Rosalind Mitchison

Rosalind Mitchison a professor of social history at the University of Edinburgh, is the author of A History of Scotland and editor of The Roots of Nationalism. Union of the Crowns and Union of the Kingdoms is to be published later this year by Edward Arnold.

Missing Elements

Rosalind Mitchison, 14 May 1992

In all our sets of mental pigeonholes there is one labelled ‘don’t bother’. It contains groups of people and of ideas to which we have decided not to pay attention. These books, in one way or another, relate to such groups.

Cookson County

Rosalind Mitchison, 27 June 1991

A lot of novelists write historical novels. A lot of people read them. Notably, more Scots read historical novels set in Scotland than read the history of Scotland. The question for the historian is why. Part of the answer, of course, lies in the market facts in the question. If there is a readership, books will be produced. It might be argued that readers want their history mediated by a skilled writer. This would be true only if what they really want is history, and if ‘writers’ are bound to write better than do historians. After delving into the genre I am doubtful about both conditions.

Happier Days

Rosalind Mitchison, 4 April 1991

Here is an anthology of pieces drawn from published hooks on life in Scotland, mostly memoirs and mostly familiar to historians. Old friends include George Robertson, Joseph Mitchell, Thomas Somerville and Ramsay of Ochtertyre. The accounts are separated into themes, such as school, factory and mine, leisure, crime (though none of the memorialists claim active participation in this). The excerpts are long enough to carry the style and emphasis of the original, and they are well chosen and tactfully introduced. There is a short and skimpy glossary for those unfamiliar with the few Scottish words used and some good photographs.

Mending the curtains

Rosalind Mitchison, 24 January 1991

To Carradale in August. We come over on a day of rare beauty. Deep cloud shadows bring out the breasts and shoulders of Arran. The car is stuffed with basic supplies, briefcases, heavy sweaters, the odd book. I have Pepys’s Tangier diary to digest, an old Navy Record Society publication. The house is in its usual confusion and piles of slates and scaffolding show the common West Highland problem of keeping a roof going. Four cows are on the croquet lawn, straying every now and then to grab a mouthful of escallonia from the bushes. Is it poisonous? We don’t know. They show up another rural problem, the maintenance of fencing. The teenagers are disconcerted by a bat in their bedroom. Dinner is a disaster area. Afterwards, as the dusk comes, I see a great new rent in the big drawing-room curtains which I thought I had mended once and for all. Jill Benton’s Naomi Mitchison lies on the sofa ignored by its subject, who is correcting proofs of a book of short stories.

Kind Words for Strathpeffer

Rosalind Mitchison, 24 May 1990

Hugh Kearney has written a book to assert the reality of the British Isles as an intercommunicating group of cultures with many features in common but also with strong regional or national differences. It is a timely reminder that the political dominance of these islands by England from the 17th century covers only a small part of their various histories. We are reminded vigorously of the Irish cultural dominance in the sixth and seventh centuries, the political dominance by Scandinavia of almost the whole island complex in the tenth century, and the control by a relatively small group of Normans in the 12th and 13th centuries. These periods show that there is nothing historically inevitable in the political and cultural rule of Big Brother in London and the South-East. An interesting suggestion is that the emphasis on the South-East was originated by the market power of London rather than by religious, political or administrative changes instigated by the English state. London’s potential as a port put it into the international range of city size along with Antwerp and Venice, but for this to be effective the food supplies of the city had to come from all the coastal and riverine areas of Southern Britain. Culture, religion and politics followed the shopping basket.

Out of it

Rosalind Mitchison, 5 April 1990

These two writers are both concerned with the old and the elderly, but to very different effect. Minois presents a repertoire of comments on the old, from the ancient world to the 16th century: most comments are hostile. Girning about the disagreeable features of the old seems to have been a recognised literary form. Writers experimented with new nasty similes or enlarged upon a repertoire of unpleasant features. Cicero wrote a whole book about the old, ostensibly to rebut the standard criticisms, but at the same time admitted that he did not believe his arguments. He appears to have confined his observation of the old to old men. Horace by contrast went overboard on how disgusting old women were. The usual comments of Latin writers on the old was that they were dirty, sallow, stinking; their dominant mental attributes avarice, stupidity and concupiscence.

