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  • Geography, Science and National Identity: Scotland since 1520
  • Michael Kugler
Geography, Science and National Identity: Scotland since 1520. By Charles W.J. Withers. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2001.

The aesthetic delights of wild places and nationalism are closely-related modern ideas. Just as modern is the scientific language explaining geography. Hard to Edinburgh’s unfinished, post-colonial Parliament is the children’s interactive center, Our Dynamic Earth. Highlighting Scotland’s place in eons of geologic evolution, it is less than half a mile from where James Hutton wrote his Theory of Earth (1795). These markers of Scottish national identity, civic education, and geologic science in Scotland’s historical landscape belong together. Charles Withers (Professor of Historical Geography, University of Edinburgh) has told how geographical presentation, research, and writing served Scottish accounts of national identity. Widely published in Scotland’s historical geography, Withers impressively co-ordinates various disciplines and summarizes a great range of scholarship. He is also a faithful guide to debates over the “essentialist” history of science, and Scotland’s peculiar role in sorting out its own national identity while partnering in Britain’s imperial enterprise. Over 30 maps, drawings, paintings, photos, and tables illustrate the arguments.

Withers explains “the geographical ‘making’ of Scotland as a matter of historical geography” (xv). He asks: How did past geographers use geographical knowledge to distinguish Scotland as a physical place? Where did scholars create this knowledge, and for what audiences? How were particular forms of geographical knowledge used to fashion Scottish national identity? He examines the writers, audiences, places (urban lectures, scientific associations, schools, patronage networks, clubs, Royal Societies, publishers, to name some), and different manners of geographical exploration, writing and mapmaking, through the age of high empire and the professional establishment of the discipline.

Withers’ initial tour follows the landmarks of Scottish geographic study: the Renaissance creation of Scotland the geographic nation; James I’s attempts to define Scotland as a geographic portion of Great Britain; the Kirk’s efforts to administer the nation with geographic surveys; and Sir George Sibbald’s Baconian efforts as Geographer Royal to map Scotland. Geographic credibility based on gentlemanly/scholarly status was gradually modified by scientific credibility of direct observation, mathematical precision, and local authority. Scotland’s geographic “self-fashioning” served the political interests of the Scottish, later British state; for instance, in locating and labeling in order to pacify an unruly wilderness like the Highlands. Geography also served state and dynastic interests in debates over the Union of the Crowns and Parliaments. Scottish geographers recast Renaissance concerns to educate young gentlemen with geography towards an Enlightened civic consciousness with a fundamental sense of Scottish geography.

These Scots were not simply patriots, but Europeans of wide scholarship and geographic imagination. Into the nineteenth century, publishing schemes for Scottish geographic atlases paralleled public lectures and domestic instruction for genteel men and women, later to industrial laborers. Urban geography clubs combined local botany, antiquities, and discussions of imperial geography. Locating Scotland gave the nation its due in regard to England, Europe, and the world. Scotland’s “nation-less” national identity could be grounded on the scientific geography of an empirically stable Scottish landscape. While the Empire’s geography was popularized in the rest of Britain, Withers argues that such enterprises as the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (founded 1884) were simultaneously local and imperial minded. Even William Speirs Bruce’s 1902–4 explorations were self-consciously the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. Striking, but not surprising, is the evidence that Scottish geographers engaged in the 1907 Pigmentation Survey of Scotland were as enmeshed in pseudo-scientific racist theories as any of their Continental or American contemporaries. Rather than a triumphant Scottish geography achieving its place under a professional sun, Withers argues that its late development failed to realize an earlier promise.

Withers provokes worthwhile questions. Why was geography deemed appropriate for the education of women, considering disagreements over female education between, say, Edinburgh’s James Fordyce and Mary Wollstonecraft? Scottish national identity was not “an immutable given” (xv) but I’m not certain Withers distinguishes it from various expressions of patriotism. While the “Scientific Revolution” (following Steven Shapin) is scrutinized, shouldn’t we likewise worry about Scotland’s...

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