ALTHOUGH Sorley MacLean was once proposed, a Scot is yet to scoop the Nobel Prize for Literature. That’s no source of shame; Scotland can boast no less than seventeen laureates, in every other category.

Sir Ronald Ross was the first, winning the prize for medicine in 1902 for his work on malaria, and Richard Henderson the most recent, winning the chemistry prize in 2017 for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.

Towering intellects of history-shaping consequence each and every one of them, but not all household names like Sir Alexander Fleming, the penicillin pioneer who won the 1945 prize in medicine, or Professor Peter Higgs of “God particle” fame.

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It is an incredible legacy which, frankly, Scotland has been terrible at acknowledging. Talk of “inspiring future generations” can be a bit glib and meaningless. That is, of course, unless you actively make something of it. Few countries are better placed than our own to inspire that ambition.

Without Scotland there may have been no Nobel Prize at all. The Swedish tycoon Alfred Nobel made his fortune through innovation, patenting dynamite in 1867 at the peak of the industrial age. He came to Britain to canvass support among businessmen who might back his plans to establish a factory. Despite a vigorous public relations campaign in England, Nobel’s ambitions were thwarted by a combination of bureaucracy and outright hostility. He turned to Scotland, where John Downie, the general manager of the Fairfield Engineering and Shipbuilding Company, brokered investment from a number of adventurous Glasgow entrepreneurs.

And so in 1871 the British Dynamite Company was founded, and soon identified Ardeer in Ayrshire as a suitable site to build their factory. Nobel then bought into the company at Westquarter near Falkirk which supplied acid for the nitration process. In the late 1870s the company became Nobel’s Explosives Company and the businessman even bought a Scottish home in nearby Laurieston.

By the time of Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896, the company had become the world’s largest exporter of explosives. By 1907, Ardeer was the largest explosives factory on earth. The vast wealth accrued by Nobel in Scotland, and worldwide, totalled some $250 million at the time of his death. However, his last will and testament raised eyebrows among his peers, and hackles among his family. He dictated that the lion’s share of his estate should be used to endow “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. It was an unexpected revelation, and it remains unclear what prompted Nobel’s benevolence. Some have speculated on the guilty conscience of an explosives tycoon.

In 1888, Alfred’s older brother Ludvig died. An unforgiving French newspaper headline of the time read “le marchand de la mort est mort” – the merchant of death is dead. However apocryphal, this case of mistaken identity become the prevailing rationale behind what affected Nobel to make provision for a more honourable legacy.

It’s a real “made in Scotland” story. So how to celebrate our Nobel Scots? In the pantheon of our Scottish National Portrait Gallery, there are works of Sir James Black (Medicine 1988), Sir James Mirrlees (Economics 1996) and a bust of Alexander Fleming.

Our National Museum in Edinburgh already holds the Nobel medals of Alexander Fleming, James Black and John Boyd Orr. James Mirrlees’s medal will join this collection soon. A visitor, however, will find them scattered over several floors. No coordinated story to tell, and an opportunity missed to make a real impact in highlighting the achievements in a more engaging way.

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What little formal recognition there is has tended to have been achieved by hobbyists and enthusiasts, such as Dr David Hannay who took the initiative last year to contact Patricia Mirrlees, Sir James’s widow, about placing a blue plaque on the cottage in Minnigaff, Wigtownshire where the economics laureate was born.

I had the great privilege to meet Sir James Mirrlees through his membership of the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers. I was asked to play the pipes at his 80th birthday celebrations in Trinity College, Cambridge in 2016. The scale of the guestlist was vast in itself, but the accomplishments of the attendees far more so. What was strikingly apparent was Jim’s capacity for sharing and giving of his talents: his many students at this huge gathering went on to become globally eminent academics and policymakers in their own right, and their students thereafter. His own legacy fits well within the generous traditions of the Nobel prize.

While shouting about our nation’s considerable achievements is a start, Scotland’s Nobel success is current. There were four Scots among the 2016 prize list alone, and we are lucky to have six living laureates, willing and able to give their time and talents to educate and inspire. A coordinated programme of talks, lectures and workshops in schools, colleges and universities could be incredibly powerful.

Let’s not miss a golden opportunity. Scotland is where the Nobel story began, 150 years ago next year. 2021 also marks the 120th anniversary of the Nobel Prize; a double anniversary we should celebrate in a big way. Scotland could mosey on in the hope that we might produce a few more Nobel Scots down the line.

After Black won the 1988 Nobel Prize he was asked whether his own huge accomplishment in discovering beta blockers was down to luck. He retorted, “it was not luck, it was bloody hard work”.

So let’s not squander the chance to turn our historic and current Nobel achievements into future success. Let’s put in some bloody hard work to achieve it.