Making and Breaking

Rosalind Mitchison, 21 December 1989

Nobody could call Frank Honigsbaum’s book ‘user friendly’. Some reasons for its indigestibility are inherent in the topic: the moves, some effective, most frustrated, by civil servants and politicians, towards the creation of the British National Health Service. But there are also self-inflicted handicaps to ready comprehensibility: the author has done his best to impede communication. His structure means that he tracks through the period 1936-48 several times and with the year not always discernible, for he takes the plans of civil servants for general practice as one story, for hospital services as another, and then looks at the discussions of the financial issues. Much of the writing is in the form of initials, and the table of these given is not comprehensive. A further shorthand leads to the suppression of many of the small words that ease communication, the ‘the’s’, ‘that’s’ and ‘to’s’, so that at times the prose reads like headlines. Some sentences have got away with hanging participles, mistakes in number or misuse of subjunctive tenses. This is hard going.

Knowing more

Rosalind Mitchison, 14 September 1989

Victor Kiernan is here presenting essays produced over the last 45 years: the texts are only occasionally given recent additions. The topics include three essays on literature but are otherwise historical: on English patterns of protest, the expansion of literacy among working men, political aspects of religion, and Communist activity in the Thirties and after. The writing is elegant and, mostly, cool.


Rosalind Mitchison, 31 August 1989

Anyone who has kept hens knows that these unattractive creatures make a point of brutality to any among them sick or weak. Some other ‘social’ animals share this antisocial tendency. The human species has a wide pattern of response to distress, but under the influence of moral or religious pressures, or of medical fancies, it is as capable as hens of behaving badly to those least able to withstand unkindness. The story of organised care and welfare includes a large number of instances of what intrinsically appear as policies of systematic mental or physical cruelty.

Women and children first

Rosalind Mitchison, 1 June 1989

Geography is about maps and history is about chaps – someone must have been very pleased with himself for producing this snappy definition. But traditionally history wasn’t simply about chaps: it was about chaps in power, the men who ran politics, the Church, the banks, and any other institution considered important. Women, and even children, might be allowed onto the scene for dynastic reasons. Women might also, if celibate, make it to sainthood. In the late 19th century it was recognised that there was also labour history, almost entirely male, and a kind of social history based on the households and concerns of noble families. Only recently has the greater part of the human race, women and children, made it into history, and even now there are historians and politicians striving to keep them out.’

Stewarts on the dole

Rosalind Mitchison, 10 November 1988

Recent anniversaries for Scotland have been encouraging the simplified version of its history that obtains in most English minds. Two topics are sufficiently dramatic to break through cultural isolationism: the reign of Mary Queen of Scots and the Jacobite risings. The more sophisticated English absorbers of history may also entertain an uneasy recollection that the Scots had something to do with the English Civil Wars, and may even have an impression of outbreaks of Presbyterian intransigence in the 19th century: but for most people in England Scottish history means Mary and Prince Charles Edward, whose deaths, one of which was directly caused by England, are associated with ’87 and ’88. This setting in time is unfair on those of us who try to show that Scottish society had its own interesting line of development, a topic which neither of these known figures paid any attention to. A theme which unites the central figures of these anniversaries is their marked lack of interest in Scotland.

Somewhere else

Rosalind Mitchison, 19 May 1988

‘The great thing to be determined was whether there was a Call from God or not.’ So wrote a missionary about his move to Australia in the 1880s. It is not a view expressed in that mysterious body of argument, migration theory, and this fact is a useful reminder of the limitations of that doctrine, which ranges from the fatuous to the sophisticated, but holds entirely to secular motivation. God is not one of its hypotheses.

