The soul of Victorian Scotland revealed

The soul of Victorian Scotland revealed

by Peter Smaill
article from Thursday 14, November, 2013

Book Review: A New Race of Men: Scotland 1815-1914
By Michael Fry, published by Birlinn, £25 pps 466

CAN YOU tell this book by its cover?

Here you can, and should: a great book in a handsome cover. Michael Fry’s often thrilling excursion through Scotland’s glory years of relative peace – from the confrontation with Napoleon to facing down the Kaiser – offers a renewed vista: Scotland as seen through the eyes of the Scots, as they saw themselves, the vigorous “New Race of Men” (and several high-achieving women are equally well delineated).

The book is about those who shaped Scotland: not about the minutiae of what they shaped. The pabulum, as he puts it, of academic establishment historians – of social statistics, comprehensive lists, quasi-Marxist dialectic – all makes way for a feast at which heroes and heroines (and the odd villain) arrive in style at this celebration of achievement and ascendancy. You can tell the extensive scope of the book, too, from the index: it ranges from Abbotsford to Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie.

The cover, an enigmatic view of an Edinburgh sunset from Salisbury Crags, depicts a black-bedecked penseur contemplating the city, at once mediaeval, Georgian and spiky Victorian: an adaptation by the artist William Bell Scott of the character placements favoured by his hero, the mystical German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. The contemplation is here not of the endless sea, as it would be for Friedrich, but of a city of the mind, teeming with the new life of the industrial age.

These clues make sense, in that the author, though raised in Scotland, was in large part educated in Protestant Germany. He covers a century in which, even nearing the Great War, the Scots looked not always to England, but often to the Teutonic intellectual world of Hegel and Schopenhauer for meaning. Thanks to our Thomas Carlyle, the sage of Ecclefechan, the Prussian Frederick the Great was for many the epitome of purpose. Fry wittily reflects that Carlyle, in his love of domineering and purposive leaders, rated Mahomet (!) as well, next to Rabbie Burns, as the archetype of the uncompromising doer. Although Carlyle did not register as a savant till his arrival in Cheyne Walk in London with his unfulfilled wife (“how good of Thomas to marry Jane, so that only two people are miserable instead of four”), he forms part of the New Race of Men by virtue of birth. It is something akin to Carlyle’s love of movers and shakers that drives Michael Fry’s take on this time and place, Scotland 1815-1914.

Herein lies a problem for all brave enough to use the word, “Race”. Or, indeed, “Men”. The cheap shots of the narrowly politically correct are heaped upon the author for this arresting feature of the cover, even though this phrase was a sincere and complimentary contemporary quotation. It was a transformational period, as if a rebirth. The wider issue, however, is: who is Scots? Who should be in such a book, or treated as such? A paradox here is that the English journalists tackling Victorian history, such as the writer AN Wilson and the just-published Simon Heffer, treat the towering Gladstone, thrice MP for Midlothian, as explicitly a Scot: “I have not a drop of blood in me that is not Scottish”, Gladstone said; and, being part Highland, is the great exemplar of the commixture of bloodlines that is our waggy-tailed mongrel nation. For Michael Fry, however, all Scots Prime Ministers from Lord Bute onwards, were feeble failures within the unionist constitution. Gladstone, prophet of Home Rule, does not seemingly count as the sixth: yet he is plausibly the greatest Scottish politician we have ever had, and tilts the balance towards a landscape of Scots political hegemony in this period.

Even considering Michael Fry’s treatment of the indubitably Scots Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, accounts do differ. A wonderfully scathing pen sketch by Fry of the crazy Marquis of Queensberry is followed by the so-familiar account of the entanglements of his younger son “Bosie”, and the Irishman Oscar Wilde. How much more to the point, in a Scottish history, is the fate of Queensberry’s other son Lord Drumlanrig – evidently fancied by the manipulative Rosebery – whose suspicious death occurred after receiving a fixed-up additional English title via the future PM, so as to be eligible for a Court position? This is the centrepiece story regarding Rosebery for the Englishman, AN Wilson; but not for Scottish Fry. Such kaleidoscopic books of this vastly documented period cannot make a perfect array of choices. But, at least, the notorious problem of AN Wilson’s “The Victorians” is not here apparent: Wilson’s cover depicted Victorians railway engineers, but the book failed to make a single mention of the greatest of them all, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Mind the Gaps!

