How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It

by Arthur Herman


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An exciting account of the origins of the modern world

Who formed the first literate society? Who invented our modern ideas of democracy and free market capitalism? The Scots. As historian and author Arthur Herman reveals, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scotland made crucial contributions to science, philosophy, literature, education, medicine, commerce, and politics—contributions that have formed and nurtured the modern West ever since.

Herman has charted a fascinating journey across the centuries of Scottish history. Here is the untold story of how John Knox and the Church of Scotland laid the foundation for our modern idea of democracy; how the Scottish Enlightenment helped to inspire both the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution; and how thousands of Scottish immigrants left their homes to create the American frontier, the Australian outback, and the British Empire in India and Hong Kong.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World reveals how Scottish genius for creating the basic ideas and institutions of modern life stamped the lives of a series of remarkable historical figures, from James Watt and Adam Smith to Andrew Carnegie and Arthur Conan Doyle, and how Scottish heroes continue to inspire our contemporary culture, from William “Braveheart” Wallace to James Bond.

And no one who takes this incredible historical trek will ever view the Scots—or the modern West—in the same way again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780609809990
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 09/24/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 117,364
Product dimensions: 5.19(w) x 7.93(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

Arthur Herman is the bestselling author of The Cave and the Light, Freedom’s Forge, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, The Idea of Decline in Western History, To Rule the Waves, and Gandhi & Churchill, which was a 2009 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Dr. Herman taught the Western Heritage Program at the Smithsonian’s Campus on the Mall, and he has been a professor of history at Georgetown University, The Catholic University of America, George Mason University, and The University of the South at Sewanee.

Read an Excerpt

The New Jerusalem


Just as the German Reformation was largely the work of a single individual, Martin Luther, so the Scottish Reformation was the achievement of one man of heroic will and tireless energy: John Knox.

Like Luther, Knox left an indelible mark on his national culture. Uncompromising, dogmatic, and driven, John Knox was a prolific writer and a preacher of truly terrifying power. His early years as a Protestant firebrand had been spent in exile, imprisonment, and even penal servitude chained to a rowing bench in the king's galleys. The harsh trials toughened him physically and spiritually for what was to come. He became John Knox, "he who feared the face of no man." Beginning in 1559, Knox single-handedly inspired, intimidated, and bullied Scotland's nobility and urban classes into overthrowing the Catholic Church of their forebears and adopting the religious creed of Geneva's John Calvin. Its austere and harsh dogmas that the Bible was the literal Word of God, that the God of that Bible was a stern and jealous God, filled with wrath at all sinners and blasphemers, and that the individual soul was by God's grace predestined to heaven or hell regardless of any good works or charitable intentions-were themselves natural extensions of Knox's own personality. Calvinism seemed as natural to him as breathing, and he taught a generation of Scotsmen to believe the same thing themselves.

Above all, John Knox wanted to turn the Scots into God's chosen people, and Scotland into the New Jerusalem. To do this, Knox was willing to sweep away everything about Scotland's past that linked it to the Catholic Church. As one admirer said, "Others snipped at the branches of Popery; but he strikes at the roots, to destroy the whole." He and his followers scoured away not only Scottish Catholicism but all its physical manifestations, from monasteries and bishops and clerical vestments to holy relics and market-square crosses. They smashed stained-glass windows and saints' statues, ripped out choir stalls and roodscreens, and overturned altars. All these symbols of a centuries-old tradition of religious culture, which we would call great works of art, were for Knox marks of "idolatry" and "the synagogue of Satan," as he called the Roman Catholic Church. In any case, the idols disappeared from southern Scotland, and the Scottish Kirk rose up to take their place.

Knox and his lieutenants also imposed the new rules of the Calvinist Sabbath on Scottish society: no working (people could be arrested for plucking a chicken on Sunday), no dancing, and no playing of the pipes. Gambling, cardplaying, and the theater were banned. No one could move out of a parish without written permission of the minister. The Kirk wiped out all traditional forms of collective fun, such as Carnival, Maytime celebrations, mumming, and Passion plays. Fornication brought punishment and exile; adultery meant death. The church courts, or kirk-sessions, enforced the law with scourges, pillories, branks (a padlocked iron helmet that forced an iron plate into the mouth of a convicted liar or blasphemer), ducking-stools, banishment, and, in the case of witches or those possessed by the devil, burning at the stake.

The faithful received one single compensation for this harsh authoritarian regime, and it was a powerful one: direct access to God. The right of communion, receiving the body and blood of Christ in the form of wine and bread, now belonged to everyone, rich and poor, young and old, men and women. In the Catholic Church, the Bible had been literally a closed book. Now anyone who could read, or listen to someone else read, could absorb the Word of God. On Sundays the church rafters rang with the singing of psalms and recitations from the Gospel. The Lord's Supper became a community festival, with quantities, sometimes plentiful, of red wine and shortcake (John Knox presided over one Sunday communion where the congregation consumed eight and a half gallons of claret).