Clean Clothes

Rosalind Mitchison, 17 March 1988

The Kelsalls and Davidoff and Hall are worker pairs who have been looking into the family life of a restricted group over a halfcentury or so, using a wide range of the documentation generated by their subjects. Both groups studied were experiencing insecurity. The Scottish families were of landed class, made insecure by sudden changes in politics and in the control and policy of the Church; the English families a century later were of the emerging middle class, busy creating niches in the professions and in the world of manufacturing business. Both sets were, as things turned out, upwardly mobile, the Scottish family of the Homes of Polwarth ending up as earls of Marchmont, the English families establishing what are now household names of useful products – Reckitt, Ransome, Cadbury, Bird, Courtauld. Success could not be foreseen: the promise was not sure, and false steps were dangerous. The threat of trial and execution for treason, which was an elastic concept in Stuart Scotland, forced the Homes into a period of near-penniless exile: the ladders of upward mobility for the new middle class were associated with many snakes – risks of bankruptcy or of relegation to the ranks of manual labour. Failures had to leave a world with a carefully constructed ethos, and become part of the general mass of non-persons. But political revolution enabled the Homes to become part of a new aristocracy in the opening years of the 18th century, joining others newly ennobled such as the Roseberys and the Stairs. A century later, economic success gave permanence to the families making new household aids.


Rosalind Mitchison, 17 September 1987

What nationalism is, and how it came to exist, are topics of some significance today. One reason for this is practical: that a suitable answer to these questions would justify some states, sure of their own right to nationalism, in suppressing national claims by minority or neighbour populations. There are other, more intellectually respectable, reasons. We have to look critically at our own assumptions, of which national feeling is one, to understand, and perhaps govern, our behaviour. So long as nationalism is used as a reason for political or terrorist activities it is important to be able to understand just what it entails. Why do some groups of people claim to be nations while others, with perhaps as clearly formed a culture and even as clearly marked linguistic boundaries, do not? Why does national identity in some cultures require the repression of its manifestations in others? When does what we recognise as national consciousness become manifest, and can we draw any general conclusions about the settings in which this happens on which to base a theory of causation? How artificial must inevitably be the sense of cohesion and the vision of the national past which sustain nationalism?

National Myths

Rosalind Mitchison, 20 November 1986

These well-worn lines of Kipling’s encapsulate an enduring feature of the popular English concept of national history – its cosiness. Because of the remarkable quantity and quality of local documentary sources covering more than nine centuries, the historian of England is able to identify with them, and to throw the mantle of Victorian law-abiding domesticity over the past. There is an unspoken agreement, not so much among professional historians as among their public, to minimise serious disagreement, whether arising from political, religious or economic differences, to fail to recognise the fragility of much of the consensus, or the pressures of the state bureaucracy, when these were enabling the country to remain at peace, and to play down the seriousness of the issues when there was internal war. The only civil war to be popularly recognised as important is that between 1642 and 1646, a relatively unbloody outbreak, and much of the general interest in it is absorbed in re-staging its battles in fancy dress: much less attention is paid to the second Civil War, perhaps because the Cavalier share was less marked and the issues nastier. The Medieval periods of internal war are not re-staged, perhaps because of the sheer discomfort of full armour. Yet one of these may well have been caused by reaction to the effective and extractive bureaucracy which created Domesday Book. These unpleasant episodes do not disturb the clack of the little mills of English historiography. Only when we turn to late 19th-century labour issues is there a large enough body of committed opinion among people who know well that their great-grandfathers were workers, and who wish to see the issues of power, class and status through ancestral eyes, and also a popular desire to stress conflict. Even then, the area of conflict is usually narrow: the struggle between the male labour force and employer. The struggles of the lower middle class for financial security, or of working women for expression, are ignored. English history as received is nostalgic, harmonious and extraordinarily insular.’

Man and Wife

Rosalind Mitchison, 22 May 1986

Marriage is still, despite evasive strategies by some of the young, the central decision of most people’s lives, and of the three events which structure population, the only one completely under human control. The control is not exclusively that of the leading participants: who is free to marry whom, for example, is defined by law. But for the most part the Western European marriage has been the result of a deliberate choice by two people.

Fire and Water

Rosalind Mitchison, 17 October 1985

The first three of these books combine to remind us of the role of economic development in our history, and force home the fact that there can be no true separation of economic history from other histories. The dates bounding the Checklands’ volume in the New History of Scotland might seem to be ones of political significance primarily, but 1832 and 1914 mark very nearly the span of the domination of heavy industry in Scotland, the special concentration of population and skill on the Clyde, and the social developments that came from the labour requirements of coal, iron and, eventually, shipbuilding. The political implications of the problems of the coal industry in the 18th century were less conspicuous than they have been in the 20th, but this came from its relative success. If it had not innovated, there would certainly have been a government-promoted Plan for Coal. No major industry could be allowed to languish. But, as Michael Flinn points out, it was not with the actual process of mining that 18th-century government concerned itself, but with the trading of the product. The coastwise traffic in coal was the largest activity of British shipping, a major training ground of seamen for war, and the provider of essential support for the capital: hence regulation and interference. The controls were not only in defiance of the principles of laissez faire but often contradictory, to themselves or to other sections of regulation.