We have such a wealth of sources that gaps are inevitable. That said, while this book is not intended to be encyclopaedic, its scope is vast. It is a sensuous book: here ariseth the stench of Leith, ditto Dundee; the beer-soaked haar of Edinburgh, the grimy sootiness of Glasgow, and even the enseamed beds of the poor prostitutes which greeted the inflamed nostrils of outwardly-bourgeois Robert Louis Stevenson. Human, not statistical, life teems in the Fry account; and no matter that, where the secondary source has said it all, he relies on that source: for he creates a witty précis and weaves all together, under a taxonomy set against the evolving century. He borrows, but repays dividends in the telling: from agriculture to industry, institutions, services, sex, culture and philosophy, with stops in between.

The aperçus are a delight: when the University of Glasgow moved to Gilmorehill, not one book of its enormous library was lost. Traditionally every graduate had gifted a piece of silver to the alma mater. By contrast, however, of that haul – only three pieces survived the short journey! Very reminiscent of the building of the QE2 at John Brown’s shipyards in 1967: the rich Wilton carpet for the first class stateroom was seen going up one gangplank, and shortly thereafter coming down another. Plus ça change….

Little by little, however, the book reveals itself as very different from an encyclopaedia, or even a digest-of-things-you-didn’t- know (I liked the Parish of Annan holding drinking bouts to raise money for the poor, “..but this was not a model commending itself elsewhere in a Presbyterian nation”, Fry laconically observes.)

It is a polemic. Or, at least, tries to be one.

The central thesis is that, even though we rose from being one of the poorest parts of Europe to one of the richest in the period, Scotland’s social, political, and-moreover- cultural autonomy was undermined by Anglicisation. The kirk disruption of 1843 is a case in point, even though Scots patrons were as guilty as the English legislators in assuming the exclusive right (as in Anglicanism then) to appoint the minister of religion. True to the passionate nature of our Victorian ancestors, who never feared to speak truth to power, Fry roars and rumbles against not just these effects of English thinking, but also so impact on Scotland of the Irish problem, the sway of the the toffs and the toadies, racists and reactionaries; and has seemingly relatively little time to praise the remarkable group of Scots who actually went to London and succeeded in pan-British roles. For this group, the border with England was not the defining rubicon of Scottish endeavour.

As a counterpoint to the Fry thesis, it is easy to think of exemplars of Unionist fulfilment: we have, inter alia, Gladstone, passim; Lord Brougham; and Samuel Smiles, whose “Self Help” is the touchstone of Whiggery. All touched on by Fry, but not anymore, it seems, considered very important as Scots. Then there is also the simple fact that by 1900 the leading British politicians were mainly Scots – viz., Rosebery, Balfour, and Campbell-Bannerman: and that Scots were and would be Archbishops of Canterbury and York and lead the Anglican communion worldwide: not grist to the theme at all in Fry’s New Race of Men: for, then as now – Carlyle SW3 excepted - it seems that a London postcode means an individual has ceased to be really Scots.

Brougham, who praised the Scots tongue and bought enough tartan to keep him in trews, is dismissed with one of Lord Cockburn’s catty asides. Yet, as English Lord Chancellor, he abolished flogging in the army, opposed the King by defending Queen Caroline in court; and reformed the corrupt practices of the English bar. Born in Edinburgh, for thirty years he dominated the Edinburgh Review. He was Chancellor of Edinburgh University and then Rector of Glasgow. Brougham, though no saint, deserves better.

Another underrated Scots reformer: the long-overdue Army reorganisation in Edwardian times was spearheaded by Richard (not Robert as described on p.309) Haldane. The Great War would have been even more disastrous without him; but he has only a rather faint walk-on part as Liberal MP for Haddingtonshire and a minor political conspirator. Yet he was a Scot in charge at the top, creator of the Imperial General Staff, and latterly unfairly sacked for his pre-War German orientation: strangely neglected, methinks.

Thus it is that the Fry thesis (“Scots as cultural victims” in short?), here and in numerous other examples, encourages by omission and underemphasis (possibly subconsciously and under pressure of space) a completely opposite view: the 1707 Union, in the nineteenth century and later, in fact gave Scotland remarkable levels of influence on England. For example, and in due course, English Law on married women’s property, divorce, status of business incorporation, and, more recently, public liability and verbal contracts, would come to resemble the more philosophical approach of the Scots, even with the odd Anglicising judgement on the way. Dammit, the English have actually stolen our ideas! From a Fry perspective, however the influence flowed exclusively, and malevolently, in the other direction.

Communications reinforced Anglo-Scottish interchanges. The railway boom which transformed Scotland leads on to Fry’s description of the Edinburgh-Glasgow Railway, today the only economically viable line in the whole country, but built then at enormous expense. Someone took a huge risk, but it was not actually the enterprising Scots. He signs off with the moan of an isolated English shareholder about the tendency of Scots to go third class even when they could afford first. Bias is here apparent: all accounts hitherto, such as Marwick and Thomas, major on the fact that it was almost entirely English capital, from London and Lancashire, which built the line in the first place.

Culturally, too, Fry senses an unwanted English domination, especially in architecture: that potent, outward and visible sign of the confidence of our ancestors.

There are however counter-examples where the Scots called the shots. In the famous competition for the building of the London Royal Courts of Justice, the majority of lay judges were, by blood, Scots: including the Solicitor General (i.e. for English Law) Alexander Cockburn: the post has been held by Scots, including one of Fry’s beloved Dundases, on numerous occasions. The largest church in Kensington (by G G Scott, of whom more anon) has features of Dunblane and Paisley Abbey about it; and Glaswegian architect J J Stevenson trained with him there before returning north. Our painters flocked to London to compete against the soupy landscapes and feeble genre works of the English. And yet, Fry, in his lively account of the building of Glasgow University, detects one-way cultural cringe by the Anglicising Scots and – double horror! – as a result of it, a major building constructed on Scottish soil which smacks of both Popery and Anglicisation.

This will be a surprise, as he acknowledges, to graduates and visitors alike who view the hallowed and familiar spire erected there, on Gilmorehill. Of the (supposedly English) Victorian influencers of the building on that grassy knoll, he writes: “John Ruskin, Augustus Pugin, and Giles Gilbert Scott himself…held the Gothic style to be uniquely Christian, indeed Catholic: Scott was born a Catholic, Pugin was converted and Ruskin was tempted”.

There are a number of problems in the putting-together of this litany. Fry’s use of source has here led him astray. This was presumably the high-minded Penguin series Buildings of Scotland which was obliged to follow the eponymous Pevsner’s house style, “G. Gilbert Scott”. But they mean George Gilbert, not the RC grandson Giles Gilbert; the latter is thus mistakenly considered by Fry the Glasgow University architect: the former, grandpa George, was in fact a confirmed Protestant who claimed descent from the famous Scots placeman, John Balliol (something perhaps unwise to recall nowadays in nationalist circles). It is beyond doubt that this George Gilbert Scott (later, succeeded J O Scott) designed the Glasgow buildings, with much Scottish Baronial detail, only on a plan derived from a more anglicised, Jacobean model dating from a failed competition twenty years previously. The foundations of this Fry argument crumble……

Furthermore, Ruskin in his day was actually a Protestant evangelical, who as Kenneth (later Lord) Clark said, “made Gothic safe for Protestants”: far from being tempted to Romanism, in his Seven Lamps of Architecture he launches into Roman converts with a force that would embarrass Pastor Jack Glass. Ruskin, who died more of a socialistic atheist than anything, was the son of a Scots sherry merchant: Fry’s admired Patrick Geddes was influenced by him. A blessed exchange was at work across the border, not an English crypto-papalist takeover.

