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How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It

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by Arthur Herman

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Who formed the first literate society? Who invented our modern ideas of democracy and free market capitalism? The Scots. As historian and author Arthur Herman reveals, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scotland made crucial contributions to science, philosophy, literature, education, medicine, commerce, and politics—contributions that have formed and


Who formed the first literate society? Who invented our modern ideas of democracy and free market capitalism? The Scots. As historian and author Arthur Herman reveals, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scotland made crucial contributions to science, philosophy, literature, education, medicine, commerce, and politics—contributions that have formed and nurtured the modern West ever since. This book is not just about Scotland: it is an exciting account of the origins of the modern world. No one who takes this incredible historical trek will ever view the Scots—or the modern West—in the same way again.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Finally we have a book that explains how the . . . Scots created the modern civilized values America and the Western world still uphold. This is a great book, one which is now even more relevant than ever.”—Michael Barone, U.S. News & World Report, coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics

“Arthur Herman provides a convincing and compelling argument. . . . He is a natural writer, weaving philosophical concerns seamlessly through a historical narrative that romps along at a cracking pace.” —Irvine Welsh, The Guardian

“Herman’s book tells an exciting story with gusto . . . its range and narrative verve make it an entertaining and illuminating read.” —Sunday Times (London)

“A skeptic could easily be converted by Herman’s deft presentation . . . this work sets a high academic standard yet is carefully leavened with colorful anecdotes.”

The title sounds chauvinistic, but Arthur Herman's jaunty study of Scot inventiveness is both good spirited and reasonable. The Smithsonian historian contends that the Scottish people developed the institutions, beliefs, and human character that made the West preeminent. Citing figures as diverse as John Stuart Mill, Robert Burns, and Andrew Carnegie, he explains how Scots invented modern civilization. The author of The Idea of Decline in Western History has written a fascinating corrective to centuries of quips about Scottish cheapness and kilts.
Publishers Weekly
Focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries, Herman (coordinator of the Western Heritage Program at the Smithsonian and an assistant professor of history at George Mason University) has written a successful exploration of Scotland's disproportionately large impact on the modern world's intellectual and industrial development. When Scotland ratified the 1707 Act of Union, it was an economic backwater. Union gave Scotland access to England's global marketplace, triggering an economic and cultural boom "transform[ing] Scotland... into a modern society, and open[ing] up a cultural and social revolution." Herman credits Scotland's sudden transformation to its system of education, especially its leading universities at Edinburgh and Glasgow. The 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment, embodied by such brilliant thinkers as Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and David Hume, paved the way for Scottish and, Herman argues, global modernity. Hutcheson, the father of the Scottish Enlightenment, championed political liberty and the right of popular rebellion against tyranny. Smith, in his monumental Wealth of Nations, advocated liberty in the sphere of commerce and the global economy. Hume developed philosophical concepts that directly influenced James Madison and thus the U.S. Constitution. Herman elucidates at length the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment and their worldwide impact. In 19th-century Britain, the Scottish Enlightenment, as popularized by Dugald Stewart, became the basis of classical liberalism. At the University of Glasgow, James Watt perfected the crucial technology of the Industrial Revolution: the steam engine. The "democratic" Scottish system of education found a home in the developing U.S.This is a worthwhile book for the general reader, although much of the material has been covered better elsewhere, most recently in T.M. Devine's magisterial The Scottish Nation: A History, 1700-2000 and Duncan A. Bruce's delightful The Mark of the Scots. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This latest work by Smithsonian historian Herman (The Idea of Decline in Western History) invites comparison to Duncan Bruce's recent The Scottish 100: Portraits of History's Most Influential Scots (Carroll & Graf, 2000), which reveals the Scottish ancestry of such notables as Immanuel Kant and Edvard Grieg. The subtitle of Herman's book says it all. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But a skeptic could easily be converted by Herman's deft presentation of simple historical facts. Scots have made massive contributions to education, science, history, and political thought just think of Adam Smith, David Hume, James Boswell, and James Watt, to name but a few. This work sets a high academic standard yet is carefully leavened with colorful anecdotes. The rendition of blowsy George IV's visit to Edinburgh, "hosted" by Sir Walter Scott, is hilarious. Herman is both lively and informative in debunking the myths we hold about the Highland Clearances and the development of clan tartans. Recommended for all academic and larger public libraries. Gail Benjafield, St. Catharines P.L., Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Scots here get all the credit, for everything from humanistic philosophy to capitalism to the steam engine to Agent 007. If enough Scots read this paean to their ancestors, Herman (History/George Mason Univ.; Joseph McCarthy, 1999, etc.) may one day have his visage carved into a Scottish Mt. McRushmore. Herman begins in the nasty 17th century and guides us with swift intelligence and admirable command of his sources through some complicated history: the National Covenant (1638), the Stuarts, Cromwell (whose singular virtue, Herman notes, is that he was hated by everyone in the British Isles). Soon we are in the 18th century, and the Act of Union, which, as Herman observes, confounded its critics by propelling the Scottish economy into astonishing prosperity. Herman reminds us of all the great men (yes, mostly men) who were Scots, including Francis Hutcheson (an early opponent of slavery and advocate of women's rights), James Boswell, David Hume, Adam Smith (the first compassionate conservative?), Edward Gibbon . . . well, maybe he doesn't quite qualify, but, says Herman (reaching, reaching), "for all intents and purposes, he was intellectually a Scot." Herman explains the apparent oxymoron "Scotch Irish," displays the Scottish origins of "redneck" and "cracker," and points out that half the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Scots (or of Scottish ancestry). Scots created the modern literary journal (Edinburgh Review), historical fiction (Sir Walter Scott's Waverly), and pavement (John MacAdam's "macadamized" road). Scots also invented modern medical practices, ruled sweetly in the far reaches of the British Empire, peopled Canada and Australia with sturdy stock, andsent medicine and Jesus to Africa in the person of Dr. Livingstone (I presume). Notable Americans like Daniel Boone, Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, and Kit Carson had roots in Scotland, as did Andrew Carnegie, who built railroads, steel mills, and libraries. In a volume more celebrative than contemplative, Herman reveals a chauvinism that presents an eerie smiley face.

