The largest part of my day today was at the National Museum of Scotland trying to get a handle on Scottish history. This is important as I’m finding so much of what I think I know about Scotland was formed by Sir Walter Scott who was about as liberal with the facts as Mel Gibson was in Braveheart. If you find yourself in a country that has a national museum dedicated to that country’s history, I always recommend it as a good orientation. The Museum of Scotland was an excellent example of the type. As well as much needed, because Scotland has a lot of history and, as I pointed out in this post, Scotland is the country we Americans think we know but don’t.
The Museum of Scotland doesn’t fool around. Organized chronologically, it starts at the beginning. The very beginning. I mean the time when the landmass we know as Scotland was somewhere around the equator. It drifted up to its present position, then got ground down by an ice age. But the Scots are still claiming they have the oldest rocks in Europe. Unlike their claim to have the oldest flag in the world (which is really the oldest national flag continuously and still in use), no qualifiers need be applied to Scotland’s rocks.
I think I mentioned that Scotland has a lot of history. In spite of the excellent chronological layout of the Museum of Scotland, you will probably still be mixing up your Jacobites and your Covenanters when you get through. Allow me to simplify to two main points what you should get out of this museum.
1. Don’t Mess with the Scots.
I hate to invoke Mel Gibson’s Braveheart here but “Scotland will be freeeeeeee!” That’s been true from the days of the Romans up to the present, in spite of many misguided attempts to subdue them. Much of the history of Scotland involves Scotland telling pesky foreigners the Gaelic equivalent of “Get off my lawn!” On a slightly more scholarly note, let me just pass along the words of Calgacus, a Scottish tribal leader (as quoted by Tacitus), who successfully resisted the Roman army around 79 AD:
Caledonians…the last men on Earth, the last of the free.
If only people had read their history and taken a lesson from the Romans — who didn’t get much beyond the Borders and only with a lot of grief. The Museum of Scotland is full of such foolhardy colonization attempts right down to an audio display of Maggie Thatcher trying to force the Poll Tax down Scotland’s throats. Maggie, in her shrillest and most nannyish tone, lectures the Scots that “England has been quite good to you…” and warns them to fall in line. Maggie really should have been whisked from the airport for a quick tour around the Museum of Scotland before that speech. She would have been reminded of several hundred years of history when England was decidedly NOT good to Scotland. Although some mark the deeply unpopular Poll Tax as the beginning of the end for Thatcher, as late as 2009, she was still defending it, implying that Scots hated it because they were, as the Daily Record paraphrases her, “spongers addicted to public hand-outs.” Again, Maggie should have been frog-marched around the Museum of Scotland and told to take notes. Because the second thing that you should learn from this Museum is:
2. The Scots Invented Everything. (Or if they didn’t invent it, they found a way to do it better than anyone else.)
I think most Americans are familiar with the many, many contributions, innovations and inventions made by Scottish immigrants — John Muir, Alexander Graham Bell, Andrew Carnegie. Well, the Museum of Scotland doesn’t even mention them. They’ve got too many rooms to fill up with Scots who remained in Scotland while they contributed, innovated and invented. With a small population and few cities, somehow the Scots, throughout history, managed to be first in almost every field.
Take mathematics. Guess who invented the prototype of the slide rule/calculator? A guy called Napier in 1617. A Scot. He may also have invented the logarithm or something. I’m not good with math. You can read more about it here.
Think the French invented the Guillotine sometime around 1792?
In the early 18th Century, the Scots revolutionized banking by pioneering the concept of the overdraft, limited liability, branch banking, as well as contributing to the wider acceptance of bank notes. A little later, the Midlothian Brotherly Society organized a system of death benefits and unemployment insurance. So let’s give the Scots credit for insurance reform, too. Once the Industrial Revolution hit, Scots were positively inventing everything from steam engines to more efficient pumps. About this time Thomas Telford became the father of modern civil engineering. I don’t think I even need to mention Scotland’s domination of early modern Medicine, surgery and the study of Anatomy. Scots eventually led the world in the chemical industry (for which, I’m not sure we should thank them.) In short, just name a field and the Museum will serve you up a Scot (or several) who created it or invented the most important technology in it.
My theory on why most of the world doesn’t know that the Scots invented everything has to do with the nature of the Scots. They seem to get on with things in a low-key way, without any fanfair or bragging. For instance, did you know that Scotland is currently producing 30% of its power from renewable sources? And they have ambitious plans to make it 100% by 2020! While Scotland can’t claim to be the country with the largest percentage of its energy from renewables, remember, they are an oil producing country. So, if the Scots are turning away from oil when they have buckets of it, what are they seeing that our government isn’t? I’m betting the Scots are on the right track.
Don’t believe me? Take a walk through the Museum of Scotland.
Because anything you can do Scots can do better. Scots can do anything better than you.
Addendum: And by the way, as a service to my Fox Terrier loving readers (and you know who you are), you will find the terriers in the gallery display on Scottish Whisky.
Addendum 2: To avoid confusion, be aware that the Museum of Scotland seems to include two connected museums. One is mostly devoted to animals and civilizations around the world. See that later. The one I’m referring to here is the one that covers just the history of Scotland.