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


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.


I found this gem in a bargain book bin at Barnes and Noble. I love history and being partially of Scottish descent, I knew I would enjoy and learn from this book. It is a fascinating look into the history of Scotland, the clan system and the Scottish Enlightenment of the 17th through 19th century that produced many of the world's great innovators. One small problem - the title of the book is inaccurate. The Scots certainly did not invent the modern world on their own. Many different ethnicities contributed to the modern world as we know it. However, one can't deny the contributions of the Scots to our modern education system, engineering, architecture and technology (think of Andrew Carnegie and Alexander Graham Bell). All in all, this is a fine book. It's not a light beach read but it's not so dry that it would bore the average non-historian such as myself.


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.

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!)


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.

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.

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.

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."


This is written in the same vein as Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. I learned about Scottish history but really the entire world. From inventions to famous people, this book explores how Scotland and its citizens contributed to the modern (by what they did in the 1700 and 1800s) . It took me a while to get into the writing style, but this is a worthwhile read. I liked the history in the book (I had taken 4 Brit Lit courses for my undergrad and grad English degree and had learned about the relationship between England and Scotland then, so it was good to revisit some of that).


Enlightening. While I agree with the comment that pretty much any nation could be credited with inventing the "modern world" as defined by the writer's biases, this book does present an astonishing parade of Scots(men) who have played a huge and largely underacknowledged role in building the foundations of the world we in the west used to call "modern" before, oh, about 1960 or so. Should probably be required reading in Scottish high schools.

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!


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.

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?


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.

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