Scots can be inspired by our global impact

The country's pre-eminent historian believes Scots need to look to the past for inspiration in order to push forward in a post-Brexit world.
Sir Tom DevineSir Tom Devine
Sir Tom Devine

One of Motherwell-born Sir Tom Devine’s central interests is the ­story of the Scots’ impact on the world, stretching back to the medieval era.

Sir Tom said: “My ­interest in Scots ­overseas began in the 1970s researching the tobacco connection between Glasgow, the Clyde, ­Virginia and Maryland, then I moved into other areas, including urbanisation, ­sectarianism and society in the Highlands and Lowlands.

“I remember being intrigued by a 12th century French proverb which said: ‘Rats, lice and Scotchmen – you find them the world over.’

“In relation to the basic population size, which was around one million in 1700, the impact Scots have made globally is remarkable — for good and for ill.”

Sir Tom believes Scots themselves still underestimate just how global this impact has been.

He said: “They think in terms of Canada, England, and Australasia, but that leaves out the period before 1700 and huge movements to Europe and Ulster in the 17th century.

“Then there’s the emigration of ­engineers, physicians, merchants — they’re everywhere, across ­Latin America and Asia. Scots ­engineers and academics were at the heart of Japan’s industrialisation in late 19th/early 20th centuries.

“I’ve always regarded Scots as being historically illiterate because a whole generation didn’t learn about the country’s past through education. That has changed, but the experience of the diaspora provides a context for where we go now in the post-Brexit period.

“Scots were powerful in imperial armies as their reputation as soldiers was second to none, and were so successful in developing trade connections because they cut their teeth in Europe.

“They used techniques developed through the 12-17th centuries to exploit opportunities in the British Empire, and there remains a cord linking the migrations to Europe and Ireland to the transatlantic connections.”