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The New Jerusalem


Just as the German Reformation was largely the work of a single individual, Martin Luther, so the Scottish Reformation was the achievement of one man of heroic will and tireless energy: John Knox.

Like Luther, Knox left an indelible mark on his national culture. Uncompromising, dogmatic, and driven, John Knox was a prolific writer and a preacher of truly terrifying power. His early years as a Protestant firebrand had been spent in exile, imprisonment, and even penal servitude chained to a rowing bench in the king's galleys. The harsh trials toughened him physically and spiritually for what was to come. He became John Knox, "he who feared the face of no man." Beginning in 1559, Knox single-handedly inspired, intimidated, and bullied Scotland's nobility and urban classes into overthrowing the Catholic Church of their forebears and adopting the religious creed of Geneva's John Calvin. Its austere and harsh dogmas that the Bible was the literal Word of God, that the God of that Bible was a stern and jealous God, filled with wrath at all sinners and blasphemers, and that the individual soul was by God's grace predestined to heaven or hell regardless of any good works or charitable intentions-were themselves natural extensions of Knox's own personality. Calvinism seemed as natural to him as breathing, and he taught a generation of Scotsmen to believe the same thing themselves.

Above all, John Knox wanted to turn the Scots into God's chosen people, and Scotland into the New Jerusalem. To do this, Knox was willing to sweep away everything about Scotland's past that linked it to the Catholic Church. As one admirer said, "Others snipped at the branches of Popery; but he strikes at the roots, to destroy the whole." He and his followers scoured away not only Scottish Catholicism but all its physical manifestations, from monasteries and bishops and clerical vestments to holy relics and market-square crosses. They smashed stained-glass windows and saints' statues, ripped out choir stalls and roodscreens, and overturned altars. All these symbols of a centuries-old tradition of religious culture, which we would call great works of art, were for Knox marks of "idolatry" and "the synagogue of Satan," as he called the Roman Catholic Church. In any case, the idols disappeared from southern Scotland, and the Scottish Kirk rose up to take their place.