The congregation was the center of everything. It elected its own board of elders or presbyters; it even chose its minister. The congregation's board of elders, the consistory, cared for the poor and the sick; it fed and clothed the community's orphans. Girls who were too poor to have a dowry to tempt a prospective husband got one from the consistory. It was more than just fear of the ducking-stool or the stake that bound the Kirk together. It was a community united by its commitment to God and its sense of chosenness. "God loveth us," John Knox had written, "because we are His own handiwork."

To a large extent Knox's mission to create the New Jerusalem in Scotland succeeded. The Reformation laid down strong roots in the Scottish Lowlands, that belt of fertile land and river valleys running from the Firth of Clyde and Glasgow in the extreme west to just north of Carlisle and Hadrian's Wall across to Edinburgh and Berwick-on-Tweed in the east. North of this in the beautiful but barren and sparsely populated Highlands, its record was more spotty. But in all the areas that came under his influence, the Kirk created a new society in the image of Knox's utopian ideal. It had turned its back not only on Scotland's past, but on all purely secular values, no matter what the source. Knox made his view clear in one of his last letters before he died in November 1572. "All worldlie strength, yea even in things spiritual, decays, and yet shall never the work of God decay."

One of those pillars of "worldlie strength" that Knox despised was political authority, or more precisely the power of monarchs. Perhaps because Knox's closest allies were Scottish nobles who wanted to see the Scottish monarchy tamed, or because nearly every monarch he dealt with was either a child or a woman (the boy king Edward VI of England, Mary Queen of Scots, the Scottish Regent Mary of Guise, and English queens Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I), he treated them all with impatience and contempt. Yet neither Mary of Guise nor Mary Queen of Scots could do without him. Even though they were Catholics, Knox represented a spiritual authority they needed to legitimize their own. When Queen Mary announced her plans to marry her worthless cousin Lord Darnley, Knox gave her such a fierce public scolding that she burst into tears in full view of her court. She made the mistake of marrying Darnley anyway, and set in motion the series of scandals that would finally push her off the throne. By 1570, Knox recognized that Mary no longer had any part to play in making the New Jerusalem and he swept her aside, like a useless piece from the game board. Her infant son James VI was installed in her place, with George Buchanan, Scotland's leading humanist, as his tutor, so that the boy could be raised in the Presbyterian faith.

Knox and Buchanan believed that political power was ordained by God, but that that power was vested not in kings or in nobles or even in the clergy, but in the people. The Presbyterian covenant with God required them to defend that power against any interloper. Punishing idolatry and destroying tyranny was a sacred duty laid by God on "the whole body of the people," Knox wrote, "and of every man in his vocation."

Here was a vision of politics unlike any other at the time. George Buchanan turned it into a full-fledged doctrine of popular sovereignty, the first in Europe. Buchanan came from Stirlingshire in central Scotland, at a time when it was still much like the Highlands in its culture and character — in fact, Buchanan grew up speaking both Gaelic and Scots. He studied at the University of St. Andrews and then at the University of Paris alongside other future giants of the Reformation such as John Calvin and Ignatius Loyola, the later founder of the Jesuits. As a Greek and Latin scholar, Buchanan had few peers. But he was also a founding father of Scottish Presbyterianism: he served as Moderator of the Kirk's General Assembly — the only layman ever to do so — and helped write the Kirk's First Book of Discipline. His greatest achievement, however, was his book on the nature of political authority, titled The Law of Government Among the Scots, published in 1579.

In it Buchanan asserted that all political authority ultimately belonged to the people, who came together to elect someone, whether a king or a body of magistrates, to manage their affairs. The people were always more powerful than the rulers they created; they were free to remove them at will. "The people," he explained, "have the right to confer the royal authority upon whomever they wish." This is the sort of view we are used to ascribing to John Locke; in fact, it belongs to a Presbyterian Scot from Stirlingshire writing more than a hundred years earlier. And Buchanan went further. When the ruler or rulers failed to act in the people's interest, Buchanan wrote, then each and every citizen, even "the lowest and meanest of men," had the sacred right and duty to resist that tyrant, even to the point of killing him.

