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review: non-fiction

A competitor tosses a largish rock during the 147th Victoria Highland Games and Celtic Festival in Victoria, B.C., in May 2010.The Globe and Mail

The Scots are history's underdogs. Sir Walter Scott wrote, "I am a Scotsman; therefore I had to fight my way into the world."

Anyone with a drop of Scottish blood will tell you there's something seductive about being descended from the Scots. It's not the romanticized auld homeland that's irresistible as much as the diaspora itself. From the 18th century to the 20th, inured to hardship but disdainful of oppression, armed to an exceptional degree with education and a belief in social equality, the Scots burst the confines of their northern country, once the poorest in Europe, to populate the world with explorers and entrepreneurs, warriors and politicians, inventors and educators - in short, leaders.

Full disclosure: On my study wall hangs a hand-painted tribute to my father, a Scottish Canadian, for giving the address on "the Immortal Memory" at a Robbie Burns supper half a century ago. I've never been partial to Burns's verse, and I'm wary of emotional appeals to ethnicity. But I keep the tribute in view to remind me of my father's proud, independent-minded Scottishness.

And so I understand why Ken McGoogan, a Scottish-French-German-Irish-Danish Canadian with deep roots in this country, chose to write How the Scots Invented Canada. McGoogan, the author of four books on Arctic exploration, isn't writing about tiresome tartan chauvinism but the undeniable fact that, in so many ways, Scots created the nation we inhabit today. Their influence is so pervasive it's invisible.

As McGoogan demonstrates, the restless, ambitious, hard-working Scots arrived in Canada early, when there was still plenty of scope for action. They explored the place, extracted its resources and, overcoming the hegemony of the English Family Compact, virtually ran it for decades. McGoogan points out that Scots and their descendants have represented only 15 to 16 per cent of the population throughout Canada's history, yet contributed more than half the Fathers of Confederation, and no fewer than 13 of our 22 prime ministers - including, of course, the father of the country.

Sir John A. Macdonald not only cajoled the British North American colonies into Confederation, but established our form of governance and defined it during his 19 years in power. The constitution Macdonald wrote has evolved over the ensuing 142 years under such leaders as Mackenzie King, John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau - all of Scottish descent, the last two on their mothers' side.

Long before Confederation, McGoogan writes, the cutthroat fur-trading rivalry between the Scots of the Hudson's Bay Company and the Scots of the North West Company succeeded in mapping our country, building its economy and ensuring it stayed British, not American. Less gloriously, Scots attacked Scots when the Nor' Westers, fearing Lord Selkirk's settlers at Red River would interfere with their fortunes, burned homes and took lives - a grisly reminder of the clan violence of the Highlands.

Then there was the fiery Scot whose 1837 rebellion triggered the arrival of responsible government, William Lyon Mackenzie; and the Scots who built the Canadian Pacific Railway, Donald Smith and George Stephen; and the Scot who founded this newspaper, George Brown; and the Scots who ushered in equality for women, Nellie McClung, Emily Ferguson Murphy and Agnes Macphail; and the Scot who fathered medicare, Tommy Douglas; and….

All this Scottishness appears to conflict with a thesis propounded by John Ralston Saul in his 2008 book A Fair Country. Saul contends Canada has been "a Métis country" since the earliest days of European colonization, when settlers depended on the knowledge and generosity of the indigenous peoples to survive. But, in fact, McGoogan reinforces Saul's thesis. He portrays Scottish businessmen and politicians as more egalitarian, flexible and pragmatic than the English, readier to form alliances with aboriginals or French Canadians to achieve their ends - a cultural intermingling that laid the foundation for Canadian diversity. That mindset resulted from the liberal ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment.

As McGoogan acknowledges, his book grew out of Arthur Herman's 2001 bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Unlike Herman, who treated us to a sweeping historical exposition of Scottish ideas and achievements, McGoogan has opted for a biographical approach. He provides cameos of several dozen Scottish-Canadian giants, including world-class writers (Farley Mowat, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro) and innovative thinkers (Harold Innis, George Grant, Marshall McLuhan), explaining how their cultural inheritance informed their work.

The weakness of McGoogan's strategy is that it produces a choppy who's who rather than a flowing narrative and precludes a consideration of such predominantly Scottish communities as Kingston or Pictou. The saving grace is his lively intelligence and keen eye for human detail - the shock when it was discovered that Isobel Gunn, successfully disguised as a Hudson's Bay man, was pregnant; the comment by Norman Bethune that he "fell in love at first sound" with his wife's beautiful Scottish accent.

The book makes the odd historical error - confusing, for instance, John A. Macdonald's second wife, Agnes, with his first wife, Isabella.

All the same, How the Scots Invented Canada provides a pleasurable way to get to know many of the most colourful men and women in our history. Ken McGoogan has the Scottish good sense to note that other ethnic groups have played equally key roles in shaping Canada. "Yet," he writes, "I have refused to let fairness take the fun out of the tale." There's indeed much fun here, as well as instruction (Scots always like that), and your name doesn't have to begin with Mc or Mac to savour this book.

Roy MacSkimming's new novel is Laurier in Love. His previous novel about a Scottish-Canadian prime minister, Macdonald, has just been released in paperback.

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