Restless Land

Restless Land: A Radical Journey Through Scotland’s History (Volume One, 500AD – 1914), Alan McCombes and Roz Paterson (9780992898311, £9.99)

Reviewed by Alex Miller

In ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’ (published in the New York Daily Tribune on 8 August 1853), Karl Marx makes the following assertion about the effect of Great Britain’s conquest of India: ‘Modern industry, resulting from the railway system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power’.

By introducing ‘modern industry, the British thereby lay down the material basis for the development of India’s productive powers and their eventual appropriation by the Indian people.

However, Marx asks: ‘Has it [the bourgeoisie] ever affected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?’ Capitalism, thus, generates progress, but does so at the expense of ‘individuals and peoples’ – misery and degradation are the price of historical progress within class society.

Although Marx is only mentioned a few times in this absorbing new book, his insight into the double-edged nature of historical progress in class society is never far away, and one of the book’s great virtues is that it gives a compelling account of Scottish history from the perspective of those paying the price for progress in blood and dirt.

It covers a huge amount of ground – almost 1500 years – in under 300 pages, and that it does so with style, wit and limpid clarity sets it apart from the dry tomes that put many people off history before they are out of school.

Many pivotal moments in Scottish history prior to the incorporation of the country within Great Britain are covered: the capture and execution of William Wallace, the defeat of Edward II by the armies of Robert the Bruce, the victory of ‘fire and brimstone’ Protestantism in the Scottish Reformation, and the Witchcraft Act of 1563 with the ensuing liquidation of some 5000 unfortunates suspected of being agents of Satan.

The book gets fully into its stride with the Union of the Crowns in 1603. James VI of Scotland (James I of the ‘United Kingdom of Scotland and England’) is the villain of the piece. A paedophile, misogynist, upholder of the divine right of kings and contemptuous of his homeland, ‘he was a pioneering British nationalist before such a political entity existed’.

Indeed, ‘From the outset, the idea of a united Britain was a monarchist project, driven by the king and his close disciples. His vision was not an equal union, but a greater England, with Scotland relegated to the status of a northern annex’.

The result was disaster: Scotland was dragged into England’s war of conquest with Ireland, riven with internal cultural strife (James hated Gaelic), and driven to the brink of economic ruin. Following the disastrous reign of Charles I and the English Civil War came the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in which William III replaced the ousted (Catholic convert) James VII (II).

There was little glorious about it: it was ‘intensely conservative and largely concerned with property rights and privileges that had little or no radical content’. In 1698, Scotland attempted to found a colony in Central America (the ‘Darien Expedition’). Outraged, William ‘ordered all English colonies in the Americas to resist and destroy the colony’. The failure of the Darien expedition was a disaster for the Scottish economy. In 1701, Westminster passed the Act of Settlement, banning Catholics from the throne. William had no Protestant heir, and the Act effectively ended the Stuart line in favour of the German House of Hanover – a decision affecting the Scottish crown that went over the head of the Scottish Parliament, which defiantly rejected the decision.

The Westminster Aliens Act of 1705 required that Scottish nationals in England were to be treated as aliens, causing anti-English riots in Scotland: ‘Among the mass of the population, England was viewed in much the same way as the state of Israel is viewed in Gaza and the West Bank today’. It was in these unpropitious circumstances that the scene was set for the Treaty of Union in 1707.

How did it happen, given that 99% of the broad mass of the population and initially a majority of Scottish parliamentarians, were against it? The short answer is: by bribery, bullying and fear. (Sound familiar?). Members of the Scottish Parliament – Burns’s original “Parcel of Rogues” – were showered with titles and riches: to avoid the incensed public, pro-union MPs had to be smuggled into the parliament via underground tunnels such was the unpopularity of the Treaty. When it was eventually passed, bells were rung throughout England. In contrast, ‘In Scotland, there was no flag waving or cheering – only the mournful cry of the wind and rain’.

The received wisdom concerning Treaty of Union is that it was a pragmatic but nonetheless progressive move in which national sovereignty was sacrificed in return for a share of the loot from England’s burgeoning empire. The authors reject this: ‘Far from liberating Scotland from the middle ages, the union created a stalemate state which centuries later still has one foot mired in the fusty clay of feudalism’.

The book acknowledges the role that Scotland – and in particular Scottish soldiers – subsequently played in the blood-soaked British Empire and its war crimes. Nor does it ignore the fate of progressive movements in England (Peterloo and the Tolpuddle martyrs are featured), but the focus of the book from the Treaty of Union onwards is social resistance within Scotland to the hegemony of the Empire and its ruling class, especially where this resistance is fused with national consciousness.

Matters covered include the 1745 Jacobite uprising, the Highland clearances, Thomas Muir, the radical uprising of 1820, Irish immigration, Keir Hardie and the founding of the Labour Party, Womens’ Suffrage, and much more. The book ends in 1914 with the outbreak of WW1 and the burgeoning resistance in Glasgow that was to flower into Red Clydeside.

The union brought progress to Scotland, but at an enormous price in human suffering: the genocidal aftermath of Culloden, the forced emigration of the clearances, the hell of unchecked industralization in the central belt, environmental despoilation, de-population, endemic poverty, religious sectarianism and the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children maimed, widowed, orphaned or killed in Britain’s bloody wars of imperial conquest.

The book’s message is that progress needn’t have come at such a price and that it needn’t do so in the future. Marx would agree. His article quoted above concludes:

When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.

You don’t need to drink nectar out of a skull, and progress is possible beyond the monarchist UK. Restless Land is a riveting, expertly written work of popular history that deserves a very wide readership. Part II will cover 1914 and onwards, and will be eagerly awaited. It is available from

Alex Miller teaches philosophy at the University of Otago, New Zealand