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How the Scots Invented the Modern World 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
labboyer More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and was fascinated by the history presented by the author. It was truly eye-opening to read about the role religion and education played not only in Scotland but by influencing thought, business and art endeavors around the globe. My copy of this book is now well worn with underlined passages on nearly every page. Though a collection of historical facts, the author does a wonderful job of making it read almost as easily as a fictional novel. I highly recommend this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
MUNRO THIS IS AN INTERESTING BOOK -not always accurate on Gaelic issues and Celtic influence in the South -he seems never to have heard of the Irish Gael for example and claims things I think are not true or unsubtantiated for example that the Scots built the first log cabins in America. Almost certainly not true. Cabin is in English word -not a native Gaelic word as he seems to imply introduced by the Normans to Britain and the Swedish-Finns of Delaware. His origin of Cracker is correct (Cnacair or Cracair means bon vivant or talker, conversationalist in Gaelic and the lowland Scots word is "cracker") but I never heard of "redneck" meaning lowland evangelical Presbyterian. This was a southern/western expression as far as I know but I would have to check his sources. One small defect of this work is that he (HERMAN) accepts all his sources as authorities. He seemed not to know that some of his authors WERE CHAUVINISTS (SCOTTISH OR SOUTHERN) or even Socialist or pro-Communist (and not always reliable). And of course like many American historicans his great weakness is his lack of non-English language sources and his total reliance on others for commentary on non-English sources. But unlike other books his is aware of religious diversity in Scotland (the existence of Episcoplians and Roman Catholics he mentions Arthur Conan Doyle but not Compton MacKenzie or A.J. Cronin. who were much more devout Scottish Catholics- neither does he mention the Jews who were there in the shadows and helped make Scotland a religiously plural country not totally unlike the USA). He is also fair to the Gaels(he has read some classic and up to date works on them) but very ignorant of Gaeldom's cultural influence in the Common Sense philosophy, religion and music not to mention the Scots langauge (or dialect). What he says about Burns is reasonably accurate but it is clear he underestimates his importance as a causeway of so many enlightenment ideas not to mention Adam Fergusson's ideas. Burns is 100 times more important for Scots than David Hume who was never a popular figure and always controversial. Burns, however, is the brighest star by far and still intensely studied and admired and quoted by ordinary Scots...once again 100 times more than David Hume. Perhaps Hume was more original but Burns burned with passion a la Fergusson and it is Burns who is responsibile for Scott and the rehabiliation of Wallace. Nonetheless this is a worthy book and tells us much of ADAM SMITH, FRANCIS HUTCHESON, ADAM FERGUSSON, DAVID HUME and THE REV John Witherspoon among others and their ideas their cosmopolitan ideas. The main thesis of this book is not CHAUVINISM but the power of ideas and the cosmopolitan pragmatism of Scots that led to their high achievment. Nuture (education) not racial superiority is the message. In otherwords non Scots (even the Irish) can emulate Scots. The Japanese did.!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author takes on the dauting task of exploring the impact of one culture on the rest of the world over several centuries. He carries out the probject with ease. This reads more like a novel than a history book. The scope is epic, and the writing style fluid.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The title of this book would probably spark interest in those whose main diet is pop literature however, it is so much deeper than that and a great starting point to look deeper into the philosphers who shaped the values of the West - which are currently under seige. This is a book for those fascinated by political philisophy, and primarily for those who are to some degree classical liberals. Otherwords, if you a Marxist or if your eyes glaze over whenever politics is discussed at a party, you probably won't find this book that delightful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Incredible account of the Scottish Enlightenment and its influence on the world we know today. A little dry at times but well worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman is on the story of the Scottish influence on the development of modern society. This book is for those who are looking are into Scottish history because this book is very informative on that subject. This book is worth the read if you can see past the flaws. The author of this book, Arthur Herman, has a doctorate in history so he is quite knowledgeable. The Scots were major influences in many aspects of modern society. Many Scottish philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Thomas Reid gained famed and attracted many followers. Doctors, such as William and John Hunter, revolutionized the medicine was practiced. Influential writers, like Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, were Scots. Scots were also influential in other fields as well. This book is very well-written but it is not without flaws. The writing is very detailed and that may or may not be a good thing. The detail sometimes makes the writing a little bit dry. There is an entire chapter devoted to the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and I don't really see how it pertains to the topic of the book. It would be smart to keep a dictionary handy while reading this book because some of the vocabulary gets kind of difficult. In spite of the flaws, this book is not a waste of your time. This book shows how much a single society can influence the whole world. Without their influence the world would be a darker place. I would recommend this book if you would like to learn something new and are interested in Scottish history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A very good book that helps the reader understand the Scottish Enlightenment and how far its influence spread. There are some exaggerations and some stretches in the book, but taken as a whole, I thought the book was a good read.
lawecon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most significant books of the past 100 years. It is a thorough, well developed, and well written account of the cradle of contemporary liberty in the Western World [along, perhaps, with Holland]. I have been studying that development for nearly forty years, and still learned a lot from this book. It is one of those "put it all together" volumes that should be read by everyone interested in either Scotland or Western liberty.