British Facts

Rosalind Mitchison, 19 September 1985

These books all set out to tell us about ourselves, and to do it by quantification. Their statements are based on economic statistics, demography, official and unofficial measurements, including the measurement of opinion. Some of their conclusions will surprise, for no one reader can expect to have covered the full range of social activity. Their quality must depend on the quality of the ‘facts’ they elicit. As is well-known to all except the Gradgrinds of this world, facts are difficult, not hard and clear like billiard balls but slippery and elusive objects. Comparative economic statistics depend on the figures used being truly comparable – for instance, with due allowance for changing money values. State of the World, which in many of its tables wisely compares real goods, not money, apparently forgets to reduce for inflation when displaying the oil costs of industrial production. Osman’s Facts of Everyday Life sets out to do everything by maps, and most of these are constructed on the crude basis of ‘regions’. This accounts for one of his more engaging boobs: on the spatial distribution of old-age pensioners in Scotland he remarks: ‘There are few outside the main towns. It would not be sensible for the elderly to be scattered across the rather desolate countryside of Scotland, isolated from help.’ If he had looked below the regional level at the most remote district of all, Sutherland, he would have found that 31 per cent of the population is over 60, and that the crofting townships of that district are almost entirely peopled by oldies. No, it is not sensible for them to be there, but that is where they are. By contrast with this naivety, the care and sophistication with which British Social Attitudes achieves its facts, and supplies answers to carefully designed questions, give confidence not only in the honesty but also in the background knowledge sustaining the report. This, and Social Trends, are the best buys among these books, the first for sophistication, the second for sheer weight of information.’

Sewing furiously

Rosalind Mitchison, 7 March 1985

Why should embroidery exist? Its aim is the enhancement of fabrics, and so it might be expected to flourish only when the manufacture of such fabrics is confined to plain products. Would there need to be embroidery on the best fabrics of the Persian world, or on the wonderful silks displayed in the Japanese exhibition of a few years back? Perhaps there would: personal or religious symbols might be demanded by persons of special status, and anyone likely to be able to afford the basic fabric would probably consider themselves special. Embroidery can be an art form, a younger sister to tapestry, using textures and colours for their interacting effects. And of course it became a form of juvenile discipline, a pre-puberty rite. Girls of good family worked over their samplers as their brothers did over Latin verse, to produce objects which indicated a social setting of relative leisure. Rozsika Parker’s book, which sets out to show how feminine expression was channelled by the stereotype of the girl with her needle, never actually asks what the artistic purpose of the work was, but has much to say about how it came to be a demonstration of upper-class femininity.

Room at the Top

Rosalind Mitchison, 15 November 1984

At some time in the 1730s Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, Midlothian, wrote down advice on the building of what he called ‘a family house’. This should consist of a central main block and two side pavilions, as a precaution against destruction by fire. ‘The main or chief Body of the House ought to be at Least double the Bigness of each pavilion and may serve chiefly for lodging the Master of the family and the better kind of Guests who come to visit him. One of the pavilions ought entirely to be appropriated for women and children and the other ought to contain the kitchen with apartments for Men servants and such like conveniences.’

The Great Scots Education Hoax

Rosalind Mitchison, 18 October 1984

Historians of any society have to learn to be wary of the accepted myths of their subject. Sometimes these bogus visions of the past are deliberately created or fostered by the governing group. Sometimes they come from an educated but perhaps unsophisticated middle class, anxious to gain historical sanction for its security and power. Sometimes these beliefs are the possession and creation of the working class. The most extreme and absurd tend to be those connected with nationalist themes – for instance, the Risorgimento, the myth of Irish national sentiment (wild geese and all), or the counterweight Protestant myth in Northern Ireland in which William III for ever rides a white horse. The interest of the Scottish sample of such beliefs lies in the fact that Scottish myths are not an expression of either successful or of frustrated nationalism. They mostly involve Scots holding with immense pride, but little input of research, beliefs about Scottish evangelical piety, widespread early literacy, general unanimity in belief, easy access to higher education and thereby social mobility, radical thinking in politics and philosophy, ardent Jacobitism. These cannot all be true, for some are contradictory to others. And they stand in contrast to another group of beliefs held on the whole by the young – concerning the special Scottish contribution to bawdy songs, drunken conviviality, early class consciousness, hardiness and poverty. Items from both sets of belief contribute directly or by opposition to the subject-matter of most of these books.

