3.4 Global economies and local lives

How is one to understand globalisation and the history and nature of global capitalism? Is the story of the modern world one of increasing globalisation, as diverse localities, regions and countries lose their distinctiveness and converge in a common, uniform modern way of being? Or is the story one of the persistence or emergence of distinct ways of living and being? Perhaps we should focus on the tensions between centripetal and centrifugal movements, sameness and difference, universality and particularity?

Archaeology can analyse how particular people were affected by, engaged with and responded to the emergence of national and international markets and economies. The archaeology of drove roads and grain ports (The subject of current PhD research by Donald Adamson, University of Glasgow, for instance, provides insights into the ways in which people engaged with specific commercial developments. For some, there were opportunities as cattle and grain merchants or as drovers and in other roles associated with the trade. For others, the question is more one of how their lives were affected by cattle and grain production in an increasingly commercial climate. How did farming communities, living in different places and circumstances, promote, adopt, manipulate or resist change to their farming routines and to the social and material relationships those routines entailed? (See for example Dalglish 2009; Davies and Watson 2007, Hamilton et al. 2009). The environmental effects of the new market economy might also be considered: pastoral resources were upland Scotland’s key resource, providing wool and meat for markets at home and across the border; rising stocking densities, linked to changing market prices, contributed to reductions in upland diversity, particularly in the period after Improvement, and this has left traces in the vegetational record (Hanley et al. 2008).

If Scotland’s modern farming history is a local one linked to global imperatives, so too is its industrial history. The industrial archaeology of Scotland cannot be understood without simultaneously interrogating its local particularities and its wider connections. The fireclay industry, for example, was an enabling industry which helped to make possible the nation’s wider industrial output. Particularities of geology left a legacy of high alumina content fireclay in Scotland which was ideal for the production of the heat-resistant refractory bricks needed to line the furnaces of iron and steel works at home and also abroad. The mineral was also suitable for domestic applications such as chimney linings, drainage pipes, tiles and even ornamental vases. The legacy of the Scottish fireclay works may be traced abroad in the mines and mills of America and Canada and understanding the scale and character of this international demand helps us to explain and understand significant changes to the Scottish landscape brought about through industrial extraction, processing and manufacture.

The examples can easily be multiplied. Several significant West of Scotland engineering firms specialised in making sugar extraction and processing equipment for export to the British colonies and elsewhere and sugar refining machinery for use here at home (Moss and Hume 1977). Other companies also made machinery for colonial markets, including rice-milling machinery, nut-shelling machinery, boilers, and rum-distilling equipment, as well as pre-fabricated buildings (e.g. tea-withering sheds). Scottish-built ships and locomotives travelled all over the world, and shipbuilding and precision machine tools were exported widely. The textile industries imported raw materials from a wide range of source locations and exported manufactured goods and products far and wide. In different parts of Scotland, these global commercial and material networks would have had a different constituency, whether it was in the heavy-industrial centre that was Glasgow or in Dundee, the international capital of jute production or elsewhere.

Smaller-scale production was also profoundly affected by economic, ecological or political events in far distant parts of the world. From the 18th century, seaweed – traditionally gathered as a fertiliser for the fields – became the foundation of a flourishing industry supplying alkaline kelp to the glass- and soap-making industries (Thomson 1987, 207). Associated with this industry was a material infrastructure which survives today as kelp kilns and other features dotted along the northern and western coasts of Scotland. And this industry is part-and-parcel of the story of Scotland’s crofting communities, created in the 18th- and 19th-century through a re-working of entire landscapes, settlement structures and social constellations. The kelp boom came to an end from the 1820s (Smout 1969, 327) as a result of freer and cheaper access to foreign sources of alkali, initially barilla from Spain but later guano from South America and Easter Island, and of the development in Glasgow of the LeBlanc process for the manufacture of alkali for glass from common salt. The collapse of the kelp market in around 1830 left many families in a precarious position – crofts in many kelping districts were designed by the estate to be too small to support a family through farming, to encourage crofters to take up work in industries like kelp processing.

Alongside attention to the relationship between local production for the market, and the requirements of commodity movement such as drove roads and harbours, one should consider the potential for new understandings of local consumption in a global world. Work in the last decade or more has demonstrated the value of an archaeological approach to people’s interactions with mass-produced goods. Some have argued that the archaeology of the modern past shows the emergence of a ‘mass culture’ which continues to dominate life today. The argument here is that the evident spread of mass-produced ceramics in the 18th and 19th centuries indicates that, as people in diverse localities came to use the same ceramics (mass-produced in Glasgow or Staffordshire, for example), local ways of life were eroded and a homogenised, standardised culture spread throughout the country (see Emery 1996; 1999; 2000 on artefacts from St. Kilda). Others (e.g. Barker 2005; Fleming 2000; Webster 1999) have suggested that selected ceramic assemblages indicate that people had clear and varied preferences in terms of vessel form, colour and other features and that these preferences indicate localised differences in the acquisition, use and interpretation of mass-produced goods. Further work on the nature, meaning and use of mass-produced goods could inform an understanding of the role of such goods in the construction of modern material culture. And the study of persistent (or newly developing) non-industrial craft traditions should not be forgotten: this is a research topic which forms a valuable counter-point to research into the consumption of mass-produced goods and which can draw out some of the complexities of the ways in which people have engaged with local and wider developments in the modern world.

See also the ScARF Case Study: Global markets and local environments

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