Why so Great, Scots? Why so, Great Scots?

How an archipelago of rainy islands off the north-west coast of Europe came to rule the world is one of the fundamental questions not just of British but of world history. 

Niall Ferguson, Empire

The first colour photo, showing a tartan ribbon, taken in a live demonstration by James Clerk Maxwell.
The first colour photo, showing a tartan ribbon, taken in a live demonstration by James Clerk Maxwell.

I watched a film recently which told the story of how Steve Jobs changed the world, starting with the original launch of the Mac. Here in Scotland, we’ve been churning out world-changing Macs for centuries, but what was it that made it possible for so many Scots to do so much, to contribute so much, to change so much about the world we live in? Why us?

There is no one quality that links a Maxwell to a Watt to a Smith to a Stevenson to a Rennie Mackintosh. No silver bullet. No secret sauce. No cryptic formula. Almost all of the great Scots mentioned in my first post, “When will we see their likes again?”, came from different eras, different backgrounds, and lived and experienced very different lives. In fact, the only thing they appear to have in common is their Scottishness.

It’s as though this lowest common denominator amongst them, of being Scottish, was the same flint that lit the fuse in all of these individuals, that fanned their creativity, that inspired, that encouraged them, cajoled them and got them out of bed, that bred an indefatigable work ethic, that challenged them to challenge the insurmountable, challenge themselves and challenge the world, that gave them enough of a damn to push through any barrier alloyed to an inner confidence not to give a damn whatsoever for the doubts or opprobrium of others, and that powered them to see their visions through to reality. For much as we love it, Scotland through the ages has never naturally provided a supportive, nurturing environment to encourage pioneers like a modern-day Silicon Valley does. There was never a national honey pot of venture capital waiting to greet any half-baked scheme with limitless cash, an iPad, an army of newly baked MBAs and promises of a bright future. Yes, in Scotland we always had plenty of greetin’ and plenty of Macs, and sometimes greetin’ Macs, but rarely were either in the Cupertino sense.

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”

Steve Jobs

But is that really it? Being Scottish defines and explains Scottish success? That’s it? That doesn’t really satisfy me but the alternatives don’t fit. Physical differences? No. Environment advantages? No. Greater natural resources? No. It’s hard, if not impossible, to link the individual successes of so many Scots to any single quality or advantage by any other means. Perhaps, having no single trait to define success is how it should be. After all, very few nations, if any, have established, on a large-scale, a model for replicable success. But very few nations, of Scotland’s size and resources, ever delivered to the scale that Scots consistently have. If anything, it’s as if something in the Scottish ether bred it’s own DNA of achievement-driven, personality traits. In that sense, it’s not that being Scottish is a good enough argument to explain Scottish success. It’s not. Rather, it’s that the adjective Scottish can be seen to represent a bundling of qualities which, when grouped, come closest to describing the collective attributes of the Scots who delivered our greatest successes.

What would those qualities be? The intellectual curiosity, creativity and innate ingenuity of an Alexander Fleming? The tenacity and dogged perseverance of an Eric Liddell? A disregard for the odds, no matter how impossible, of a William Wallace or Robert the Bruce? A delight in proving doubters or adversaries wrong of an Andy Murray? The lyrical delivery of a Robert Burns? The versatility and adaptability of a David Hume? The resolution and patience for creating work of true lasting quality of a Sir Walter Scott? The cunning and tactical wiliness of a Sir Alex Ferguson? The kinship and loyalty represented by the legend of Greyfriars Bobby? The kindness and generosity of spirit of an Andrew Carnegie?

Individually, these qualities are not unique. Most successful people must have had some or all in great measure, irrespective of nationality or origin. I am arguing that, based on the weight of evidence, something about growing up in Scotland or being brought up by Scots created a concentration of those characteristics which, in hindsight, could now be used to define the group. Could Scots have invented the television or discovered the source of the Nile or won more Olympic gold medals than any other Briton without that particular combination of qualities? Maybe our history makes us stronger. Maybe the successes of our forebears has created in us a collective belief that gets passed down through generations. Perhaps it was centuries of being underdog to vastly more numerous English invaders or a need to out-do the noisy neighbours. Perhaps the depth of poverty and deprivation in Scotland encouraged many Scots to break out and over-achieve. Maybe it was just the dreich Scottish weather. Mebbes aye, mebbes naw, but just as the Americans might be characterised, generally, by their resolute optimism, the French for their love of lengthy intellectual examination and discourse, and the Germans for their fabulous sense of order and organisation, so the Scots, as a collective, and allowing for the broad generalisation, might be similarly defined by their insistence on fighting on in spite of unfavourable odds and disadvantage. Not just known for it, maybe we prefer it that way.

Now, to be clear, no other nation or national should take offence. I’m not saying that the Scots are better than anyone else or that others don’t achieve. I haven’t said that anywhere and at no point have I meant to imply it. Firstly, it’s not true. Secondly, not many Scots would thank me for saying it. Despite their many successes, Scots are usually less tolerant of braggarts and big heads than most people and, for that reason, would never proclaim their own superiority. Yes, Scotland has nurtured a lasting, globally recognisable sense of identity which compares well with any other but every one of these other nations has had it’s own fabulous successes, achievements and triumphs. Presumably, those nations wouldn’t have survived or emerged as nations down through the years if that weren’t true.

Scotland’s successes deserve pride, merit and recognition. Understanding the common roots of those successes is critical, especially if they can serve to inspire future generations of Scots to similar heights.

You can follow the Great Scots Foundation on Twitter at @scotsfoundation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *