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More about North Carolina and the Scots

By D. G. Martin
Posted Saturday, July 23, 2005

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What is it about Scotland that so intrigues so many North Carolinians?

I had to ask myself that question after I got so many responses to a recent column about the “Scotch Irish” and the “Savage South.”

Herman argues that the Scots “created the basic idea of modernity”

Many of you encouraged me to read a book called “How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It,” by Arthur Herman. The book’s title says it all. Herman argues that the Scots are responsible for the modern world’s way of thinking and getting things done, and he tries to explain how it happened.

Maybe Herman is stretching a little bit, but those of us who claim some sort of Scottish or Scotch-Irish connection can be forgiven for eating up this kind of overreaching. I enjoyed his book when I first read it several years ago, and I am going to share with you again some of my thoughts about it.

Herman argues that the Scots “created the basic idea of modernity” that “transformed their culture and society in the eighteenth century,” and “they carried it with them wherever they went.”

This transformation of Scotland from a poor and backward country into a full-blown cultural and economic powerhouse in the 1700’s came about, Herman says, as a result of some special circumstances.

We think of the Scottish Highlands as a romantic home of heroes. But until the beginning of the 1700’s, it was a land of poverty, feudalism, illiteracy, and clan warfare—not totally unlike the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan of today.

Ironically, Scotland’s transformation began in 1559 when John Knox led a reformation that overthrew the established church and replaced it with a strict brand of Calvinism. Knox taught that the people must read the Bible and come to know God personally through their own thoughtful study and prayer. And they, not a distant king or church official, were to be responsible for the orderly governance of their churches.

The enthusiastic Scottish converts tore down the stained glass windows, statues, and buildings of the old churches like the cathedral at St. Andrews. They destroyed centuries of precious art and heritage all in the cause of removing “idolatry.”

If any government authorities, including kings and queens, got in their way of worshiping God, the Scots stood up to them. They developed a healthy tradition of rebellion against “unjust” authority.

How did all this disruption lead to the “invention of the modern world”?

Because Knox believed that every person should come to know God personally through reading the Bible, the new church tried to teach every child in Scotland to read. Having been taught to read, many Scots began to read lots of books—and not just the Bible. Once this habit of reading independently took root, no one, not even John Knox and his successors, could control what they read, and what they learned, and what they thought.

Having been taught the responsibility to develop their own relationship with God, they developed a self-confident pride in their ability to solve every kind of problem and find ways to improve the world in which they lived.

By the end of the 1600’s, Scotland was the most literate nation on earth.

In the 1700’s, it became the center of philosophic and economic thinking, led by such familiar names as Adam Smith and David Hume, and a host of others. Its universities were the envy of every country in Europe.

It became the center of invention and business, with James Watt’s 1781 steam engine becoming the “workhorse” of the Industrial Revolution, in which technology and modern capitalism became life’s driving forces.

What does this have to do with North Carolina today?

The transformation of Scotland was in full bloom as waves of Scots and Scotch-Irish immigrants were landing in America and settling here. They were bringing with them these new Scottish ideas. They were deeply religious, willing to stand up to unjust government, hard working, entrepreneurial, and passionate about the benefits of education and inquiring minds. Those who supported the Revolution, including most of the Scotch-Irish, became its “workhorses.”

Today, North Carolinians seem to have a love affair with things Scottish. Some of them celebrate their heritage by dressing up in kilts and tartans for dinners in honor of poet Robert Burns, for special religious services, and for Highland games and festivals at Grandfather Mountain, “Loch” Norman, Red Springs, and all over the state.

Some people argue that this Scottish “mania” is based on our identification with the “lost causes” of Southern and Scottish independence. Both “causes” have been highly romanticized and shamelessly celebrated.

Based on Herman’s book, it is clear that we have something better to celebrate. It is these core Scottish values that arose from Knox’s reformation and came here with the Scots and Scotch-Irish immigrants.

These Scottish values—especially the commitment to educational excellence and the freedom of the human mind to inquire in all directions--are a solid rock on which our state’s best traditions are built.

They are something for which we should be grateful to Scotland. And if these values are part of our heritage, our Scottish connection really is something to celebrate--with pride.


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (July 31) guest is Lawrence Earley, author of “Looking for Longleaf.” For details check:

Upcoming NC Bookwatch programs, all at 5pm, Sundays on UNC-TV:
July 31 Lawrence Earley Looking for Longleaf
August 7 Peter Perret A Well Tempered Mind
August 14 Timothy Tyson Blood Done Sign My Name

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More about North Carolina and the Scots

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