Up to Islip

Rosalind Mitchison, 2 August 1984

The examining in my university is over for the year. After the usual haggling – ‘is this worth 69 or 70?’ – with nasty points of principle raised and evaded, the lists have been signed, and that is the end of what a colleague once described as ‘the annual session of egg grading’. We are free to go to the hills, equipped with walking boots, a hotel booking, a Highland bus time-table and the literature for the West Highland Way. So we drive to Kinlochleven, eat a hurried sandwich and set off in sunlight up through the mixed woodland on a track created by an occupying army. Soon we are on the open hillside watching the blue shadows of the clouds on the mountains. Later in luxury in an Appin hotel I can settle to a collection of diary pieces from our most distinguished modern historian, A.J.P. Taylor.–

Gellner’s Grenade

Rosalind Mitchison, 21 June 1984

This is a small book, but one of high density, both in ideas and, at times, in expression. Gellner’s field of concern is the modern world, and though occasionally he casts a look at Mediaeval Europe and Islam, it is in the 20th century that his interest lies, as does what evidence he can muster to support his themes. His view is simple and stark. Nationalism is not the product of history, in the sense that historical factors and institutions have shaped the cultures which have claimed national identity. It is the urge of particular groups to participate in a dominant and literate culture, and to have it linked with the administrative and educational machinery of a modern state. Historical development is then used to support this theory, not because history is a valid intellectual concern, but because it is a necessary part of the diagram which records the development of states as we know them.

Northern Lights

Rosalind Mitchison, 19 April 1984

The leading figures in all these books are well-known, and are located in a period of conspicuous intellectual activity in the Scotland of the mid and late 18th century. This was the time when the modern social sciences were created as areas of legitimate study, much of their content for the use of teenage university students. There was also a modest literary revival. The great men of the Scottish Enlightenment, if they wrote at all, for some of them suffered from the academic disease of inability to put pen to paper, wrote in distinguished prose. Boswell was a literary innovator and knew it. Professor Daiches, in his small book, links the poetry acceptable in this period with the rise of genteel expression and shows how, in the pursuit of a language capable of wider circulation than the old vernacular, much of the traditional Scottish poetic inheritance was pushed aside. English English came naturally to Boswell, less naturally but effectively in the sentences of Adam Smith and David Hume, but at the cost of the reservation of the Scottish tongue for casual, domestic or low-life use. Yet, as Daiches reminds us, with an exceptionally happy choice of quotations, the literary endeavours of the upper class were accompanied by a genuine achievement in the vernacular by Fergusson and Burns, even though the prosodic forms available were by then restricted.

Love, Loss and Family Advantage

Rosalind Mitchison, 1 September 1983

Family Forms in Historic Europe is a collection of local studies from different parts of Europe, mostly based on ‘listings’: that is, on descriptions of the occupants of a local unit on a specific date, usually by household. Who is resident at any moment in a household depends on traditions of family structure, on birth, marriage and death rates, on the employment prospects of the inmates, or the needs of the family occupation, and sometimes on the active pressure of governing bodies, the landowner or the state. It also depends on the day of the year when the list is made. I am aware of this from the fact that my own conceptual household has never managed all to be present at any one of the last four census enumerations. Which is the more relevant information to a subsequent historian – the enumerator’s facts about who was actually there, or my own concept of my normal household? This is merely an illustration of the fact that one of the first problems of research is to identify the information as either factual or conceptual, and then to decide which category is wanted. Human beings are infuriatingly mobile.–


Rosalind Mitchison, 10 January 1983

This book is not founded on doctrinaire feminism but on very wide reading. It uses memoirs and letters, local history publications, ballads and chapbooks, social surveys, inventories and advertisements, and the richness of its sources gives it a fine flavour. There are also some historical oddities to be noticed. One eccentricity is the confusion between Charles I and Charles II. Another is the back-to-front arrangement of some of the themes. Gas and electricity form Chapter Two, while cooking, heating and lighting, all of which are examined for the period before the modern heat and power resources became available, form Chapters Three to Five. But these peculiarities do not stop the book being an enjoyable read and a splendid repertoire of miscellaneous information.

