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

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.


I am far more obsessed with Scotland than most could even begin to realize, so perhaps others wouldn't enjoy this book as much as I did. It was incredibly interesting though, to learn of the effect that the Scottish Enlightenment had on not only the British Enlightenment, but then on America's foundation and development. You can see it in everything from politics and economics to education and the arts (although I do recognize that the Scottish are not generally known for "the arts").

Craig J.

"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."

Lynne Tull

I am amazed by the things we enjoy or take for granted in our everyday life that can be traced to the direct influence of the Scots. The thread running through this book: Scots did not necessarily originate the idea. However, because of their ability to read and write, work ethic and single-mindedness to prevail in their goals, they took the ideas and developed them into practical applications that have been passed to us in the 21st Century. I really want to outline the whole book. I want to get a feel for the events that have led us to the World as we know it in 2011. However, I could not wait to recommend this book to you. It takes a while to read. It's well worth the time..time spent to digest it. It may take a second and even third reading to do so. Some of the historical Scot figures involved are: Thomas Aidenhead, Frances Hutcheson, Lord Kames, George Buchanan, James I, Henry Home, John Millar, Robert and James Adams, Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Colin MacLaurin, James McHenry, Francis Scott Key, John Paul Jones, Sir Walter Scott, James Watt, John McAdam, Robert Louis Stevenson, David Livingston, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Andrew Carnegie, Ian Fleming/James Bond.Concepts/Ideas/Products/Philosophies: school system: K-Adv.Degree, liberal arts colleges, literate society, civilized society, political system, human nature, Enclopaedia Britannica, libraries, capitalism, urban planning, civilian militia, Scotch whiskey, Princeton, West Point, Ft. McHenry, Star Spangled Banner, common sense, work ethic, e, historical novel, tartan/insignia/modern day image of the Scots, steam engine, doctors, dentists, delivery of babies, cure for scurvy, macadamized road, Morse code, telephone, Supreme Court, time zones, battleships, railroad/steam engine, cable cars, OSHA, Listerine, gas street lighting, self-help.Some of the names are obscure to you as is the disbelief in the impact they have had on our modern culture. I challenge you to read and believe.

Theresa Leone Davidson

The Scots did more for modern education, especially the idea that all people, regardless of race, gender or social or economic class, deserve one, and should have access to higher education. What they accomplished for the world in terms of education, as a teacher, is what I appreciated most about the book. I also learned more about key figures in history, all from Scotland, like Alexander Fleming, Alexander Graham Bell, James Watt, James Lind, Erasmus Darwin and his grandson, Charles Darwin, Thomas Telford, and Adam Smith, someone I thought I knew a lot about from the two elective courses I took in economics in college - turns out I might have learned a lot about his theories but I didn't know much about the man. However, the man I learned most about is one whose name I knew only, Francis Hutcheson, a teacher of Adam Smith's at the University in Glasgow, and a great philosopher and humanist, who in his writing inspired abolitionists not only in Scotland but from London to Philadelphia. He believed in economic, political and religious freedom for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or race. "How do human beings become moral beings, who treat one another with kindness, regard and cooperation, rather than brutality and savagery?" This is what Hutcheson was most interested in, and his writings and teachings live on today - remarkably inspiring. Scotland's immense contributions to science, philosophy, commerce, medicine, literature and politics are all covered here and make for an excellent book. I originally bought this as a gift for my husband, who is of Scottish origin, and he loved it. I did as well. Highly recommend!

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.

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!

