Given my Scottish wife and my own Scottish roots through my great-grandmother, I have had more than a passing interest in Scotland and her history. A few years ago, for example, I picked up a copy of T.M. Devine’s Scotland’s Empire: The Origins of the Global Diaspora (Penguin, 2004). It is an excellent study of the way in which the Scots have played a critical role in building the modern world as they were dispersed to the four corners of the earth.
But I noticed an interesting oversight near the beginning of the book. Devine is noting the way that Scottish emigration and engagement with the British Empire impacted “almost every nook and cranny of Scottish life.” He then gives his reader a list of these nooks and crannies: “industrialization, intellectual activity, politics, identity, education, popular culture, consumerism, labour markets, demographic trends, Highland social development and much else” (p.xxvii). Now what is missing from that list? Any Scot living in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century world that Devine is interested in would see it right away: why it is the lack of the word “religion.”
Now why do contemporary historians assume that their subjects of study are as secular as themselves? Of course, Devine knows about the presence of religious groups in the period about which he is writing: for example, he mentions Presbyterians and Baptists (though his use of the term “Baptistry” to describe the set of Baptist beliefs, on a parallel with Presbyterianism or Congregationalism reveals a certain lack of familiarity with church history—see p.157). But this list from the beginning of the book may well be a give-away: religion is not important for us in the early twenty-first century, ipso facto, it has never been important. But nothing could be further from the truth. Religion was all-important for the majority of my wife’s Scottish forebears.
Devine’s main thesis, of course, stands: the British Empire was built by expatriate Scots who were “at the very cutting edge of British global expansion” (p.360). Anyone familiar, for example, with Ontario Baptist life in the nineteenth century will know that nearly all of the key figures in the nineteenth century were Scots or of Scottish descent. Now, there is a thesis or book!