Knox and his lieutenants also imposed the new rules of the Calvinist Sabbath on Scottish society: no working (people could be arrested for plucking a chicken on Sunday), no dancing, and no playing of the pipes. Gambling, cardplaying, and the theater were banned. No one could move out of a parish without written permission of the minister. The Kirk wiped out all traditional forms of collective fun, such as Carnival, Maytime celebrations, mumming, and Passion plays. Fornication brought punishment and exile; adultery meant death. The church courts, or kirk-sessions, enforced the law with scourges, pillories, branks (a padlocked iron helmet that forced an iron plate into the mouth of a convicted liar or blasphemer), ducking-stools, banishment, and, in the case of witches or those possessed by the devil, burning at the stake.

The faithful received one single compensation for this harsh authoritarian regime, and it was a powerful one: direct access to God. The right of communion, receiving the body and blood of Christ in the form of wine and bread, now belonged to everyone, rich and poor, young and old, men and women. In the Catholic Church, the Bible had been literally a closed book. Now anyone who could read, or listen to someone else read, could absorb the Word of God. On Sundays the church rafters rang with the singing of psalms and recitations from the Gospel. The Lord's Supper became a community festival, with quantities, sometimes plentiful, of red wine and shortcake (John Knox presided over one Sunday communion where the congregation consumed eight and a half gallons of claret).

The congregation was the center of everything. It elected its own board of elders or presbyters; it even chose its minister. The congregation's board of elders, the consistory, cared for the poor and the sick; it fed and clothed the community's orphans. Girls who were too poor to have a dowry to tempt a prospective husband got one from the consistory. It was more than just fear of the ducking-stool or the stake that bound the Kirk together. It was a community united by its commitment to God and its sense of chosenness. "God loveth us," John Knox had written, "because we are His own handiwork."

To a large extent Knox's mission to create the New Jerusalem in Scotland succeeded. The Reformation laid down strong roots in the Scottish Lowlands, that belt of fertile land and river valleys running from the Firth of Clyde and Glasgow in the extreme west to just north of Carlisle and Hadrian's Wall across to Edinburgh and Berwick-on-Tweed in the east. North of this in the beautiful but barren and sparsely populated Highlands, its record was more spotty. But in all the areas that came under his influence, the Kirk created a new society in the image of Knox's utopian ideal. It had turned its back not only on Scotland's past, but on all purely secular values, no matter what the source. Knox made his view clear in one of his last letters before he died in November 1572. "All worldlie strength, yea even in things spiritual, decays, and yet shall never the work of God decay."

One of those pillars of "worldlie strength" that Knox despised was political authority, or more precisely the power of monarchs. Perhaps because Knox's closest allies were Scottish nobles who wanted to see the Scottish monarchy tamed, or because nearly every monarch he dealt with was either a child or a woman (the boy king Edward VI of England, Mary Queen of Scots, the Scottish Regent Mary of Guise, and English queens Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I), he treated them all with impatience and contempt. Yet neither Mary of Guise nor Mary Queen of Scots could do without him. Even though they were Catholics, Knox represented a spiritual authority they needed to legitimize their own. When Queen Mary announced her plans to marry her worthless cousin Lord Darnley, Knox gave her such a fierce public scolding that she burst into tears in full view of her court. She made the mistake of marrying Darnley anyway, and set in motion the series of scandals that would finally push her off the throne. By 1570, Knox recognized that Mary no longer had any part to play in making the New Jerusalem and he swept her aside, like a useless piece from the game board. Her infant son James VI was installed in her place, with George Buchanan, Scotland's leading humanist, as his tutor, so that the boy could be raised in the Presbyterian faith.

