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

ISBN: 0609809997
ISBN 13: 9780609809990
By: Arthur Herman

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About this book

Who formed the first modern nation?Who created the first literate society?Who invented our modern ideas of democracy and free market capitalism?The Scots.Mention of Scotland and the Scots usually conjures up images of kilts, bagpipes, Scotch whisky, and golf. But as historian and author Arthur Herman demonstrates, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scotland earned the respect of the rest of the world for its crucial contributions to science, philosophy, literature, education, medicine, commerce, and politics—contributions that have formed and nurtured the modern West ever since.Arthur Herman has charted a fascinating journey across the centuries of Scottish history. He lucidly summarizes the ideas, discoveries, and achievements that made this small country facing on the North Atlantic an inspiration and driving force in world 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.Victorian historian John Anthony Froude once proclaimed, “No people so few in number have scored so deep a mark in the world’s history as the Scots have done.” And no one who has taken this incredible historical trek, from the Highland glens and the factories and slums of Glasgow to the California Gold Rush and the search for the source of the Nile, will ever view Scotland and the Scots—or the modern West—in the same way again. For this is a story not just about Scotland: it is an exciting account of the origins of the modern world and its consequences.“The point of this book is that being Scottish turns out to be more than just a matter of nationality or place of origin or clan or even culture. It is also a state of mind, a way of viewing the world and our place in it. . . . This is the story of how the Scots created the basic idea of modernity. It will show how that idea transformed their own culture and society in the eighteenth century, and how they carried it with them wherever they went. Obviously, the Scots did not do everything by themselves: other nations—Germans, French, English, Italians, Russians, and many others—have their place in the making of the modern world. But it is the Scots more than anyone else who have created the lens through which we see the final product. When we gaze out on a contemporary world shaped by technology, capitalism, and modern democracy, and struggle to find our place as individuals in it, we are in effect viewing the world as the Scots did. . . . The story of Scotland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is one of hard-earned triumph and heart-rending tragedy, spilled blood and ruined lives, as well as of great achievement.”—FROM THE PREFACEFrom the Hardcover edition.

Reader's Thoughts

Paul Ewing

Even though I've only finished the first 100 pages, this book has transformed my thinking about the origins of the modern world. Key quotes: "Scotland would generate the basic institutions, ideas, attitudes, and habits of mind that characterize the modern age." p. 11."'The people have the right to confer the royal authority upon whomever they wish.'" --George Buchanan, "The Law of Government Among the Scots," 1579Robert Burns, "'A man's a man for a' that." "...the Act of Union [with England] launched an economic boom. In the span of a single generation it would transform Scotland from a Third World country into a modern society, and open up a cultural and social revolution." p. 54 [the accumulation of much wealth precedes every cultural 'golden age' whether it be in Scotland, Renaissance Italy or Classical Greece, P.E.]Arthur Herman lists "the books that dominated the thinking of Europeans in the last quarter of the 18th century" and the "Scottish names stand out":"Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations," David Hume's "Treatise of Human Nature," William Robertson's "History of the Reign of Charles V," Adam Ferguson's "History of Civil Society," John Millar's "The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks," Thomas Reid's "Inquiry Into the Human Mind," Francis Hutcheson's "Systems of Moral Philosophy," and Lord Kame's "Sketches of the History of Man." p. 63"Hutcheson defined rights as universal, and did not recognize any distinction based on gender. The other, even more important, was slavery. 'Nothing,' he said, 'can change a rational creature into a piece of goods void of all rights.'" p. 82In 1777, in Edinburgh, the Court of Session not only freed Joseph Knight, an African slave purchased in Jamaica and brought home to Scotland by his new master; but it also permanently outlawed slavery in Scotland! pp. 104-105

George Dobbs

This is a fine survey of Western history from the Scot point of view, starting in the late 1600's right up through the present. It filled in a number of gaps for me such as the battle of Culloden and the Opium wars, and what defines the Presbyterians (then, and now). Occasionally, the author seemed to stretch the connection to Scotland, but overall enjoyable and educational. Many of my anscestors have been described as Scotch-Irish. He points out that these are also known as Ulster Scots, the Scots who emigrated to Northern Ireland back in 1600's (I think I got that right). Also one of my favorites is Mr. MacAdam who created a crushed gravel road. Later when tar was added it became tarmacadam and eventually tarmac.

Alyssa Argonaut

The present reviewer has read a lot of history in his day — some of it written much better than others. Many people can write about history, but not many can write competently about it. Rarer still is the individual who can write about history in an engaging way that will encourage the reader to not just grind through to the bitter end, but to enjoy his or herself in the process. Rarest of all is the writer who can combine these two traits. Yet, in How the Scots Invented the Modern World, author and professor of history Arthur Herman has done just this — produced a tome that addresses his subject matter in an accomplished, lucid, and yet almost conversational manner that leaves the reader impatient to turn the page and find out more. In this respect, I would class Herman with other historians who write with a wider audience in view than just other historians, authors such as Barbara Tuchmann, Stephen Ambrose, and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.