Light on a rich country

Rosalind Mitchison, 17 June 1982

The title of this book means what it says: it is about England, not England and Wales. The exclusion of the Celtic fringe can be explained by the very real difficulties which arise for some forms of historical reconstruction from the narrow range of Welsh surnames and the weakness of the Established Church in Wales. The work is based on the extraction of figures from parish registers, the Census, once it was established, ‘family reconstitution’ carried out for a dozen parishes, a central group of experts using sophisticated numerical methods in Cambridge and the strengths of computerisation. So we have chapters in which the figures of events and base population are built up, and then chapters in which social and economic conclusions, based on these figures, are worked out. The figures are tucked away into an enormous structure of appendices, 16 in number, amounting to over a third of the whole book, but everything hinges on them, so the book has to be taken as a whole.

South Britain

Rosalind Mitchison, 1 April 1982

The introduction to these volumes states that the chapters ‘make up an economic history of England and Wales since 1700’, thereby displaying a curtailed concept of Britain. Most of the chapters concentrate on England, though almost all of the tables, of which there are many, are based on figures for Great Britain as a whole or, in Volume II, for the United Kingdom. Occasionally one of the distinguished team of authors recognises explicitly that he or she is writing only about England. R. D. Lee and R. S. Schofield, giving an early edition of the Cambridge Group’s population discoveries, gracefully slide out from any concern with Scotland. At the other end of the range of skill, Pat Thane commits herself unwisely to remarks about Highland clearances in the 18th century. The book is concerned almost entirely with English history: but it is offered as a textbook for students of British Economic History, and gives an interesting light on what courses on British Economic History cover in most English universities.


Rosalind Mitchison, 21 January 1982

Witchcraft can be seen as an area of criminal law, a manifestation of religious belief or secular power, a sign of social stress, a display of sexual prejudice and fear, a temporary and inexplicable mania, or a nasty and squalid manifestation of cruelty. Some of these approaches are unrewarding because they deflect the critical intellect; some can lead to historical understanding. It is the achievement of Dr Larner, in one of the finest books to have been written on Scottish history in recent years, to have analysed the distasteful topic of the witchcraft craze in Scotland, which ran roughly from 1590 to the 1670s, to have set it in its European context and to have applied to it concepts from sociology, not so much to diagnose its causation as to set out the pressures which may have played a part.

Modern Wales

Rosalind Mitchison, 19 November 1981

This is Volume VI of the new history of Wales, under the general editorship of Professor Glanmor Williams. It presents general history as general history ought to be – which means that though the main emphasis lies on the changing world of politics, this is related closely to the basic economy and to alterations in the values of the society, particularly in religion, literature and national sentiment. In a truly admirable way it takes on the task of communicating the full range of development in a whole country.

Carlyle’s Mail Fraud

Rosalind Mitchison, 6 August 1981

These volumes are issued as a pair, with a single index, and rightly, because they hold together for a coherent segment of Carlyle’s life. The dominant theme of the two is the writing of The French Revolution: in Volume VIII Carlyle is struggling with the first two volumes, in IX he produces the third, spends four months battling with the proofs and finally sees the whole book published and reviewed. It made him into a successful literary figure, justified his move to London, and gave him enough financial security to put ‘take it or leave it’ terms before his publisher. In 1835, the publisher had jibbed at the idea of an English edition of Sartor Resartus: ‘he shrieked at the very notion,’ wrote Carlyle. At the end of 1837, Carlyle was standing out for £50 a volume for his two books and a volume of reviews, five volumes in all. Reviewers might, and most of them did, complain feelingly about Carlyle’s style, but everywhere it was acknowledged that The French Revolution was a landmark in the concept of history. In 1837, Carlyle had the chance of lecturing to an expensive audience. It terrified him. Since he resolutely refused to prepare notes for it, the terror did not abate. At £135 for half a dozen lectures, he was free of financial pressure for a year.

