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Brother Scots
By Donald Carswell


The biographical Studies that make up this book are ostensibly separate essays, each complete in itself. But they were not separately conceived. My idea in writing them was to give not only some account of a number of intrinsically interesting men but also a cultural picture of Scotland in the late years of the nineteenth century. The picture is neither complete nor, even in regard to the aspect of Scottish life with which it deals, very explicit, but it contains matter which I believe will be found interesting, especially by English readers.

The Scottish character is familiar enough and it adapts itself readily enough to English ways and institutions. Yet it is never quite assimilated. There remains always something unresolved, something alien, even hostile to the English genius. The Englishman feels it, but is at a loss to say what it is. The Scotsman cannot help him to define it, for he himself has never thought the matter out. He merely repeats a few patriotic cliches, and like most patriots he has not even an elementary knowledge of the history of his own country.

There are two fundamental facts to be noted about Scotland. The first is racial. The Scots are a mixed race, made up of the same elements as the English, but in different proportions, the Anglo-Saxon element being much smaller. The fair-haired Germanic type common in England is rare in Scotland, except anomalously in the North Highlands, where it is of Norse origin. The dark pre-Celtic race is widely diffused though it is found in its purity only in the West Highlands. In the Lowlands this mixture of races has produced a people of exceptionally robust and acute intelligence and strong, even coarse, passions. In general, though extremely shrewd, they lack insight, and as compared with the English they may be described as more fantastic but less imaginative.

The other fact is historical. England, ever since it has been England, has been a relatively rich and populous country, and for more than eight centuries has enjoyed a settled government under a strong and vital central power. The people accept the rule of law as they accept the air they breathe. They are seasoned in civilisation. The case of Scotland is very different. During the greater part of their history the Scottish nation were like the conies, a feeble folk who made their houses in the rocks. Throughout the Middle Ages, and for long afterwards, their condition was one of direst misery. The English villein, wretched as he was, lived better than the Scottish freeman. The poverty was not altogether due to the barrenness of the soil, for Scotland, as Cromwell noted when he marched through the Lothians, has some of the finest agricultural land in Great Britain. Cromwell further noticed, with surprise and indignation, that this exceeding good land was occupied by an idle, ignorant and degraded peasantry who were literally starving in the midst of plenty. Yet these poor people were not to blame. Their misery was due to the political situation of their country. The Lowlands were at the mercy of a lawless and greedy feudalism which treated the Crown with contempt. They were menaced from the south by their rich and powerful neighbours of England, and from the north by a warlike people technically their fellow-citizens but alien in speech and culture, who regarded brigandage as the most honourable, indeed the only, profession for men of breeding. Such conditions do not make for good husbandry in any sense of the term.

These centuries of battle, murder, sudden death, pestilence and famine might well have sunk the Scottish people into a degradation from which no recovery was possible. Yet history presents few phenomena more remarkable than the rapid cultural development of Scotland after the Parliamentary Union of 1707. The Union gave Scotland not only economic freedom but, what was even more important, a strong settled government. Under the new conditions the national character began to manifest unsuspected and even disconcerting reserves of strength. There was a dangerous moment in 1745. The baleful light of the fiery cross was kindled once more, but only to be extinguished in blood for the last time at Culloden. The defeat of Jacobitism was followed by the suppression of the clan system, whereby Scotland got rid of the last obstacle to the free development of her people. Thenceforward the country made such rapid progress that in a generation or so it was in a condition to submit to the industrial revolution without undue hurt.

This adaptability, this capacity to make up for centuries of lost time, is admirable, and Scotsmen are fully entitled to be proud of it. But its achievement must not be exaggerated. The accounts of the Time Spirit are not easily squared. With all the wit and all the will in the world a people who have enjoyed only two hundred years of prosperity and settled government are bound to differ in national character from a people who have enjoyed eight hundred. Their culture may conform to the same models, but it will not have the same colour and texture. Thus the Scot, though curiously conscientious, lacks that moral perspective that enables the Englishman as a mere matter of course to “do his duty” or “play the game”. The Scotsman, too, can do these things. Generally he will make a point of doing them. But he has always to think them out first.

And traces of the old rudeness, the old individualism, the old wiliness will remain. Scotland has not yet been able to banish the tormenting spirit of fashion and civil strife. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it took the form of ecclesiastical schism. Driven out of the churches in the twentieth century, it has entered politics and industry with results that have been disagreeably apparent since the War.

For the benefit of non-Scottish readers unfamiliar with the Presbyterian order, a few words of explanation may be added. The ministry, which consists of a single order, retains a “priestly” character to the extent that it has the exclusive right of expounding doctrine and administering religious ordinances. Ministers are sometimes described as “teaching presbyters". But for all purposes of church government and discipline they have associated with them “ruling presbyters”, or elders. The lowest court of the church is the kirk-session, consisting of the minister as moderator and an indeterminate number of elders elected by the congregation. It exercises spiritual discipline over the congregation and administers the rite of ordination to persons elected to the eldership. Each kirk-session sends two members—the minister and an elder—to the local presbytery. The presbytery is the real unit of the Presbyterian system. While the area of its jurisdiction is no greater than a rural deanery, the fun&ions of the court are episcopal. It is the originating body for most church business. It ordains to the ministry and is the court of first instance in all disciplinary proceedings against the clergy. Two or three presbyteries sitting together form a synod, which is an intermediate appellate court. The supreme court of the Church is the General Assembly. It is elected by the presbyteries, the commissioners consisting of ministers and elders in equal proportions. The Assembly meets once a year. Before dissolving it passes an annual Ad appointing all its members, plus one nominated by the Moderator, to be a Commission to deal with matters of urgency arising in the interval between Assemblies. The constitutional position of the Commission of Assembly was the subject of acrid controversy in the last Stages of the Robertson Smith case. Proceedings in all Presbyterian Church courts are conduced according to precise forms and have a technical vocabulary borrowed from the Civil Courts and the old Scots Parliament. A curious term of art, which I have had occasion to use in the essay on Robertson Smith, is “ overture It means a formal request by a presbytery that the General Assembly shall take cognisance of some matter and proceed to appropriate action. D. C.


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