Kristi Thielen

Hell, yes, the Scots Invented the Modern World. It's more a question of what they didn't do. From literature (Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott)to philosophy ( David Hume) banking and finance (Adam Smith) inventions (James Watt) industry (Andrew Carnegie) and science (James Hutton)and everything in between, pick a topic and before you delve deeply in it, you'll find a Scot. Liberal arts types should appreciate that the Glascow concept of higher education stresses the gaining of knowledge across a vast field of study to learn how all disciplines interact with and affect each other. (Alas, the German concept of "vertical" study in specific fields predominately in the U.S. in the 19th century and led to what we have now: people who have master's degrees and can't tell you what the three branches of government are.) Read this book and learn about the Scots!


To be completely honest, it's hard to find a better written book out there, regardless of the obviously hyperbolic title. This text was so fastidiously researched, so utterly fascinating, and so easy to read that I can't fathom another work that could do the job better. Herman backs up his incredible title with myriad evidence that really supports how Scottish blood has invigorated and established some of the best concepts and inventions that have come out of the past three centuries or so. He stretches a bit at the end when he discusses Scottish descendants in America and Canada, but the intent is true and the rest of the book makes up for this slight weakness. Yes, the thesis is far-fetched and basically impossible to prove, but Herman really tries his hardest and at least entertains. Besides, anyone who takes the title seriously shouldn't be reading academic texts in the first place.Basically, this is one of the best books I've ever read in my life. Seriously.

Lisa Pletz

If you want to understand why America developed the way it did, this book will help you to get it. I found it very readable, although I must admit a certain bias - I'm interested in all things politic, and I come from a Scots-Irish background, so in very many ways, I understand the author "intuitively." At any rate, this is a great book that will help you to see why we are the way we are, and may give some insight into using that backstory to change how we are doing things now.


Congratulations are in order for Mr. Herman, who has managed to combine all of the heretofore underappreciated advances of the Scots into one sweeping, thrilling book!Every person who claims Scottish descent should read this book. It is a history book, yes, but so well-written with doses of humor and grandeur that it was hard to put down! If we Scots had ever needed more reason to be proud of our heritage, then this book does the job."How The Scots Invented the Modern World" does more than just highlight the absolutely breath-taking accomplishments of the Scots in creating the Western world as we know it. It also shows their strength, ingenuity, faith and skill. Furthermore, it dives into the real complexities and problems faced by Scotland in the modern era, and how Scottish culture is not all about Braveheart, kilts, and bagpipes, but also education, thrift, strong Calvinist convictions, and a never-say-die attitude.After reading this book, I can't wait to go back to the Highland Games and continue to celebrate the Scottish heritage in my home and with my family. This book is a must-read for any Scotsman or Scottish enthusiast.

Vanessa Vaniloquence

While it is a book of history, it is a popular history so don't expect footnotes. It is very well written and kept my interest from start to finish but where is the info on the most important invention - Scotch?


The first three quarters of this book are absolutely amazing, showing how the Scottish Enlightenment period essentially created all modern political and philosophical teachings in the modernized world.The book goes in to wonderful historical detail about brilliant individuals who were the product of a social program to bring education to everyone at a time when most people in Europe were illiterate. It discusses such brilliant philosophers as David Hume and Adam Smith, as well as great inventors, such as Watt (well, Watt didn't TECHNICALLY invent the steam engine. He merely improved on the design of Thomas Newcomen's engine.).However, I felt that the book fell apart towards the end. It felt less like a great historical presentment and more like a shoddy list made for bragging rights. As the book progresses through time, so do the characters involved in the stories, eventually reaching a more modern time when the people discussed were not nearly as interesting as in the early portions of the book. It felt as if the author became tired with describing Scottish history and fell in to a groove of saying, "This guy invented this, and this other guy invented something else." Still a brilliantly done book and well worth the read.


Very engaging history of Scotland and it's people....detailed, but enjoyable. I was amazed at what the Scots endured, but more so with what they accomplished. I was surprised at the people who were Scottish: John Paul Jones, Alexander Hamilton, Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Graham Bell, Andrew Carnegie, Dr. David Livingston, James Watt, Robert Louis Stevenson, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Jim Bowie, Daniel Boone, Sam Houston, Samuel Morse, just to name a few. I wanted to read this book because I am of Scottish blood, and wanted to learn more about where my ancestors came from. I am very proud to be of Scottish descent! (from the Highland clans of Sutherland and Lindsay) It gave me a desire to be better and accomplish more than I have.

