Who knows history, who only history knows?

I freely admit it: I’ve never taken to Niall Ferguson in bulk. And the one thing of which one needs no further proof is that anything by Ferguson comes in wholesale quantities. I’m with the Duke of Gloucester:

“Another demn’d thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?”

Here we have him, in brief, ornamenting the pages of the Daily Telegraph, with his view that:

Scottish referendum: Alone, Scotland will go back to being a failed state

A trifle harsh, d’ye think? Hmmm, perhaps. Certainly the Act of Union was a desperate throw by an entrenched aristocracy that needed to be bought, to pay off the debts accumulated by decades of overweening follies, which concluded (but did not start) with the Darien Scheme.

Oh, don’t come wibbling that the Darien Scheme was wrecked by the hostilities of the perfidious English! A settlement on the Mosquito Coast was doomed from the start!

Don’t get sucked in, either, by the Burns stuff:

What force or guile could not subdue, 
Thro’ many warlike ages, 
Is wrought now by a coward few, 
For hireling traitor’s wages. 
The English stell we could disdain, 
Secure in valour’s station; 
But English gold has been our bane- 
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Daiches and Smout

Burns cobbled that together as late as 1791, and so it is irrelevant to negotiations over the 1707 Union — though not to the ever-present economic nonsenses of the Scottish oligarchy. [There you are, Professor Ferguson: a topic worthy of your Glaswegian canniness.]

David Daiches put the bribery argument to rest, forty years ago (though it is still rehearsed by nationalists and the ignorant):


Was it all a matter of jobbery and bribery, as has been so often maintained? Why did the Squadrone Volante, who had originally prided themselves on their independence, in the end vote solidly for the Union? That they were, in the modern phrase, ‘leaned on’ in one way or another seems pretty certain. But it is unlikely that there was outright bribery: political pressure, promise of office, indirect financial inducements there undoubtedly were. There was even in one respect at least a direct financial inducement, since in August 1706 a royal warrant was issued putting a loan of £20,000 at the disposal of the Government in Scotland, on the ground that debts and current expenses could not otherwise be met. The sum was paid in two instalments in October and November; over half went to defray the expenses of the Commissioner and his staff; the rest was said to have gone in paying arrears of salary that the Government had promised its friends and potential friends. Lockhart of Carnwath maintained that some people to whom no arrears were due received payment from this sum, but he is a prejudiced witness. There seems however to have been no direct naked payments to people for voting for the Government, and in at least one case—that of the Duke of Atholl, who is said to have received £1,000—money was apparently received by someone who voted against the Union.

On the contrary, as Daiches then continues, it was English concessions to Scottish commercial interests, and a long-term view of economic self-interest that brought the Union about:

The international position of Scotland in the early eighteenth century was too isolated, her internal weaknesses and divisions too acute and wide-ranging, and the determination of England to protect herself from these weaknesses by absorbing her neighbour too strong, to offer much rational hope north of the Border that Scotland’s cherished independence could be long preserved.

That’s T. C .(Christopher) Smout, originally 1969, but every word as valid today as then.

Back to Ferguson

Like many others, I have never been quite sure what kind of historian Ferguson wants to be. He certainly tends to the broad-brush approach, scorning detail which does not comfortably fit his grand epic, while comfortable with generalisations that fit blurbs and sell books. Even his admirers fence him in as an “economic historian”.

Here we see that scattergun tendency in his Daily Telegraph piece.


There is the scorn for trivial detail:

I wish I had a fiver – yes, a Bank of England one please – for every rude name I have been called since I re-entered this fray. (Most are unprintable, but “weegie bampot” gives you a flavour. A “weegie” is a Glaswegian. I have never been sure what a “bampot” is, but it’s a great insult.)

Well, I’ve seen a real ba(l)mpot: my Aunt Min had one.

It worked like this: once a fortnight the door-to-door pedlar brought live yeast. The yeast was put into the ba(l)mpot, put near — but not too close — to the cast-iron kitchen range, and fed on sugary water.

Appropriate quantities would be taken on a daily basis for baking or whatever. Beware that home-made ginger-beer!

The ba(l)mpot tended to froth — hence the metaphor of a head a bit too dizzy, a bit too frothy. Quite an appropriate term to lob at Ferguson, I muse.

Shome mishtake, shurely

Then we arrive at this bit of Fergusonian explication:

Scottish history offers proof that even the most failed state can be fixed – by uniting with a richer and more tranquil neighbour. For most of the early modern period, the Scots kingdom was Europe’s Afghanistan. In the Highlands and the Hebrides, feudal warlords ruled over an utterly impoverished populace in conditions of lawlessness and internecine clan conflict. In the Lowlands, religious zealots who fantasised about a Calvinist theocracy – government by the godly Elect – prohibited dancing, drinking and drama. John Knox and his ilk were the Taliban of the Reformation. Witches were burnt in large numbers in Scotland, not in England.