Highland Fling

Rosalind Mitchison, 18 June 1981

A book containing no reference apparatus and no bibliography is not claiming to be a work of scholarship in any of the usual senses. Carefully and spiritedly done, the interpretation and presentation of history for the general public is entirely respectable. But what we have here is neither careful nor spirited. That Dr Grimble has read, unevenly, but in places deeply, if without system or critical faculty, is shown by confused echoes of other people’s research. It is implied that he feels deeply about the wrongs experienced by Highland society over the centuries, but the extreme selectivity with which such wrongs are put forward for consideration makes it difficult to take the sentiment seriously. Fragments of various stories are put together to give a picture of a coherent, cultivated and gallant society which has never questioned the aristocratic dominance of its chiefs and which has been entirely sinned against by those beyond its borders. The important questions which historians ask about Highland society are ignored.

Rosalind Mitchison on the history of Scotland

Rosalind Mitchison, 22 January 1981

It is over seventy years since Max Weber put forward the thesis that the Protestant ethic was closely linked to the ethos of capitalism, a thesis which has inspired a long-standing debate among historians. In the cases held to support the theory, Weber included Scotland. Economic historians have at various times commented on the paradox of the Scottish case, contrasting the backward economy of the country in the 17th century with its monolithic adherence to an extreme form of Calvinism, but nobody has, till now, taken the trouble to make a thorough study of whether the evidence from Scotland confirms or contradicts Weber’s theory. This book sets out to do just that, and it involves the author in a careful analysis of the structure of Weber’s argument as well as a consideration of Scottish dogma and enterprise. It is a pity that the title raises the irrelevant issue of presbyteries. Calvinism was a system of belief which in Scotland and some other countries was sustained by a presbyterian church structure, but could equally well make use of episcopacy.

The British Dimension

Rosalind Mitchison, 16 October 1980

The first three books are studies within the narrow élite of landed society in a small, rapidly modernising country – Scotland. They concern men who took for granted the perpetuation of their society, of security for property and a due hierarchy of rank. For the most part, they are also of people who did not want this hierarchy to be totally fixed. There needed to be openings for talent or the right kind of obsequious effort to pass to a rank above. It has become fashionable to state that upper-class Scots bred in the 18th century suffered from uncertainties of identity. Their national base was changing from Scotland to North Britain, and a new system of political power and influence was being worked out, one in conflict with much of what had existed before. I am unconvinced about this problem of identity.

Monsieur Montaillou

Rosalind Mitchison, 7 August 1980

These books are the recent work of one of the leading exponents of the ‘new’ history of the French school. The historical achievement of French academics over the last twenty years has set an example to historians in all other countries. French demographers have reopened the whole topic of population change, devising new techniques, asking new questions, and combining accurate measurement with insight into social constraints and mental pathways. Since demography is, as Ladurie asserts, one of the basic determinants of economic change, the source of ‘the immense, slow-moving fluctuations’, the enormous cycles of rising and falling pressures on supply, the French breakthrough has been perhaps the most important historiographical change of this generation. It has been aided by a new reverence for numbers: ‘history that is not quantitative cannot claim to be scientific,’ says Ladurie in an essay of 1969, and in the following year, more arrogantly: ‘modern techniques, in the age of computers have brought about a revolution in historiography: they have made possible the exhaustive processing of vast quantities of data – quantities undreamed of by past historians, however eminent, who were the prisoners of their unsophisticated methods.’ Again, ‘tomorrow’s historians will have to be able to programme a computer in order to survive.’ Still more assertive statements in which l’histoire artisanelle, the work of the solitary scholar, has been denounced in favour of the amassing of figures by teams of workers are not contained in this collection.

Portrait of the Scottish Poor

Rosalind Mitchison, 5 June 1980

This book is based on one of the most thorough of 19th-century government inquiries, the six volumes of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law (Scotland) of 1844. The Commission had, the year before, put out an elaborate questionnaire to the 906 parishes of Scotland, usually to the minister, with 70 questions on it, most of which were answered for almost all the parishes. There was also the more usual information-gathering exercise by interview. The result of the inquiry is an enormous stock of detailed information covering diet, prices, wages, amenities, facilities for saving and social policy. The authors, supported by a grant from the Social Science Research Council, have analysed the replies with the aid of the SPSS computer programme and mapped the results. They have then set out to display and discuss the total picture. Proffessor Smout’s is the most original and creative mind at work on Scottish social history, and the discussion has depth and perception as well as human warmth.

