lewis, David, and Thomas Kirke’s quasi-piratical English syndicate was chartered by Charles I in 1627 as the Merchant Adventurers to Canada; they achieved the first (temporary) conquest of Quebec in 1629.

Nicholls criticizes the whiggish tendency of historians to narrate events in light of how they ultimately turned out, portraying 17th-century conflicts as merely “foreshadowing” the emergence of today’s nation states. This teleology reduces the Kirke brothers and their adventurous contemporaries to the role of forerunners. He concludes that British ascendancy over the French in America might have come a century earlier had Charles I seen fit to hold and build on the gains made during his father’s reign. He does not mention the obvious what-if scenario, namely: had English control of Quebec been secured by the 1640s, before most French settlement took place, it is hard to imagine there would be a French-speaking province in Canada today.

Later, as Scots lowlanders prosper in the emerging British isles, the north presents a tragic foil: rebellion in the highlands between 1715 and 1745 threatened the integrity of the Union. The “barbarous” old society would be uprooted, the clans dispersed, hereditary lines broken or co-opted. The Gaelic tongue was suppressed, the tartan and the philibeg banned for civilian use by the 1746 Dress Act until 1782.

Yet what was this tartan philibeg? Even in the midst of destruction, England’s impact was inventive. It is now better understood that what highland Scots typically wore previously was not the characteristic outfit that so many Canadian regiments wear today. More likely it was similar to what one Scottish minister described seeing on Jacobite soldiers in 1715, a long homespun tunic of one colour, draped over one shoulder, enrobing the wearer below the knee, and belted at the waist. Other sources depict more than one colour.

It has been forty years since an iconoclastic English historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, revealed the fraud of “the ancient traditions of Scotland” in a chapter in a 1983 collection edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition. The short kilt worn round the waist, Trevor-Roper concluded, the epitome of Scottish habiliment, was invented by an English Quaker. When industrialist Thomas Rawlinson set up his iron works in Scotland in the 1720s, he found his highland labourers encumbered by their traditional “plaid,” the toga-like “great kilt.” Rawlinson proposed separating the lower part to give his labourers greater freedom of movement — and thus the kilt was born.

Whether Trevor-Roper was correct in every detail or not, England’s tartan ban did not apply to soldiers. About the same time kilts made their first appearance, in 1725 the British army began recruiting men from the highlands, forming the first highland regiment in 1740, the Black Watch. Unlike civilians these embryonic regiments were permitted to wear highland dress. This meant, at first, the full-body cloak or belted plaid, which in time gave way to the more practical kilt. Whoever invented the short kilt, it is the (English) army’s innovation of highland regiments that perpetuated and popularized it. Many of the tartan patterns and colours that we know today, as Trevor-Roper documented, were the ad hoc creation of a Bannockburn-based company, William Wilson & Son, which assigned “certified” patterns to various clan chiefs in preparation for the Royal Visit of 1822. That event seems to have played a larger role in the fabrication of “traditional highland dress” than any other. Descending upon Edinburgh the King himself, George IV, was got up in sash, kilt and sporran, large plumed Tam-o’-shanter, and tartan hose (argyle socks). It was for this occasion that Sir Walter Scott was enlisted to recruit highland chiefs and to “bring half-a-dozen or half-a-score of clansmen.” He urged them to dress the part, to make a colourful impression, for “Highlanders are what [the King] will best like to see,” as Trevor-Roper recounts in The Invention of Scotland, an expanded version of his earlier work, published in 2003 after his death.

Apart from the few people who actively dislike them, most would agree that the pipes, drums, and other paraphernalia are a brilliant and enduring creation. As Trevor-Roper noted, while some 20th-century folk revivals manifested themselves as murderous ideologies (such as the German Herrenvolk), by contrast Britain’s Irish, Scots, and Welsh folk legends were domesticated into innocent ritual. Thus the invention of the Scot is a largely benevolent English achievement.

More to the point is the integral role played by Scots in promoting the larger British civilization to the detriment of its rivals. As Niall Ferguson, an Atlantic-leaping Scot, put it in his 2003 apologia, Empire: in an imperial context “Scotland’s surplus entrepreneurs and engineers, medics and musketeers could deploy their skills and energies ever further afield in the service of English capital and under the protection of England’s navy.” By the 1750s only one-tenth of the British population lived in Scotland, but Scots accounted for half the agents of the East India company; nearly half the directors’ clerks in Bengal; half the free merchants, half the surgeon recruits. Warren Hastings, England’s proconsul, called the staff his “Scotch Guardians.”

Ferguson cites Scots’ greater willingness to try their luck abroad. McGoogan goes further, claiming Scots were “more egalitarian, flexible and pragmatic than the English” towards Indians and French Canadians – a claim embellished by John Ivison in the National Post as “a cultural intermingling that laid the foundation for Canadian diversity. That mindset resulted from the liberal ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment.” And yet something else was in play: an English genius for deploying others’ individual and collective self-interest and professional pride in Her Majesty’s greater service.

A popularizer like Simon Schama could refer to the Union as a “hostile merger.” But what began as a takeover “would end in a full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world.” If the Scots invented the modern world, they did so within the political, military, economic, and intellectual structure of England’s empire. What is at issue is not so much Scots “beat[ing] the English at their own game,” as Herman puts it. If Scots were able to transcend their remote parochialism and go on to re-found Canada and much else, it was because, ironically perhaps, they were given a platform and a raison d’être by the English. In short, if the Scots invented the modern world, it was because the English had already invented the Scots.

1. Robert Sellar, The History of Huntingdon, Chateauguay and Beauharnois from TheirFirst Settlement to the Year 1838 (1888), p. 502. Thanks to contributing editor Phyllis Reeve for this quotation.

This article was originally published in The Dorchester Review, Vol. 1, No, 1, Spring/Summer 2011, pp.105-108.