Professor Tom Devine on Unyielding Power: Foundations of Elite Supremacy in Eighteenth Century Scotland

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Blog author: Hannah Pyle

On the 31st of October 2019 the centre had the pleasure of welcoming Professor Tom Devine to give the inaugural Thomas Muir lecture on Democracy and Civil Society: ‘Unyielding Power: Foundations of Elite Supremacy in Eighteenth Century Scotland’. Prof Devine is well-known within the realm of Scottish History, having published over 40 books on everything from Scotland in the 1600’s through to the global impact of Scotland; the significance of the Highland Clearances to the history of the Scottish nation and its identity. He has particularly focused on democratic thought in Scotland, and so the lecture – and its relevance to the history of Thomas Muir – appeared as a timely talk on this particular Halloween evening.

Prof Devine introduced the talk briefly by highlighting the importance of the Thomas Muir lecture, set up with the help of the Friends of Thomas Muir Society. Thomas Muir was born in Glasgow in 1765 and is most famously known for his role as a political reformer. He attended the University of Glasgow from the age of 10 and graduated by the time he was 17. His political interests were expressed from a young age through his contributions to the student politics at the University, an aspect still very prevalent for today’s political culture and political growth. However, Muir’s political activities and principles would later lead to him being charged with sedition in 1793. The purpose of the annual lecture is to highlight topics concerning democracy and the political state, and so Prof Devine began by outlining the issues of revolution during the late eighteenth century.

Firstly, through alluding to the American revolution of the 1760’s to 1780’s which led on to the French Revolution of the 1790’s. We were then asked to question to place of Scotland within these eighteenth-century ideas of revolution and political reform. Prof Devine highlighted the difficulty that Scotland had for reform attempts within all the towns and cities, with 0.2 % of the population of Scotland having the vote. This was made up by 7,800 landowners, with 1/5th of the power being held by the large estates which made up the country. This idea outlined what Prof Devine called the ‘feudal superiorities’ of about a dozen families who effectively ruled the country through the set up of this system: the ‘Age of Reason’ versus ‘the unreasonable system’.

Prof Devine proceeded to compare this period of the Scottish Enlightenment thought to later in the nineteenth century, where we see the ‘concertina effect’ of Scottish modernisation, with the key comparison being between England and Scotland’s development across the previous two and a half centuries. Prof Devine noted the differences in the 1851 census for both England and Scotland for men who were in mining or industry: 40.2% for England whilst Scotland had over 41%. The political revolution dynamic of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a movement from ‘Tribalism to Capitalism’, particularly shown through the rise of the merchants and ‘professionals’, or, what Prof Devine made comparison to with the rise of the bourgeois during the French Revolution. This was particularly prevalent as, during the 1790’s in Scotland, the country was still feeling the effect of the Clearances, with Prof Devine stating that there was a sense of ‘landless-ness’ as ‘commonplace’.

In summary, Prof Devine wished to pose a question: Was Scotland seen as a truculent nation? He went on to elaborate examples such as the Jacobite uprisings, the  history of riots, and the system of patronage and conflict alongside the anti-Catholic and militia riots of the eighteenth century. He likewise mentioned that, despite the Reform Act of 1832, it was not until the 1860s and 70’s that Thomas Muir’s principles were to come into vision. The lesson that Prof Devine wished to conclude upon? That ‘the hard-won democracy of the past is not entirely safe in the present’.

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