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The Sentimental Scot

Of all the great nations of Christendom, the Scotch are by far the most
romantic. I have just enough Scotch experience and just enough Scotch
blood to know this in the only way in which a thing can really be known;
that is, when the outer world and the inner world are at one. I know it
is always said that the Scotch are practical, prosaic, and puritan; that
they have an eye to business. I like that phrase "an eye" to business.

Polyphemus had an eye for business; it was in the middle of his forehead.
It served him admirably for the only two duties which are demanded in a
modern financier and captain of industry: the two duties of counting sheep
and of eating men. But when that one eye was put out he was done for.
But the Scotch are not one-eyed practical men, though their best friends
must admit that they are occasionally business-like. They are, quite
fundamentally, romantic and sentimental, and this is proved by the very
economic argument that is used to prove their harshness and hunger for the
material. The mass of Scots have accepted the industrial civilisation,
with its factory chimneys and its famine prices, with its steam and smoke
and steel--and strikes. The mass of the Irish have not accepted it. The
mass of the Irish have clung to agriculture with claws of iron; and have
succeeded in keeping it. That is because the Irish, though far inferior
to the Scotch in art and literature, are hugely superior to them in
practical politics. You do need to be very romantic to accept the
industrial civilisation. It does really require all the old Gaelic
glamour to make men think that Glasgow is a grand place. Yet the miracle
is achieved; and while I was in Glasgow I shared the illusion. I have
never had the faintest illusion about Leeds or Birmingham. The industrial
dream suited the Scots. Here was a really romantic vista, suited to a
romantic people; a vision of higher and higher chimneys taking hold upon
the heavens, of fiercer and fiercer fires in which adamant could evaporate
like dew. Here were taller and taller engines that began already to
shriek and gesticulate like giants. Here were thunderbolts of
communication which already flashed to and fro like thoughts. It was
unreasonable to expect the rapt, dreamy, romantic Scot to stand still in
such a whirl of wizardry to ask whether he, the ordinary Scot, would be
any the richer.

He, the ordinary Scot, is very much the poorer. Glasgow is not a rich
city. It is a particularly poor city ruled by a few particularly rich men.
It is not, perhaps, quite so poor a city as Liverpool, London,
Manchester, Birmingham, or Bolton. It is vastly poorer than Rome, Rouen,
Munich, or Cologne. A certain civic vitality notable in Glasgow may,
perhaps, be due to the fact that the high poetic patriotism of the Scots
has there been reinforced by the cutting common sense and independence of
the Irish. In any case, I think there can be no doubt of the main
historical fact. The Scotch were tempted by the enormous but unequal
opportunities of industrialism, because the Scotch are romantic. The
Irish refused those enormous and unequal opportunities, because the Irish
are clear-sighted. They would not need very clear sight by this time to
see that in England and Scotland the temptation has been a betrayal. The
industrial system has failed.

I was coming the other day along a great valley road that strikes out of
the westland counties about Glasgow, more or less towards the east and the
widening of the Forth. It may, for all I know (I amused myself with the
fancy), be the way along which Wallace came with his crude army, when he

gave battle before Stirling Brig; and, in the midst of mediaeval
diplomacies, made a new nation possible. Anyhow, the romantic quality of
Scotland rolled all about me, as much in the last reek of Glasgow as in
the first rain upon the hills. The tall factory chimneys seemed trying to
be taller than the mountain peaks; as if this landscape were full (as its
history has been full) of the very madness of ambition. The wageslavery
we live in is a wicked thing. But there is nothing in which the Scotch
are more piercing and poetical, I might say more perfect, than in their
Scotch wickedness. It is what makes the Master of Ballantrae the most
thrilling of all fictitious villains. It is what makes the Master of
Lovat the most thrilling of all historical villains. It is poetry. It
is an intensity which is on the edge of madness or (what is worse) magic.
Well, the Scotch have managed to apply something of this fierce
romanticism even to the lowest of all lordships and serfdoms; the
proletarian inequality of today. You do meet now and then, in Scotland,
the man you never meet anywhere else but in novels; I mean the self-made
man; the hard, insatiable man, merciless to himself as well as to others.
It is not "enterprise"; it is kleptomania. He is quite mad, and a much
more obvious public pest than any other kind of kleptomaniac; but though
he is a cheat, he is not an illusion. He does exist; I have met quite two
of him. Him alone among modern merchants we do not weakly flatter when we
call him a bandit. Something of the irresponsibility of the true dark
ages really clings about him. Our scientific civilisation is not a
civilisation; it is a smoke nuisance. Like smoke it is choking us; like
smoke it will pass away. Only of one or two Scotsmen, in my experience,
was it true that where there is smoke there is fire.

But there are other kinds of fire; and better. The one great advantage of
this strange national temper is that, from the beginning of all chronicles,
it has provided resistance as well as cruelty. In Scotland nearly
everything has always been in revolt--especially loyalty. If these people
are capable of making Glasgow, they are also capable of wrecking it; and
the thought of my many good friends in that city makes me really doubtful
about which would figure in human memories as the more huge calamity of
the two. In Scotland there are many rich men so weak as to call
themselves strong. But there are not so many poor men weak enough to
believe them.

As I came out of Glasgow I saw men standing about the road. They had
little lanterns tied to the fronts of their caps, like the fairies who
used to dance in the old fairy pantomimes. They were not, however,
strictly speaking, fairies. They might have been called gnomes, since
they worked in the chasms of those purple and chaotic hills. They worked
in the mines from whence comes the fuel of our fires. Just at the moment
when I saw them, moreover, they were not dancing; nor were they working.
They were doing nothing. Which, in my opinion (and I trust yours), was
the finest thing they could do.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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