Knox and Buchanan believed that political power was ordained by God, but that that power was vested not in kings or in nobles or even in the clergy, but in the people. The Presbyterian covenant with God required them to defend that power against any interloper. Punishing idolatry and destroying tyranny was a sacred duty laid by God on "the whole body of the people," Knox wrote, "and of every man in his vocation."

Here was a vision of politics unlike any other at the time. George Buchanan turned it into a full-fledged doctrine of popular sovereignty, the first in Europe. Buchanan came from Stirlingshire in central Scotland, at a time when it was still much like the Highlands in its culture and character — in fact, Buchanan grew up speaking both Gaelic and Scots. He studied at the University of St. Andrews and then at the University of Paris alongside other future giants of the Reformation such as John Calvin and Ignatius Loyola, the later founder of the Jesuits. As a Greek and Latin scholar, Buchanan had few peers. But he was also a founding father of Scottish Presbyterianism: he served as Moderator of the Kirk's General Assembly — the only layman ever to do so — and helped write the Kirk's First Book of Discipline. His greatest achievement, however, was his book on the nature of political authority, titled The Law of Government Among the Scots, published in 1579.

In it Buchanan asserted that all political authority ultimately belonged to the people, who came together to elect someone, whether a king or a body of magistrates, to manage their affairs. The people were always more powerful than the rulers they created; they were free to remove them at will. "The people," he explained, "have the right to confer the royal authority upon whomever they wish." This is the sort of view we are used to ascribing to John Locke; in fact, it belongs to a Presbyterian Scot from Stirlingshire writing more than a hundred years earlier. And Buchanan went further. When the ruler or rulers failed to act in the people's interest, Buchanan wrote, then each and every citizen, even "the lowest and meanest of men," had the sacred right and duty to resist that tyrant, even to the point of killing him.

Here was a powerful formula for democracy: government of the people and for the people. In the crude circumstances of the late sixteenth century, however, it was also an invitation to anarchy. That was what Scotland got for nearly two decades after Knox's death, until Mary's son, James VI, overturned his old tutor's theories and reasserted the power of the monarchy. The dream of the people as sovereign died. But it would leave its trace within the church itself, in the system of synods peculiar to every parish and province in Scotland. It was the single most democratic system of church government in Europe. Even the minister was chosen by the congregation's consistory of elected elders, instead of by some powerful aristocrat or laird. The elders also sent deputations to their local synod, who in turn sent representatives to the Kirk's General Assembly. This meant that the members of the Kirk's governing body really were representatives of the people, in addition to being enforcers of godly discipline and propagators of the Word of God.

Not surprisingly, a self-governing Kirk coexisted uneasily with monarchs such as the Stuarts, who claimed to rule by divine right. To the Presbyterian, it was still God and His people, not kings, who ruled. Preacher Andrew Melville once even told James VI that Scotland was two realms, not one, and that James as king of the first was also a subject of the second, which belonged to Jesus Christ. During his almost fifty-year reign, James VI (who after the death of Elizabeth Tudor in 1603 also became King James I of England) had the good sense not to force the issue. His son Charles I did not. When Charles finally did try to break the Presbyterian Church to his will, including forcing it to accept the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in its church services, he set off this explosive democratic mixture.

On Sunday, July 23, 1637, the dean of St. Giles in Edinburgh opened his morning service with the new royal prayer book, as King Charles had ordered. As soon as he started, women in the congregation began to shout insults; others threw stools and with loud protests stormed out of the church. The riots that followed over the next several months forced the Bishop of Edinburgh to flee for his life. Inspired by the resistance, ministers, nobles, and ordinary citizens gathered on the last week of February of 1638 to sign a National Convenant.

The National Covenant was more than just a petition or a declaration of faith. It was the Presbyterian version of democracy in action. In the name of true religion, it challenged the king's prerogative to make law without consent, and affirmed that the Scottish people would oppose any change not approved by a free General Assembly and Parliament. Those who signed swore to uphold the faith John Knox had founded, and that "we shall defend the same . . . to the utmost of that power that God hath put into our hands, all the days of our lives."