Bill Sleeman

This was a very engaging, very well researched history of the Scots and of Scotland. The only thing keeping it from a five is that the author seemed to misplace his style right around chapter twelve or so. At that point the even pace of the larger history mixed with well-drawn vignettes of individuals and their impact gave way to a hurried rush through the influence of the scientist and mechanic/inventors of Scottish origin and concluded with a chapter on the Scots in America that repeated many of the assertions about Scots discussed in earlier chapters. I was left wondering if author Arthur Herman had been given a strict page limit by his publisher and was pressed towards the end to accomplish his goal - which, by the way, he is generally successful in. Readers will appreciate Herman’s ability to capture so fully the Scottish influence in the West (as well as the East and Africa) and his comparative analysis of the Scottish experience with the rest of the world. The chapters devoted to the ‘creation’ of the modern clans and the wonderfully detailed explanation of the clearances make the book worth the time spent with it. It reminded me of both the Thomas Cahill books (Excellent) and “The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.” I read this as an e-book from Overdrive and again (as I have with other non-fiction e-books) I have to lament the lack of extra content in the e-book presentation! This book called out for interactive maps, sound files and detailed links and connections to support content. In most instances even the links for the notes (and I do read the notes) did not behave as expected. In all a disappointing e-book experience.

Daniel Kukwa

A bloody AMAZING book. It manages to tie in so much history, so many biographies, so many ideas...yet at no time does it feel rushed, over-burdened, or lacking in coverage. One of the finest history books I have ever read, and a revelation to anyone studying the 17th and 18th centuries.

Sarah Finch

I was very disappointed by this. It's a solid and mildly entertaining book, but Herman's title and thesis are woefully inadequate. When he says "How the Scots Invented the Modern World" it is more like "How Scottish Men Made Great Contributions to the English-Speaking World." Any definition of the modern world that rests solely on Britain and America (with cursory nods to Canada and Australia) is one that is laughable. Herman doesn't even frame Scottish contributions by luminaries like Adam Smith or David Hume in terms of other European nations, whether to compare or contrast or demonstrate how Scottish influence permeated the Continent. And several chapters are simply indulgent asides, such as one on Sir Walter Scott that does nothing to show any "invention" that influenced the world. I also found some of what was written about Scottish influence in America to be dubious. Andrew Carnegie and John Witherspoon were both well worth writing about, however I found the notion that Andrew Jackson, born to immigrant parents who died when he was young, would have credited his success to his Scottish bloodlines to be slightly absurd.


I learned so much from reading this book! It makes me very proud of my Scottish heritage. This book highlights a country that encouraged a free exchange of ideas that was centuries ahead of its time (schools available to all economic classes, first public libraries). Out of this intellectual society came the building blocks of modern science, philosophy, economics, architecture, education, and much more. Scotsmen took a leading role in the British Empire and the founding of America (one-third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Scottish). Unfortunately, as the Scottish immigrated to other lands, Scotland lost its intellectual edge. Here are a couple of interesting things I learned:*18th century economist and Scotsman Adam Smith said government should provide a strong system of national defense, a system of justice, and help with essential public works. Otherwise, government shouldn't interfere - particularly in economics (how timely given the recent BAILOUT). "History offered innumerable examples of governments and rulers, often with the best intentions, trying to change or adjust their nation's economic life, with disastrous results. Roman emperors had attempted to regulate the economy of the Late Empire, and had destroyed it instead. Spain had tried to maintain a monopoly on the flow of bullion from the New World only to bankrupt itself." p. 217-218*"The Scots who came to the United States in the nineteenth century reveal once again why the Scottish diaspora was so different from other mass immigrations in history...the vast majority of Scottish immigrants could read and write English. Most knew some trade other than farming...Of all American immigrant groups, probably only the Jews had more or comparable skills. But unlike the Jews, or the Irish for that matter, Protestant Scottish immigrants were not held back by religious discrimination. And unlike the English, they did not expect special or preferential treatment. They lived by Sir Walter Scott's famous maxim, 'I am a Scot and therefore I had to fight my way into the world.' They anticipated hard work as a matter of course." p. 387It was a fascinating book, although the author assumes a higher level of knowledge of history than I personally have so at times I struggled to keep up with him. Rated G.


Write a review...Let's be upfront - the idea that the Scots created everthing that ever there was that's worthwhile is a wee bit far-fetched. And that from someone who's grandfather was a MacDonald born in Glasgow who can trace his roots very quickly back to the Western Isles. Nonetheless, Herman has written a very engaging and readable account of a seismic social and cultural shift from a narrow nation of heretic burners to the "engineers to the world" - just think Scotty in Star Trek. Looking at it with a dispassionate eye is still not to downgrade the fact that this is a very important work, nor to downplay the fact that Scotland very much moved from the late 16th century periphery to the 18th century centre of intellectual and technological developments in a way that other regions of Europe in a similar situation failed to do. Poland, anyone?There are lots of great pen portraits and certainly Herman's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. A well-written, well-researched book to be read and enjoyed.

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