Scotland and the British Empire. Edited by John M. MacKenzie and T. M. Devine . Oxford University Press. 2011. xiii + 323pp. £35.00.


Whether as an empire of the mind and the imagination or the sword and the purse, or a simple extension of a notion of a Christian Commonwealth dating back to the days before the Union of 1707, the British empire has always been seen through a refracting prism of regional and national interests north of the Tweed. Arguably, states create empires, but it is nations that sustain them, making Scotland's role in the emergence, development and ultimate decline of the British empire a case worthy of consideration. The inclusion of a volume on Scotland and the British empire in the ‘Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series’ is thus to be applauded, and the choice of editors – John M. MacKenzie and T. M. Devine – brings together two of the foremost scholars in this field who have in recent years revealed the potential of a ‘Four Nations’ approach to imperial studies.

This edited collection, comprising an introduction and ten essays, addresses the subject of Scotland's contribution to the empire thematically. In turn, chapters address the Atlantic trade (T. M. Devine and Philipp Rössner); the interface of local, national and imperial networks (Andrew MacKillop); the export of the Scottish Enlightenment (Cairns Craig); nineteenth-century migrant identities (Angela McCarthy); imperial environments (John M. MacKenzie); Scottish soldiering (T. M. Devine); the missionary impulse (Esther Breitenbach); the imperial economy (T. M. Devine and John M. MacKenzie); the literary empire (Angela Smith); and imperial identities (Richard Finlay). It is an approach that serves to highlight the range of imperial influences on Scottish society and also the multiple (often contradictory) ways in which Scottish perspectives, institutions and individuals shaped the empire itself. For a chronology of the ‘Scottish empire’, however, one would need to look elsewhere. While there is some chronological overlap across these thematic studies, the essays in this collection do not share a common periodicity. At its widest stretch, the volume addresses the period 1600–1970 (and Smith's chapter extends further into contemporary literature), but most contributions (not surprisingly) settle on the period between the American War of Independence and the First World War.

In general, this volume condenses the insights of recent scholarship in engaging surveys and is sure to be an essential text for many undergraduates, researchers and the much-courted ‘informed amateur’. Additionally, MacKillop's ‘Locality, Nation and Empire: Scots and the Empire in Asia, c.1695–c.1813’, will delight scholars searching for a rigorous new approach to the subject. This essay blends the insights of new archival research with a strong comparative sensitivity. It is an exemplary, eloquent study which offers a searching analysis of Scottish imperial influence in an age too frequently dominated by, in turn, Jacobitism and the ‘Dundas despotism’. Craig's examination of the international reach of Scottish intellectual traditions ought also to be commended for its original insights, not least for his convincing thesis that the Scottish Enlightenment itself was a product of Scottish migration and its xeniteian character.

However, avid readers of the work of T. M. Devine will, perhaps, find echoes of other publications in his two chapters on the economy and the Scottish regiments. (Professor Devine might retort that some things worth saying bear repeating, and in some instances, he is right.) Nevertheless, despite this book's undeniable merits, there is, at times, a pervasive sense of a missed opportunity. The last chapter, by Richard Finlay, opens up avenues for debate that might usefully have prompted a more critical approach throughout. He perceptively criticizes ‘a tendency to conflate the activity of individual Scots into a collective Scottish phenomenon’, highlights the significance of ‘the provincial’ (as opposed to, and in addition to, ‘the national’) in understanding Scotland's engagement with empire, and cautions scholars against the conflation of imperial trade with global trade (pp. 285, 289, 304). He also tantalizingly suggests that Scots, being more acutely aware of their own hybridity within the UK, made more adept hyphenated emigrants when the emigrant voyage reformed them as Scots-Canadians, Scots-Australians and so on. Yet Finlay's broad canvas and his engagement with a multitude of themes the other contributors have each considered in isolation mean that he has insufficient space to follow up such critiques, which – in the opinion of this reviewer at least – appear to promise the conceptual sophistication that writers such as MacKillop consider lacking in much of the current historiography.

MacKenzie and Devine, however, are confident that future scholarship in this area will yield fresh insights into how Scots developed and sustained an ‘imperial mentality’. In a challenging manifesto, they lay out the potential of studies relating to professionalization, gender, the cost of empire, the theory of empire, and the cultural and comparative nature of Scottish imperialism to transform our understanding of how and why the empire took the shape it did, and how and why it shaped the British state and the nations of the Atlantic archipelago governed by it the way that it did. This volume is certainly a very positive contribution to the foundations on which such endeavours will be realized in the future, and a testament to the health of imperial studies of Scotland and Scottish studies of empire.