Bands of signatories carried copies from Edinburgh to neighboring towns and then the rest of the country. Thousands flocked to sign, both men and women, young and old, rich and poor. Ministers led their congregations to sign en masse. "I have seen more than a thousand all at once lifting up their hands," wrote one, "and the tears falling down from their eyes." In the southwest, some were said to have signed the Covenant in their own blood.

By the end of May, the only parts of Scotland that had not signed were the remote western Highlands, the islands north of Argyll, and the shires of Aberdeen and Banff, where the king's most resolute aristocratic supporters, the Gordons, held the balance of political power. The covenanting drive even spread to the Scottish settlements in Ulster, where hundreds signed despite the desperate efforts of royal officials to stop them.

In November the General Assembly in Glasgow declared war on "the kingdom of Satan and Antichrist," meaning Charles and his bishops. The Scots had forced on Charles a war he neither wanted nor could afford. Thousands of volunteers flocked into the Covenanters' army, armed in many cases with little more than hoes and scythes. Yet they managed to best Charles's invading mercenaries and compelled him to sue for peace. The Bishops' War (there were actually two, the second following a brief truce that ended the first) revealed the flimsiness of Stuart rule, and encouraged the Parliament in London to defy Charles in turn. A civil war ensued, which culminated in the king's execution in 1649 and the emergence of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. The English Civil War would destroy forever the facade of absolute monarchy in Britain. A new political ideal, that of government with the consent of the governed, had arrived. But it took its original impulse from the Scottish Covenanters.