xenchu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This work is an intellectual history of the Scottish Enlightenment which occurred from approximately 1700 to 1900. The first half of the book covers this quite efficiently while the second half goes on to list the contributions of Scots in various fields and various countries. Some of the connections are, I must say, rather peripheral.This is an easy book to read. It flows well and is clear and detailed. It covered an era in Scotland I knew nothing about. The bibliography is detailed but I somewhat dislike the format. I can recommend this book.
jpsnow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Convincing argument about the Scot's connection to classical law, architecture, practical philosophy, and education. Edinburgh become an important center of ideas due to Enlightenment academics and religious persons mixing in a new environment with merchants and tradesmen. A very practical philosophy resulted. Poverty was an important factor, having produced a frugal, hardy, and resourceful people. Herman also covers the importance of citizen militia and nationalist pride, and dispels myths, including the evolution of tartans). Summary quote: "The great insight of the modern Enlightenment was to insist that human beings need to free themselves from myths and to see the world as it really is."
LisaMorr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this book because I work with a lot of people from Scotland and am regularly told that the Scots invented everything. So, I thought I would see how true it is. My conclusion is that it appears from this book that the Scots invented a lot of things.I say appears because I think that the author was probably not looking at inventions and discoveries outside of Western Europe.I think I expected the book to be more of a listing of things invented by Scots, when it was more of a history. I learned a lot - and maybe that's because I'm pretty ignorant of Scottish/British/English history. For example, I had never heard of the Scottish Enlightenment.This history starts in the early 1700's and sets the stage for the Scots to 'invent the modern world'. The pillar for this was that Scotland boasted an amazing literacy rate, estimated to be as high as 75% by 1750, due to the School Act, where the Kirk (the Scottish Presbyterian church) required a school in every parish.Something that bugged me about the book is when the author would take credit for inventions and discoveries of people who were not Scottish, but because the person in question worked with the Scottish historical school or had friends that were Scottish, for example. The author really took this far when he claimed for Scotland Thomas Jefferson because Thomas Jefferson's alma mater had been later overhauled in the Scottish university model.He also ascribed to John Witherspoon (president of Princeton starting 1768) a role in the American Revolution that I question (based on some of the other exaggerations in the book). I had never heard of Witherspoon's role and will have to do some more reading about the American Revolution to confirm it.I wasn't sure how I was going to rate this book until just now, after completing this review. I'm giving it 2.5 stars because the disingenuousness of the author made me doubt some of his conclusions.
rmckeown on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This history has an intriguing title, and I could not wait to dive in. One of my primary teaching specialties is British Literature, so I know something about the early history of Scotland. I hoped to add to that knowledge.Unfortunately, I was greatly disappointed. Not only was the prose deadly dull, but the humor was so subtle and so deeply buried, not even a smile broke the hours I struggled through the first 100 pages. If this had not been on the list of reads for my book club, I would have invoked the ¿Rule of 50¿ around about page ten.Furthermore, while the premise seems to have some plausibility, many of the connections with the Scots are tenuous at best and extremely flimsy at worst. For example, in 1579, George Buchanan asserted the authority of government arises from the people. Herman thus lays claim to this ¿invention,¿ which Locke thoroughly examined and enabled the ideas to actually come to fruition (18-19). Technically speaking, this embryonic idea of democracy belongs to the Golden Age of Athenian culture, which developed the idea much more fully.If I was more frugal, I might be upset that I wasted the money for this book. The chapter on the relationship of the clans and their connection to English Royalty ¿ which embodied what I already knew about the early history of Scotland ¿ was somewhat interesting. However, this is hardly enough to redeem this work. 1 star--Jim, 1/27/12
sggottlieb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved all the fun facts. Entertaining and educational read.
woodsathome on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Intriguing and interesting read. I'm always interested in how science, politics and religion played off each other in the past. However, I think the author was a little to generous in crediting Scot's with inventions
librisissimo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Substance: Lots of information about lots of influential people and events. Lots of people you know about I bet you didn't know were Scots.Style: Straight-forward and informative. Maybe a little hagiographic about Scotland per se.
ck2935 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The title says it all. A very good case is presented on Scotland's various contributions to the world via economic theory, philosophy, political theory, architecture, etc.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you're Scottish read it! Heck, if you're it too!
ANONYMOUS3333 More than 1 year ago
loftismk More than 1 year ago
Any one who loves the foibles of history will love this book! Even more so if you have Scotish Descent. Excellent reading!!!
MrsMcIntosh More than 1 year ago
Well-written and semi-easy to read. You can't just jump into the middle of it but you can follow along well enough if you start from the beginning. Many, many names and references popup that you won't have any idea about if you just jump around. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not the easiest read. Some chapters I had to read 2-3 times to appreciate the contents, but, it was well worth the effort! Amazing, insightful and very well researched.....would recommend it to anyone who loves history or just learning!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago