Published by EH.Net (July 2023).

Murray Pittock. Scotland: The Global History, 1603 to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2022, xiv + 485 pp. $40 (hardback), ISBN 978-0300254174.

Reviewed for EH.Net by William A. Wardle, former Principal of York St John University and James Watt College of Further and Higher Education.


Imperial Scotland wasn’t built in a day! According to Murray Pittock it took four centuries, beginning in the seventeenth century and ending only in the 1970s, superseded by nationalist demands for an independent nation-state.

The fact that Scotland only looked to recapture its political form in the late twentieth century emphasises that this is an existential study of Scots, not of Scotland. From the 1960s, Scotland has presented an academic pulse revealing a revisionist history and a re-calibration of its global significance. This re-interpretation has taken place at the same time as the nationalist movement for independence has reached its contemporary zenith. The new historiography looks to provide an alternative history of Scotland, moving away from one-dimensional cultural sentimentality and a deficit model depicting Scotland as simply politically barren after 1707 and the Act of Union with England. At best, it was a shared national history, wrapped within the emergence of modern, imperial Britain.

The revisionist school catalogues the disproportionate contributions of Scots in a global diaspora, identifying decisive contributions in key sectors of the modern world. As well as the distributed, existential history of Scots, there is a special place for the global economic prominence of Scotland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, based largely on heavy industry.

Pittock comes late to the party. But he has rich provenance, providing a prolific output ranging from literary criticism to military history. A book of this scale can hardly be a synthesis. There is no doubting the depth and range of the author’s knowledge. But does this volumetric form equate to the self-proclaimed ‘scholarship’ highlighted in the Introduction as the defining characterisation of this book? It has a structure that follows the recent historiographical trend. We get more, a lot more, of the same but not a historiographical step-change or breakthrough.

The author’s justification for the book is that national history, British history, is a shared framework that does not give sufficient prominence to separate and contributing Scottish actions. ‘Non-national’ seems to be the author’s rationale, falling some way short of taking full account of the historiography of empires, globalisation, and modern world systems.

As Scotland’s activities were on a global stage, albeit distributed, Pittock deploys a wide-angle lens. He introduces the term and concept ‘imperial’, but without definition or comparison, and apparently equates this to ‘global’. The analysis describes how Scotland’s imperial presence is at variance with the modern world of nation-states and empires without emphasising strongly enough that this is the essence of Scottish exceptionalism. It would have been instructive to set the Scottish experience within the historiography connecting the local and global and contextualising globalisation in history. We learn nothing of the place of Scotland and Scots in the successive geo-systems from the seventeenth century. Did Scots go with the wave or ahead of the curve? And a bit of counterfactual musing would have entertained: what would have happened without these Scots’ contributions?

The book’s assertion that it is the first global history of Scotland is contestable. There has been a revised focus on the Scottish diaspora. And the genre of narrative survey is certainly headlined by Sir Thomas Devine, his trilogy identifying in turn Scotland’s profile as a nation and its expression through its ‘empire’ and diaspora (1).

On the basis of scale and empirical detail, this book convinces on the extent of Scottish intervention and influence, but less so on its primary significance. Pittock steers clear of the most extravagant claims, notably Herman’s assertion that the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment created the modern world (2). Equally, Pittock leaves untouched the wider interpretations of formative influences and turning points in determining the shape of the modern world system. Rather, Pittock covers familiar ground without being explicit about whether he is pivoting a new hypothesis. There is clear demonstration of the continuity and adaptability of the Scottish presence, sustaining prominence through different phases, military endeavour to mercantile enterprise and, by the nineteenth century, extending industrial dominance. Thus, the book is likely to shift perceptions by degree rather than more fundamentally by kind.

This is not a work of economic history. The author self-identifies as a ‘cultural historian’, and the methodology is more akin to ethnography than economics, sociology rather than statistical analysis of impact or influence. Individual and collective biographies proliferate. There is not presentation of a major re-interpretation of the causes of British imperialism. The descriptions of the operational mechanics of the British Empire reinforce Devine’s epithet that the English controlled the empire, while Scotland ran it. There is a frustrating historiographical void, with Pittock making no reference to the established debates on the nature of British imperialism and, in particular, the primacy of the concept of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’(3).

We learn an enormous amount about the roles of individuals, the importance of networks and the contributions of mercenary and displaced Scots. We also have new terminology to understand and accept. The term ‘Imperial Scotland’ does not convince that it is other than a description of geographical and demographic distribution rather than power dynamics. There is no sense of the British imperial system being run from Scotland or that there were alternative vectors, and which might disturb or displace prevailing interpretations.


The narrative follows a conventional structure. There are three chronological sections, with thematic subdivisions. The first part ranges from the seventeenth century to the second half of the eighteenth century, tracking Scotland’s incorporation into the Union (1707) and its absorption into the overseas endeavours of the British state. By the eighteenth century, a rebellious Scotland…Covenanters and Jacobites…had been suppressed, its domestic militarism converted into significant participation in overseas conflicts. Differentiating seventeenth century freedom of expression from an eighteenth century straitjacket within the Union, Pittock demonstrates how Scotland’s political outlook was narrowed within the Union but that the eighteenth century saw Scots leading in diverse fields and in a variety of organisations. This is not a novel hypothesis. It was in the eighteenth century that Scotland made a defining contribution to the emergence and consolidation of the British Empire.

The second part of the book covers the period from late eighteenth century to the eve of the First World War. The narrative covers the importance of Scots to military campaigns in North America…fighting on both sides…and in constructing the constitutional and economic frameworks of the emergent state. Pittock highlights the interesting paradox of the Scots subscribing to English laws and liberties while influential Scottish concepts on constitutional forms were exported to North America.

The mercantile activities of prominent Scots were in evidence in North America, the Caribbean, India, the Far East, and China, and the book gives detailed biographies. Scotland’s participation in the tobacco and sugar trades, based on slavery, gave it international prominence.

Pittock gives less exposure to the progress and influence of Scotland as a global industrial power in the nineteenth century. Economic historians of Scotland have written extensively of the co-existence of economic power with poor domestic income distribution and appalling social conditions. As a result, as well as exporting goods throughout the globe, Scotland continued to export people. It is a weakness of this book that the external dimension of global success is not complemented by illustration of persistent socio-economic problems created through weak wages, poor housing, urban squalor and inadequate public infrastructure and health provision.

The third part of the book addresses the Scottish experience in the twentieth century, highlighting the first world war, the inter-war period, the second world war and the period from 1945 and which sees the re-emergence of a political role for Scotland. By the 1960s a catalogue of persistent economic and social problems had led to meaningful political agitation, along with the perception in Scotland that centralist planning in Westminster was treating Scotland as a branch economy. Economic marginalisation of Scotland worsened with the decline of empire, a contributing rather than fundamental factor. The end of empire reduced economic opportunity for Scotland, but the author illustrates three, more powerful variables. First, the failure of the UK government to understand the significance and potential of oil revenues. Second, the prevarication, inconsistency, and misjudgement on devolution. Third, from 1979, the impact of attitudes and policies of the Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher. Failure to make the transition to a modern economic format stimulated alternative political strategies, a including a proposed radical return to a re-invented nation-state.

Pittock identifies revitalised social cohesion in Scotland as a reaction to an arrogant and distanced UK government. He also supports the notion of re-awakened cultural self-awareness, underpinning nationalist resurgence, what he classifies as the ‘Matter of Scotland’. He aligns implicitly with those economic historians seeing Scotland as different to the rest of the UK, benefitting until the 1970s from shared awareness between employers and the workforce of the elements of co-operation and, ultimately, economic growth and recovery. That common enterprise or ‘moral economy’ is broken by the clumsy intervention…and ignorance and indifference…of the Westminster government. The author is not openly sympathetic to the more radical notion, as represented by Tom Nairn, that the demise of empire was the spur to Scottish nationalism (4). However, he cannot resist the sideswipe that an introspective, post-imperial UK was unattractive to the more cosmopolitan Scottish mind. Pittock is silent on the European Union (EU) Referendum of 2016, but its result would confirm his assumption that a more outward-looking Scotland would feel uncomfortable with formal UK policy. Scotland, of course, voted massively in favour of remaining in the EU. The post-industrial nationalist surge was not a reaction to the loss of empire but a consequence of economic downturn and the UK government’s mishandling of discontent in Scotland. In the end, devolution asked more questions than it provided answers or compromise.

There are a couple of omissions here. First, the self-inflicted damage caused by the fact of the Scottish economy clinging to the staple, heavy industries even as they lose post-WW2 competitiveness. Second, a global or imperial Scotland reverting to a political shape without having ever solved disproportionally severe social and infrastructural issues.


In identifying ‘Imperial Scotland’, the book sets up a revised and bold concept but also a question that it does not answer: whether the varied actions across continents and centuries were simply coincidental and accidental. The convincing answer as to whether the ‘Imperial Scotland’ had a sense of purpose would lie in the stimulus behind the different interventions and achievements. Since there was no Scottish ‘state’ as such we are left looking at the actions and motivations of individuals. The impact of Scottish education is referenced, but there is not a wider cultural argument.

For a small country, the judgement is one of disproportionate influence. The book in large part provides lists of locations, individuals and achievements. There is a sense of being presented with the weight of evidence rather than the strength of the argument. We learn more about motivation, individual and collective achievement than we do about quantified impact.

There isn’t sufficient reciprocal analysis of the impact on Scotland. There is description of intellectual self-congratulation, and the formation of different intellectual and cultural schools. There is, however, no discussion on why Scotland has emerged from its imperial and post-industrial phase with some of the worst performance indices in Europe: huge income inequality, persistent child poverty, poor popular health, deteriorating educational achievements, a worsening drug profile, endemic violence, urban decay, and inadequate transport infrastructure. The desire for independence is promoted as a desperate move away from treatment as second-class rather than crowning contemporary high achievement.

As such there are challenges for economic historians. First, the narrative: not its accuracy but its significance. While we have extensive, exhaustive illustration of the actions of Scots, individually and collectively, the chapter and verse are not located in an analytical framework. Second, the shortfalls in the author’s understanding of the processes and dynamics of globalisation and which have an extensive historiography. The fact that there is little attempt at comparative analysis means that the narrative is one of Scottish individualism or uniqueness. This shortcoming is compounded by the author’s denial of Scottish exceptionalism, while contemporaneously profiling the significance of the Scottish contribution across a range of spheres.

Readers will learn much from this work but are unlikely to find its explicit message convincing. History should not be written or read backwards. By contrast, this book nudges it forwards, cataloguing achievement, a sense of identity and, just maybe, destiny.


(1) T. M. Devine, Scotland’s Empire, 1600-1815 (Gardners Books, 2003); To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1700-2010 (Penguin, 2011); The Scottish Nation: A History, 1700-2000 (Allen Lane, 1999).

(2) Arthur L. Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001).

(3) P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688-2015 (Routledge, 3rd edition, 2016).

(4) Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain (NLB, 1977).


Professor William Wardle is a former Principal of York St John University and James Watt College of Further and Higher Education. He has been a member of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and his bespoke consultancy engages internationally with institutions, agencies and governments.

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