Scotland's Global Empire - the greatest Scots

04 May 2022
Jock Gallagher, author of 'Scotland's Global Empire: A Chronicle of Great Scots', tells the story of two of his greatest Scots: a football player turned war hero and an Edinburgh-born lawyer who helped establish the cause of liberty in America...

Over the years, I have collected innumerable anecdotes and newspaper clippings which, together with my notebooks, amounted to a veritable cornucopia of information. Having been prompted by someone in the press to consider the staggering number of contributions the Scots have made to the world, I set about assessing the potential for a book which presented the Scots and their incredible range of achievements.

I was encouraged in this task when I found the quote from Voltaire: 'We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation' and subsequently another from Winston Churchill who said: 'Of all the small nations on earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.'  Thus inspired, I set out to show that our small nation consistently punches above its weight.
Although I developed a baseline of Alexander Fleming, Andrew Carnegie, John Logie Baird, Alexander Graham Bell and all the other great Scots I’d learned about at Greenock High School, I did no more than mention them because I wanted to leave space for a thousand or so more names that were not so well reported.

Victoria Cross hero

With 'Scotland the Brave' ringing in my ears, I set out to underpin our reputation for being a tough nation with courage being in our DNA. To pluck just one from a list of 169 VC winners isn’t easy but a citation that states 'No braver deed has ever been done in all the history of the British Army', puts in the frame William Angus, a lance-corporal in the Royal Scots and a one-time star of Celtic FC.

During the Battle of the Somme, he rescued his young, badly-injured officer from under the noses of the Germans, carried him across 70 yards of no-man’s-land to safety … despite being hit by no fewer than 42 bullets and losing part of his leg. That is valour. The grateful officer presented him with a gold watch and on every anniversary of the amazing rescue for 40 years he sent a telegram repeating his deep gratitude. After his death in 1956, his brother continued the tradition.    

Freedom of the press

As a journalist, one of my personal heroes is the Edinburgh-born lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, who emigrated to America at the beginning of the 18th century and became a distinguished lawyer. For me, his most significant case was his successful defence of a newspaper printer charged with seditious libel (an offence against the King, no less).

It was not simply a victory for journalism and newspaper publishing, it was a victory for free speech and all that means in a democracy. That 1735 court case established that truth is a defence against accusations of libel and is often cited as ‘the beginning of America’s liberty’. Hamilton himself said: Freedom of the press is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing the truth. Journalists have lived by that creed ever since.             

Although I use the title Scotland’s Global Empire, let me dissociate myself from any other models of empire. Mine is not an empire of colonisation that diminishes or enslaves those whom it embraces. It involves neither the greed nor ruthlessness so often inherent in empire-building.

It's more of an outreach of ideas, the story of human endeavour in its many forms - pushing at the boundaries of the imagination and stretching the accepted order.

It's luckily not dependent on a seat of power and nor is it affected by the bruising arguments about Scotland's place within the UK or as an independent state.

Scotland’s Global Empire: A Chronicle of Great Scots is published by Whittles Publishing at £20. The book ‘highlights a vast array of lesser-known Scots and the staggering number of their contributions to the world’.

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Originally published here on 30 September 2013. Revised 4 May 2022.