A U.S. Parallel In Scottish History

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - December 03, 2008
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Islay, off the southwestern coast of Scotland, vividly demonstrates the impact of the industrial revolution on Great Britain. In 1830, Islay boasted a population of 18,000. Today the rolling hills and winding roads of Islay contain less than 3,500 people.

The textile mills of Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow depopulated the place. They needed wool and that meant sheep. Islay has, by my unscientific count this past summer, at least 18,000 of them. Scattered across Islay’s landscape are the long-abandoned stone cottages of the small farmers, evicted by the large landowners who sought to improve the agriculture of the region by, ...well, getting rid of the farmers. So they forced them into becoming either fishermen or emigrants. The so-called Highland clearances sent many of the unwanted to, among other places, America.

Now the scholar in me would like to tell you that my traveling companions (four longtime friends plus my wife, the high-strung Filipina) visited Islay last summer for the history lesson. Such was not the case.


We went to Islay to drink whisky. Single-malt Scotch whisky - whisky to die for (or, better, to live for).

Eight distilleries currently produce single-malts on Islay, and in our three days on the island we visited six of them. By the time we’d finished our final distillery tour, I think we could - with a little peat, a little grain, an old American bourbon barrel and eight or 10 years time - come up with a portion of what might, on a desperate day, pass for Scotch.

Great Scotch, however, cannot undo a diaspora that decimated the Scottish countryside in the 19th century - and left scars into the 21st. The industrial revolution changed forever the face of Scotland; it brought a better life for many, but not without costs.

Another revolution is at hand. In midsummer 2008, the Scottish National Party won the parliamentary seat in Glasgow East. That was big news, because Glasgow East was considered safe for the Labour Party. Many saw the SNP victory as an indication of political restiveness throughout Great Britain - a product of the international credit crunch.

Wrote the editorial writers of The Sunday Times: “Voters do not care about complex fiscal rules, although the financial markets do. What people care about is whether anything is being done to ease their pain and steer the economy toward better times. ... Labour’s lack of prudence was pumping out tens of billions of extra public spending with no regard for whether it was used productively.”

So Labour paid the price - at least in Glasgow East.

And, four months later in the United States, the Republican Party paid the price for failing “to ease (the voters’) pain and steer the economy toward better times.”

But I’m not sure that what Scotland and the United States and the entire globe are experiencing these last weeks of 2008 is as definable as a mere “credit crunch” or that anyone - even the saintly Barack Obama -can steer the world economy.

We may well be facing something as big as the industrial revolution. In the announcement that General Motors stock is essentially worthless, that one of the Big Three automakers will probably close its doors, and that bankruptcy faces Detroit and the millions of workers in the American economy dependent on its major industry, we are certainly looking at the further deindustrialization of the United States.

We are looking at our impoverishment as well. The global financial crisis, the Ponzi scheme that investment bankers perpetrated on us all, and the almost criminally negligent behavior of mortgage bankers, will leave the United States and its citizens more debt-ridden and less able to recover in a more competitive economic world.

The result could be as devastating for the American people as the Highland clearances were for 19th century Scottish farmers.

And we may find our only solace in a bottle of that peaty Islay single-malt. Nay, that comes too dear. We’ll have to make do with the cheapest rot-gut we can find.

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