Ray Ziemer

Fascinating history - It's amazing to find the tremendous influence Scots have had on the creation of the world as we know it -- way out of proportion to the size and population of Scotland. This book is very readable, and really educated me on a number of subjects. I have been fairly ignorant of Scotch culture generally, like most modern American non-Scottish aware only of the stereotypes: bagpipes and Braveheart, lochs and kilts and the stingy Scrooge McDuck.The book surprised me with things I never knew about literary figures -- about James Boswell, Robert Burns, Daniel Defoe, and of course Walter Scott. But more importantly, Arthur Herman explains the accomplishments of David Hume and Adam Smith, and a host of other philosophers I had never heard of such as Francis Hutcheson and Lord Kames, who were at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment that spread modern ideas around the western world. Scottish people and the their ideas of education, economics, and government traveled to America and transformed the United States. (Princeton University was molded to Scottish higher education ideals.) A third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were native-born Scots or of Scottish descent. The new country nurtured characters such as Alexander Knox, George Rogers Clark, and later Andrew Jackson.Scots were key to the development of Canada (oh, yeah MacKenzie!) and Australia (Captain Cook). Scots were instrumental at every stage of the development of the British Empire, from Africa (Dr. Livingstone, I presume) to India (James Napier) and China (Hong Kong!) It just goes on and on, with Scottish influence on science, medicine, technology and every other aspect of the modern world (James Watt, Andrew Carnegie,and more names most of us wouldn't be familiar with). Quite an amazing book! I have been meaning to find out more about Scotland for a while now. My cousin Bruce Ziemer got me interested years ago with his descriptions of Edinburgh and the International Festival there, which is I guess the biggest festival of the arts anywhere in the world. Dorothy Dunnett intrigued me by setting some of her Niccolo series of historical novels in medieval Scotland. I've already read the first of her Lymond Novels set in Scotland. The thing that got me to take Arthur Herman's book off the shelf and read it now was the enjoyable play in verse (The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart) staged by the National Theatre of Scotland at Shakespeare Theatre. (Oh, yeah, and the free Scotch whiskey!)

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.

David Bird

This book starts well, describing an interesting cultural moment that was Scottish, and declines as it moves to the assumption that in later history, individuals are worthy of interest because they were Scottish, or of Scottish descent. For example, he notes an early governor of Australia developing Sydney with the aid of a convict-architect. The governor, Scottish, is named; the architect is English and anonymous.He begins well with noting how a rigid notion of morality led to execution of a young man for blasphemy, but later fails to engage with moral questions raised by Scottish drug merchants in Hong Kong, the disproportionately prominent role of Scotch-Irish among the overseers of American slavery, or the moral implications of Andrew Carnegie's business practices. This question of the moral thought patterns of an ethnic group is implied in the earlier chapters, but disappears as it gets closer to incriminating today's readers of Scottish descent.This is a popular history, and the relation of facts to sources is casual. And potentially dangerous: he notes that young Adam Smith learned about the problems of government enforcing policies contrary to popular from observing his customs-agent father. But young Smith must have been very precocious as an observer, since his father died two months after his birth. Since I am not a scholar of this period, I can't say how much of this stretching of sources occurs, but it tends to undermine confidence.

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?

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


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.

Peter Macinnis

We took our children, Angus, Catriona and Duncan (can you see a pattern here?) to Culloden in 1986. As you may detect from their names (and my surname), we are genetic Scots, somewhat diluted.As a rule, the Celtic races in the former British empire seem to be more prone than most to fall for myths, but I knew that many of the lairds were total bastards, and we made this clear to them. Culloden was a gloomy place, and the ghosts seemed to be about, both on the field and in the interpretation centre.Perhaps it was revenge for puncturing their tentative Jacobite leanings before they took off, but several years ago, Cate gave me this book for Christmas. It shows just what the Scots did do for the English-speaking world, and makes it pretty clear that without the Act of Union, it would not have happened.I own a SNP t-shirt, but I am afraid that I cannot find it within me to argue too strongly for devolution. Blame Arthur Herman for that!

John Pattillo

An unsatisfactory read. The author fails to define what he means by "the modern world", so anything that any Scot did can be thrown into the hopper. And his reasoning fails at a very basic level. If he says (to make up an example typical of how he looks at the subject), "By 1900 30% of Canadian doctors were Scottish," then he must concede that 70% were not Scottish. And they probably were English. So why doesn't that mean that the English invented the modern world? If the book's title were "How some Scots did some things that influenced how we live today along with some interesting facts about Scottish history," it would be much more accurate. And would never sell.

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