Meet the Author

ARTHUR HERMAN, author of The Idea of Decline in Western History and Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator, received his doctorate in history at Johns Hopkins University. He is the coordinator of the Western Heritage Program at the Smithsonian Institution, an associate professor of history at George Mason University, and a consulting historical editor for Time-Life Books. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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How the Scots Invented the Modern World 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
labboyer More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and was fascinated by the history presented by the author. It was truly eye-opening to read about the role religion and education played not only in Scotland but by influencing thought, business and art endeavors around the globe. My copy of this book is now well worn with underlined passages on nearly every page. Though a collection of historical facts, the author does a wonderful job of making it read almost as easily as a fictional novel. I highly recommend this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
MUNRO THIS IS AN INTERESTING BOOK -not always accurate on Gaelic issues and Celtic influence in the South -he seems never to have heard of the Irish Gael for example and claims things I think are not true or unsubtantiated for example that the Scots built the first log cabins in America. Almost certainly not true. Cabin is in English word -not a native Gaelic word as he seems to imply introduced by the Normans to Britain and the Swedish-Finns of Delaware. His origin of Cracker is correct (Cnacair or Cracair means bon vivant or talker, conversationalist in Gaelic and the lowland Scots word is "cracker") but I never heard of "redneck" meaning lowland evangelical Presbyterian. This was a southern/western expression as far as I know but I would have to check his sources. One small defect of this work is that he (HERMAN) accepts all his sources as authorities. He seemed not to know that some of his authors WERE CHAUVINISTS (SCOTTISH OR SOUTHERN) or even Socialist or pro-Communist (and not always reliable). And of course like many American historicans his great weakness is his lack of non-English language sources and his total reliance on others for commentary on non-English sources. But unlike other books his is aware of religious diversity in Scotland (the existence of Episcoplians and Roman Catholics he mentions Arthur Conan Doyle but not Compton MacKenzie or A.J. Cronin. who were much more devout Scottish Catholics- neither does he mention the Jews who were there in the shadows and helped make Scotland a religiously plural country not totally unlike the USA). He is also fair to the Gaels(he has read some classic and up to date works on them) but very ignorant of Gaeldom's cultural influence in the Common Sense philosophy, religion and music not to mention the Scots langauge (or dialect). What he says about Burns is reasonably accurate but it is clear he underestimates his importance as a causeway of so many enlightenment ideas not to mention Adam Fergusson's ideas. Burns is 100 times more important for Scots than David Hume who was never a popular figure and always controversial. Burns, however, is the brighest star by far and still intensely studied and admired and quoted by ordinary Scots...once again 100 times more than David Hume. Perhaps Hume was more original but Burns burned with passion a la Fergusson and it is Burns who is responsibile for Scott and the rehabiliation of Wallace. Nonetheless this is a worthy book and tells us much of ADAM SMITH, FRANCIS HUTCHESON, ADAM FERGUSSON, DAVID HUME and THE REV John Witherspoon among others and their ideas their cosmopolitan ideas. The main thesis of this book is not CHAUVINISM but the power of ideas and the cosmopolitan pragmatism of Scots that led to their high achievment. Nuture (education) not racial superiority is the message. In otherwords non Scots (even the Irish) can emulate Scots. The Japanese did.!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author takes on the dauting task of exploring the impact of one culture on the rest of the world over several centuries. He carries out the probject with ease. This reads more like a novel than a history book. The scope is epic, and the writing style fluid.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The title of this book would probably spark interest in those whose main diet is pop literature however, it is so much deeper than that and a great starting point to look deeper into the philosphers who shaped the values of the West - which are currently under seige. This is a book for those fascinated by political philisophy, and primarily for those who are to some degree classical liberals. Otherwords, if you a Marxist or if your eyes glaze over whenever politics is discussed at a party, you probably won't find this book that delightful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Incredible account of the Scottish Enlightenment and its influence on the world we know today. A little dry at times but well worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman is on the story of the Scottish influence on the development of modern society. This book is for those who are looking are into Scottish history because this book is very informative on that subject. This book is worth the read if you can see past the flaws. The author of this book, Arthur Herman, has a doctorate in history so he is quite knowledgeable. The Scots were major influences in many aspects of modern society. Many Scottish philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Thomas Reid gained famed and attracted many followers. Doctors, such as William and John Hunter, revolutionized the medicine was practiced. Influential writers, like Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, were Scots. Scots were also influential in other fields as well. This book is very well-written but it is not without flaws. The writing is very detailed and that may or may not be a good thing. The detail sometimes makes the writing a little bit dry. There is an entire chapter devoted to the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and I don't really see how it pertains to the topic of the book. It would be smart to keep a dictionary handy while reading this book because some of the vocabulary gets kind of difficult. In spite of the flaws, this book is not a waste of your time. This book shows how much a single society can influence the whole world. Without their influence the world would be a darker place. I would recommend this book if you would like to learn something new and are interested in Scottish history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A very good book that helps the reader understand the Scottish Enlightenment and how far its influence spread. There are some exaggerations and some stretches in the book, but taken as a whole, I thought the book was a good read.
Anonymous 12 months ago
If you're Scottish read it! Heck, if you're not...read it too!
ANONYMOUS3333 More than 1 year ago
loftismk More than 1 year ago
Any one who loves the foibles of history will love this book! Even more so if you have Scotish Descent. Excellent reading!!!
MrsMcIntosh More than 1 year ago
Well-written and semi-easy to read. You can't just jump into the middle of it but you can follow along well enough if you start from the beginning. Many, many names and references popup that you won't have any idea about if you just jump around. 
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Not the easiest read. Some chapters I had to read 2-3 times to appreciate the contents, but, it was well worth the effort! Amazing, insightful and very well researched.....would recommend it to anyone who loves history or just learning!
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Brunel More than 1 year ago
..everything is seems. From modern economics, religious tolerance, the 'invention' of science - the list goes on. Even from an English perspective (albeit with Scottish ancestry) it's an impressive and informative read. Not as absorbing as his book about the Royal Navy, but excellent none the less.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
storyloverMA More than 1 year ago
This book didn't grab my attention at the start. The first dozen pages seemed to have a lot of unnecessary detail. I may try it again.