Our view of history over the centuries has inevitably been moulded and formed by the victors of battles, by the rich and the powerful, and by those who were able to read and write and, more importantly, use their knowledge of language(s) to form opinions. Seldom do we get to take on the perspectives of the losers in battles, of the weak and poor, and importantly of the illiterate. I see the social historian as someone who helps to bridge that gap.
T.C. Smout’s volume A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950 is dominated by interpretations of how the ordinary peasants and the factory workers in the cities were subject to the control of the rich and powerful in society. From the inhumane clearances of the countryside to the appalling and dangerous conditions of the industrial environment, from the cruelty of employing children as young as 6 years of age in the mines and on the looms to the injustices shown to home workers in the textile industry, the story unfolds gradually towards the formation of unions and the establishment of compulsory education for all children.
Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a tough place to live if you were a member of the majority social class. Child mortality was high, people died young of industrial diseases and accidents, and mothers frequently died in childbirth, not to mention all the other potentially fatal diseases like TB and typhus. There were no comforts, little food, and the living conditions were frankly appalling. By contrast, the succeeding 70 years up to the present time have seen changes that have transformed the lives of the majority to a level that would have seemed impossible in Victorian Britain.