The whole row about Glasgow and Gothic was concocted in its day by dotty “Greek” Thompson, the passed-over Glasgow tenement architect, whose biographer freely admits that his hero’s designs for the South Kensington museums were “ugly”: a man who thought the crude lintels of Stonehenge better architecture than the complex soaring vaults of York Minster. “More Thomson than Greek” is his epitaph, supplying Presbyterian churches in which the Egyptian details suggest the worship of Isis and Osiris, rather than the coolly rational Institutes of Calvin. They were all, these architects, slightly or very (Pugin) mad: but Scott’s work raised the money, for it gave Glasgow a major work by the (then considered) greatest architect of his day. De gustibus non est disputandum: loosely translated, like it or not. As urban landscape architecture (don’t get up too close) only Scott’s London’s St Pancras Hotel is in its league.

Having identified Gothic architecture as the outward and visible sign in Victorian Glasgow of the anglicising cultural devil, Fry then takes us on a bird’s eye flypast of allegedly purely Georgian and neo-classical Edinburgh. From this anti-Gothic perspective, in order to contrast with the Glaswegian outrage, he is forced completely to ignore the (Sir Walter) Scott Monument (A J Youngson said of it “no-one visiting Edinburgh can fail to see it….”), the (admittedly obscured) James Adam Gothic church of the first New Town, and cannot bring himself even to mention the massive St Mary’s Cathedral (also by George Gilbert Scott) in Palmerston Place, arguably the first all-new Gothic cathedral in mainland Britain since Salisbury in 1120. (Fry has allies on this but they do actually notice and name the building: “a horrible experience…peerless for ugliness,” according to Sacheverell Sitwell). Likewise, the iconic Wallace Monument, Gothic-Baronial, does not register. These are all the living signs of the vitality of Scots nationhood and culture in their several ways, and represent a confidence that Fry is seeking to rekindle. They may not be to his taste, but are surely impossible to ignore as the iconic residue of the New Race of Men. Nevertheless…

…I do like this book very much: even as it enrages, it also challenges, and it always informs. Anent the Scots Poor Laws, it sets out a world in which there was avoidance of dependency, but a stronger social bond than in contemporary Scotland, where the delineations of public and private housing schemes have long allowed men of system to displace the positive spontaneous interactions of early Victorian Scotland. We decry the sweatshops and the poverty, a modern relativist view, but by the standards of the preceding subsistence agriculture – life cold, nasty, brutish and short – our ancestors made progress, and knew it, and celebrated it in the great cityscapes, Gothic and Classical; even Tudor, Jacobean and Baronial, the soaring tenements; even the douce bay windows out of which they looked out on the world. All of this, for long years, presided over by the little lady who in Fry’s amusing yet sympathetic account, loved Scotland more than any post-Union monarch before or since, Victoria Regina.

Scotland emerged, rational yet romantic, Scottish yet British; cultured, competitive and confident. Fry looks forward to a new Scotland, ideal based, but, ...based on which ideals? From this period Fry’s exemplars – Whigs and Tories in their glories, Socialist scourges, Calvinist crackpots, moralising hypocrites, heretics, plutocrats, sycophants; artisans, aristocrats and aesthetes – offer no single vision. They conformed to no unique, collectivist, “Scottish” view of life. Certainly not, even including the practical socialist Kier Hardie, to that current vogue word Fry slips in, egalitarianism. This is emphatically not history for the masses, but for the movers.

It is thus left in the end to you, the reader in 2013 – like the fellow gazing out to the setting sun on the cover – to consider your individual take on the book’s thesis. Is a new dawn ahead? You are assisted to choose by this multifaceted account of the inheritance of ideals, images and initiatives handed down to us all, and set out with vitality by Michael Fry: Scotland, 1815-1914.

Choose well!

Peter Smaill is a member of the Victorian Society


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