Being the Scottish monarch was one of Europe’s most dangerous jobs. James I was murdered. James II died besieging Roxburgh Castle. James III also died in battle. So did James IV, at Flodden in 1513. James V died after yet another defeat at the hands of the English at Solway Moss. Mary I – Mary Queen of Scots – was actually imprisoned and executed by the English. James VI’s reaction on hearing that he had succeeded the woman who had condemned his mother to death was not one of repugnance but relief. As King James I of England, he could not wait to relocate south.

I’d quibble with several of those factoids.


Take that assertion, Witches were burnt in large numbers in Scotland. We can quantify that,  thanks to the University of Edinburgh:

We have identified a total number of 3,837 people who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland. 3,212 of these are named and there are a further 625 unnamed people or groups included in our database…

Of the 3,212 named individuals, we know the sentence of a trial in only 305 cases. 205 of these were to be executed, 52 were acquitted, 27 were banished, 11 were declared fugitive, 6 were excommunicated, 2 were put to the horn (outlawed), 1 person was to be kept in prison and 1 person was to be publicly humiliated. In addition, a further 98 were recorded as having fled from prosecution. This seems to suggest that 67%, two-thirds, were executed.

Horrible, indeed — but, to stick to the facts: 205 certified deaths, and most by strangulation before burning. Ferguson should be challenged to show how that number was less than what went on in England — particularly when charges of treason and witchcraft seem frequently to overlap. At a casual glance, the facts do not seem on Ferguson’s side.

The dangers of kingship

Being the Scottish monarch was one of Europe’s most dangerous jobs.

Really? The life-expectancy of monarchs seems to be somewhat greater than what we can deduce for the common populace.

Then he aggregates the monarchs of Scotland from the death of James I (1437) to the execution of Mary Stuart (1587), and lists five exemplars. Now, do the same calculation for England : Edward VI (murdered, 1471), Edward V (one of the Princes in the Tower, presumably done to death, 1483), Richard III (Bosworth, 1485) , — let’s pass over the fates of Henry VIII’s wives — Jane Seymour (1553). I make that a close-run 5-4 home win, but had I been allowed the fourteenth century, I could have added the murders of Richard II and Edward II.

… a richer and more tranquil neighbour

Now, come on! That’s really pushing your luck, Ferguson!

The tranquil England, with which Scotland unified, had suffered a catastrophic previous century:

  • the famine of 1623-24;
  • a most devastating Civil War (casualties: perhaps an eighth of the whole population), when the King of England declared war on his own subjects;
  • that King’s trial and execution;
  • the continuing constitutional crisis until the Restoration;
  • several attempts at royal assassination (the Gunpowder Plot, the Rye House Plot);
  • two major invasions (Monmouth unsuccessfully in 1685, Willem III van Oranje in 1689.
  • We might add in the Great Plague (“Great” because it was a degree more severe than several others) of 1664-65.

If Ferguson is content to be a “gadfly …  to stir up ideas and stir up debate” (Anthony Beevor’s benign put-down), he succeeds here. He shows a loose grasp of the details of political history, though.



Filed under Antony Beevor, Britain, Daily Telegraph, History, Niall Ferguson, Scotland

2 responses to “Who knows history, who only history knows?

  1. terence patrick hewett

    Yr a great man Malcolm: could you do a rendition on Chaucer?

  2. Malcolm Redfellow

    Not precisely, Lord Copper, even in the most recent sense, borrowed (unhappily) from U.S. law: “to describe the act of capturing and bringing back to the United States a criminal suspect” [Washington Post, 4 November 1989].

    However, we do know King Edward rendered £16 to ransom young Geoffroi, 1st March 1360. He had been taken by the French at Reims, while in Prince Lionel’s entourage.

    That £16: and a full knight was worth only £20! Clearly Geoffroi was already something more than a mere valletus. And, that same year of 1360, he is at least a diplomatic understrapper at negotiations for the Peace of Brétigny.

    Vaguely on this theme, Chaucer did Calchas’ plea of a prisoner-exchange for Criseyde:

    Ye have now caught and fetered in prisoun
    Troians y-nowe; and if your willes be,
    My child with oon may have redempcioun.
    Now for the love of god and of bountee,
    Oon of so fele, allas! So yeve him me.
    What nede were it this preyere for to werne,
    Sin ye shul bothe han folk and toun as yerne?
    [Bk IV, lines 106-112]

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