22 Feb 2012
Person To Person
An Interview with Tom Devine
Robin McKelvie interviews Tom Devine.
Scottish born historian Tom Devine is sitting in his modest office in the gleaming new Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies at Edinburgh University, talking about the third part of his epic trilogy of Scottish history, To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora. Devine’s latest devastating debunking of Scottish myths and dispassionate analysis of centuries of emigration comes at a time when he has never been more relevant as his home nation moves towards a referendum that could see Scotland become independent.
Devine’s popularity with the public is undoubted: all of the books in his trilogy (which also includes The Scottish Nation and Scotland’s Empire) are bestsellers. His profile is on a seemingly inexorable rise too. With a BBC series already behind him, more documentaries beckon both at home and abroad.
We discuss how his initial interest in European history grew into a refinement of focus on Scotland since 1600. Devine explains that Scottish history intrigued him, a fascination that dovetailed with what he explains was an unprecedented growth in Scottish historical studies from the 1960s onwards. Devine is only too acutely aware of the dangers of what he calls the “Burns Supper School of Scottish History”. At the heart of his work is a tight evidential approach, which has helped him ruthlessly sift through layers of myth.
Not for Devine the simple notion of Scotland as the eternal victim. Instead his latest book challenges the notion of Scotland’s noble role in the economic development of the Empire by exposing evidence of “involvement in slavery and the maltreatment of indigenous peoples”. Devine makes it clear that ‘Scotsmen on the make’ may have been crucial to the financial growth of the British colonies and the development of the Scottish economy, but that this also often had significant negative effects on the indigenous communities in the areas they expanded into.
Devine believes that Scotland’s economic success story over the last four centuries has been an unlikely one. “There is no way climatically, or indeed in terms of land endowment, that Scotland was cut out for greatness. Scotland’s success came about through human effort, based upon its universities, who were practically orientated.”
This success was built on a theme that Devine returns to again and again, that of the importance of education in Scotland’s economic growth: “Scotland’s traditional strengths, beyond the façade of its great industries, has always been on the brain intensive part of the economy,” he explains, adding, “by that I mean the professions of medicine, science, banking and finance, which above all placed an emphasis on the value of education.”
The latest book focuses on the period from 1750 to 2010, when Scotland experienced massive levels of emigration, which poses a central riddle for Devine to solve that is of global relevance. This is a case of an economically successful nation that simultaneously suffered a haemorrhage of its population. Devine believes “Scotland’s is a remarkable case study of international mobility”, explaining, “It is fascinating both because of its scale, but also the puzzle of why in the 19th century, when Scotland was the second richest nation on earth, was it experiencing such high levels of emigration?”
While Devine does not completely solve the conundrum (the Clearances and the promise of riches in the New World do not fully explain the population drain, as he admits) the research is both thorough and illuminating. Devine also delves into the reasons behind Scotland’s economic troubles following the Second World War when emigration continued apace. I suggest to him that there may be lessons to be gleaned from the country’s over reliance on heavy industry and lack of diversity that have implications for the current global economic issues. “There are definite parallels with the current global situation as a number of broadsheet reviewers have also picked up on,” he agrees. “Perhaps the simplest conclusion to draw is that lack of economic diversity can be a problem. That you should not put all of your eggs in one basket and also you should play to your strengths. That brings us to education. There is a need for all nations again to hark back to the value of education, systematically ploughing our, more and more limited, resources into education, as you can see by the success of countries like Finland, while Scotland has fallen back a bit.”
With the status of Scotland within the UK under scrutiny as never before, I try to tempt him into revealing his position on the current independence issues but Devine has spent a career refusing to be drawn on the present or the future: “The future is not my period and I have already told the First Minister that I won’t be drawn on these issues,” he insists, before adding, “yet”, with a smile and a gentle laugh.
Author: Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie is a travel writer and has written articles for over 150 magazines and newspapers in five continents, including the Daily Mail, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Herald, Scotsman, Nat Geographic, BA Highlife, CNN Traveller and Business Traveller. He has his own BBC Radio Scotland travel slot and he runs the Scottish travel website InsiderScotland.com.