READERS of The National got a preview of the annual Sunday Times Rich List, in particular the Scottish section, which sets out for all who like to drool over these things how well the most successful among us are doing.

Scots account for 82 of the 1000 people on this year’s list, pretty well proportionate to our share of the UK population and of its gross domestic product. Still there are differences. Robert Watts, the compiler, commented: “Many Rich Listers are this year nursing big losses due to the uncertainty over Brexit, turbulence on the stock market and the enormous change sweeping through our high streets. But more than half of our Scottish Rich List have seen their fortunes rise over the past 12 months – that’s a higher proportion than other parts of the UK.”

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I would guess it may be because most Scots prefer to put their money into solid assets rather than financial speculations. But let’s take a closer look.

Top of the list are the “billionaire whisky tycoons”, the family of Glenn Gordon, who somewhat confusingly own William Grant & Co, manufacturers of Grant’s blends and of malts such as Glenfiddich and The Balvenie. With the enormous recent expansion of worldwide whisky sales they are now worth £2.9 billion. I dare say this sum sounds offensive to egalitarians, but would they rather see the money made by native Scots or by the mightier multinationals today owning dozens of distilleries, such as the Anglo-Irish company Diageo or the French outfit Pernod Ricard?

The second-richest Scot is Sir Ian Wood of Aberdeen, who rose from middling origins in the fishing industry to found the Wood Group, one of only a few Scottish companies to have made it big in North Sea oil. He is worth £1.8bn but, being a man of modest tastes, likes to give it away through a charitable foundation to anything from African tea farms to Highland primary schools.

The National: Sir Ian Wood of Aberdeen was listed as the second richest in Scotland. Photograph: Stewart AttwoodSir Ian Wood of Aberdeen was listed as the second richest in Scotland. Photograph: Stewart Attwood

Third place goes to Mohamed Al-Fayed, born in Egypt and with business interests too numerous to detail here, who has previously offered himself as the first president of independent Scotland, saying: “It’s time for you to waken up and detach yourselves from the English and their terrible politicians.”

He counts as a Scot in the Rich List because of his ownership of Balnagown, an estate of 65,000 acres in Easter Ross.

A second Arab on the list is Mahdi Al-Tajir who, from being an ambassador in London bought Keir House in Perthshire and now earns his money from the Highland Spring business nearby. This cosmopolitan list also includes a Glaswegian, John Shaw, and his Indian wife, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who run a “biotech behemoth” from Bangalore. She says: “We love Scotland, so we do try to make it a point to come there at least once a year.”

A more tenuous Scottish connection is that of the Norwegian pumps magnate Trond Mohn. He was born in Buckie in Moray because his parents had taken refuge there from the Nazi occupation of their homeland where, since their return after the Second World War, their son has spent the rest of his life. It is a bit of a mystery why he gets in and not the Dane Anders Povlsen, now actually the biggest landowner in Scotland and determinedly rewilding his estates.

Still, the remainder of the list is home-grown. We have the frugal DC Thomson family of Dundee, with its sturdy stable of prim publications and couthy characters. We have Philip Day, of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill Group. We have the Clark family of the late car dealership magnate Arnold Clark. And we have Jim Mellon, the wealthiest of all Edinburgh’s many wealthy financiers.

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I’ve set out this top 10 at length not to question the Rich List compilers’ judgment of who is a Scot, though it does seem a bit peculiar in some cases. But we live in a nation accustomed to forging worldwide connections, and we can put up with that.

More striking to my mind is how scarcely a single one among that top 10 owes his or her success to inherited wealth. I might make an exception of the Gordons, because their whisky business dates back to 1887 – but they are in origin typical Scots Victorian entrepreneurs, and their blood is hardly blue. Otherwise, every man or woman standing alongside them at the top of the list is self-made, having earned their assets for themselves.

This points to a new state of our society. If we go back to the original Rich List, published in 1982, we find that the wealthiest person in the UK at that time was the Queen. And a large number of her fellow billionaires were of noble lineage, with wealth represented by stately homes, works of art and rolling acres.

In Scotland today, by comparison, the Duke of Sutherland comes in at number 17 on the list, the Duke of Buccleuch at 55, the Marquis of Bute at 65, the Duke of Roxburghe at 71 and the Earl of Rosebery at 81. In these rankings they rub shoulders with Paddy Burns and Chris van der Kuyl, the video games whizzkids, Susie Wolff, the former racing driver, Gareth Williams, the founder of Skyscanner, and Calvin Harris, the pop entrepreneur.

Here are the surface markers of a social revolution going on underneath. A hereditary ruling caste has been replaced by a meritocracy. I make the point because it is a political argument often heard in Scotland today, not least from fellow columnists at The National, that this is a nation of pressing need and growing want, with a huge gap between its upper and its lower levels, and with a large part of the population eking out an existence in “absolute poverty”.

Kevin McKenna, for example, regularly paints a grim picture of a country held down under a self-perpetuating elite who share out all the highest positions and best jobs among themselves. How is that to be squared with the new reality of a society where, inside a generation, the ascendancy of the upper class has been almost entirely replaced by the ascendancy of a lower class, in other words, by people of different origins and attributes notable not for blood and breeding but for energy and enterprise?

If we rail in envy and resentment, against the pioneers of this new reality, then it seems to me we come close to condemning any kind of personal success or distinction, or indeed any effort to achieve it. It is one thing to condemn a social system – and while I support capitalism, I would never deny it has flaws and causes problems.

It is another thing to begrudge the fact that, in any conceivable system, there will always be people who do well out of it in different ways. A major part of the socialist tradition is to foster conformity, sycophancy, corruption. A major part of the capitalist tradition is to foster innovation, originality, genius. Readers may readily understand why I sorted out my own preference a long time ago, together with my hopes for Scotland’s independent future.