High Time for Reform

Rosalind Mitchison, 1 May 1980

There are two interwoven stories here. One is the ostensible one of the activities and developing ideas of the various radicals, seen during the years in which these men reached some turning-point or other. They stand in sequence and so illustrate the expansion and eventual contraction of the political prospects of this diverse and individualistic movement. The other story, implied, indicated even, but not opened up, is that of the general change of political atmosphere. The years immediately after the Napoleonic wars were ones of stress and barely suppressed violence in which social and political conservatism seemed almost impregnable. In the 1820s, the walls of the established fortress began to crumble. More by chance than good management, the Whigs formed the ministries of the 1830s and called on philosophic radicalism to supply them with a programme. ‘Reform’ was the great word. The decade was one of apparent open possibility: the right push at the right time might send the ship of state in any direction.

Simplicity Smith

Rosalind Mitchison, 6 March 1980

Here are nine separate essays on different aspects of the whole construction of Adam Smith’s thought, written originally for separate publication during the past eight or nine years, but now reworked to link and hold together. Because of the reworking, the book shows Adam Smith as the creator of a whole system of knowledge including science, anthropology, moral philosophy, psychology and history, as well as the founder of economics. The book brings out both the common features of the different branches of this system and the well-known rift between the human nature of the moral system, with its deep ties of sympathy for others, and the calculating but beneficial selfishness of the human nature of the world of economic relationships. Since Smith held that the types of human society, of political and social structure, were all dictated by the ‘mode of subsistence’, this rift is a fundamental cleavage across the whole span of the system. Because of it, it is in the economic system rather than in the moral that the ‘hidden hand’ of God had an elaborate task to perform.

Lord Eskgrove’s Indecent Nose

Rosalind Mitchison, 24 January 1980

Henry Cockburn

Foremost Economist

Rosalind Mitchison, 25 October 1979

Three names dominate the debates on the social policy of 19th-century Britain: Bentham, Malthus and Chalmers. The first two were original thinkers whose ideas often contradict the system popularly ascribed to them. We have been forced over the last few years to recognise that Bentham’s idea of government was far more sophisticated than the particular pieces of legislation usually labelled Benthamite. Now a remarkably thorough investigation of his life and writings emphasises and develops what Keynes pointed out forty years ago: that there was much more to Malthus than Malthusianism.


Counterfactual History

13 February 1992

Counterfactual history repels many historians because of the difficulty of knowing enough about all aspects of a period for the counter-factual proposal to be, as your reviewer Charles Maier says, ‘capable of insertion into the real past’. What we know about the past is constantly changing as research invalidates older views. Maier’s review of 13 February reveals that for certain...

Making and breaking

21 December 1989

Rosalind Mitchison writes: There seems to be a gulf between the concepts of an author’s obligation to his or her readers as held by Frank Honigsbaum and myself. But, as his letter shows, he can write clearly when he is annoyed, so there is always hope of bridging the gulf.

Facts and Folk

5 January 1989

David Craig has taken time off in reviewing (LRB, 5 January) John Prebble’s The King’s Jaunt on the visit of George IV to Scotland in 1822 to register indignation that I should have written of the Napier Report of 1884 that it needs to be handled with care and detachment. What I wrote was that two Royal Commission Reports need such an approach, the 1835 Municipal Corporations Report and...

Simplicity Smith

6 March 1980

SIR: D.D. Raphael, who has sent you a powerful criticism of my review of Professor Skinner’s papers (Letters, 17 April), certainly knows Adam Smith better than I do, and I bow to his main lines of attack. However, if he would accept that I am amazed whenever I use The Wealth of Nations at the subtlety and depth of its perceptions he might still accept that the points I made were not totally frivolous....

Joining them

Conrad Russell, 24 January 1985

Goodwin Wharton is a fascinating and amusing figure, but he is sui generis: the same things which make his flirtations with the occult such amusing reading also make it difficult to compare his...

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