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

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.


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.

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.

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.

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!

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?

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.


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.


"How the Scots ..." is one of the most interesting non-fiction books I've read in a long time. "Huh? How," you ask, "can history be interesting?!" Not every author can make it interesting, for certain. But here's how to come up with such a winner, Arthur Herman-style:1. Gather all the players, important events, places and timelines and put them on the canvas.2. Arrange and join those pieces on the larger background of historical context to create a vital story -- that is, show how all that potentially-boring data relates to earlier, contemporary, and later events, persons, etc.3. Flesh out the achievements of the great and small with ample and interesting personal anecdotes, viewpoints, quotes and failures -- all supported by thorough research.4. Tie it all together -- not in boring straight-line fashion -- but with analysis of philosophies, trends and other factors that complete the historical context in high-def living color, a story worth reading because of its intensity.5. And finally, render it down to a digestible set of things to be learned and applied from the story.Arthur Herman nailed it with this one on all counts.Were I in charge of curriculum design at a high school, college or university, I would put this volume on the 'must-read' list for its historical importance in the grand scheme of things, especially for students of world history.


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!)


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.


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).

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.

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