A Hotbed of Genius: An Introduction to the Scottish Enlightenment

by Craig Smith, University of Glasgow

The Scottish Enlightenment was a period of remarkable intellectual and artistic achievement that occurred during the middle years of the eighteenth century (roughly 1740-1790). 
In some respects it is surprising that there was such a surge of intellectual achievement in what many considered to be a comparatively poor, isolated, and conflict blighted part of Europe. But the combination of favourable historical circumstances, together with a generation of remarkable minds, placed Scotland at the forefront of the European Enlightenment.

Following the Union of Parliaments with England in 1707 and the defeat of the final attempt to return the Stuart Kings in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46, Scotland experienced a long period of relative civil and political security as part of the new state of Great Britain. This stability and access to new markets gradually produced unprecedented economic growth, particularly in the linen, glass and tobacco industries. Tobacco ‘Lords’ such as William Cunninghame, Alexander Spiers, and John Glassford quickly came to dominate the importation of tobacco from Virginia into Europe and developed an advanced banking and investment system to diversify their holdings into new industries. The beginnings of industrial growth led to growing urbanisation with Glasgow‘s population growing from 13,000 in 1707 to 77,000 in 1801, to over 200,000 by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Scotland was transformed in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and the Enlightened Scots, with their commitment to ‘improvement’ self-consciously took the lead in modernising their country. The European enlightenment took on a distinctly Scottish hue as its central ideas of reas,on, science and freedom were interpreted in the circumstances of a rapidly changing Scotland. Scotland had a well-developed system of local schools and could boast five universities and this, combined with ready career paths in the Church, law and business, created a space in which a remarkable outpouring of intellectual achievement took place. All of Scotland’s main cities, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen boasted groups of what came to be called literati or men of letters. An intellectual atmosphere developed which centred on a collection of discussion clubs including The Select Society, the Poker Club, the Oyster Club, the Aberdeen Wise club, and the Glasgow Literary Society. Clubs like the Edinburgh Society for Encouraging Arts, Sciences, Manufactures, and Agriculture (1754), which later became the Royal Society of Edinburgh, were set up with the deliberate goal of applying knowledge to practical improvement. Eighteenth century Scotland was a practical laboratory for social experimentation.

These groups heard the latest academic papers and discussed subjects ranging across the sciences, arts and philosophy. The latest ideas from England and Europe were absorbed and debated along with the latest Scottish ideas: a particular interest was shown in the discoveries of modern science and in their application in an economic and agricultural setting. Sir Isaac Newton was a particular influence on Scottish thinking at this time. Colin Maclaurin (1698-1746) introduced and helped to popularise Newtonian science in the Scottish universities, ensuring that the main generation of the Scottish Enlightenment were familiar with cutting edge thinking in natural philosophy. The Scottish universities were at the forefront of reforms to teaching and curriculum content in the eighteenth century. The creation of dedicated professorial chairs based around subjects ensured that the students were taught by specialists in each field. But the overall university curriculum was generalist with students studying Latin, Greek, Natural Philosophy (what we call science today) and Moral Philosophy.

Adam Smith (1723-90) was at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment: he was a product of its education system, he was friends with all of the main players, a member of the main debating clubs, and a professor at Glasgow during the high-point of the movement. Smith, together with his close friend the philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776), stood in the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment, but around them ranged an impressive collection of gifted thinkers.

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), The Irish born professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow is sometimes referred to as the ‘father’ of the Scottish Enlightenment as he was slightly older than the others. He taught Adam Smith, and his ‘moral sense’ theory proved highly influential on Hume’s philosophical development. Hutcheson set the mould for the style of philosophical education that became the backbone of the Scottish universities during the Enlightenment. Moral philosophy covered what we now think of as ethics, jurisprudence, aesthetics, politics, sociology and philosophy of religion. Hutcheson was a particularly effective lecturer whose intention was not just to provide information on the latest theories to his students, but also to prepare them to be virtuous citizens and good Christians. Hutcheson’s influence is perhaps matched by that of Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782). Kames was a senior judge, a philosopher and legal theorist who also produced works on literary criticism and history. A central figure in the clubs and societies of Edinburgh, his reputation for sarcasm belied a deep affection for his fellow literati and he acted as a patron to the younger members of the group. Kames arranged for Adam Smith’s first public lectures delivered in Edinburgh in the late 1740s. Like most of these Scots, Kames was a polymath in his interests and also produced a book on scientific agriculture. The Gentleman Farmer was intended to be a useful guide based on his own experiments on his estate at Blair Drummond.

Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) The long serving Professor of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh was the only member of the group born in the Highlands. His An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) was a classic of early sociology and traced the development of society from savage to civilized eras. The Enlightened Scots gathered around Glasgow and Edinburgh could see the beginnings of urban and modern agricultural society, but they could also look north to the Highlands and see a much older form of clan based subsistence agriculture. The difference fascinated them and posed the question of how the Highlands might be ‘improved’. Ferguson displays a preoccupation with the descriptions of different types of society that were being collected by explorers that became characteristic of the Scottish Enlightenment. The Scots became interested in social diversity and wanted to explain it scientifically by producing ‘natural’ or ‘conjectural’ histories of humanity. This became the characteristic method of the Scots’ social theory, as they attempted to explain how a universal human nature adapted to different circumstances to produce diverse social institutions. Another practitioner of the method was John Millar (1735-1801). A student of Adam Smith and later Professor of Civil Law at Glasgow, Millar’s Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1771) is a classic of Scottish Enlightenment social theory and applies the ‘four stage’ theory he learned from Smith. This involved distinguishing between different stages of society depending on the main mode of subsistence: hunting, shepherding, agricultural and commercial. This framework then allowed Millar to generalise about how the types of institution found in each type of society are affected by the basic economic structure.

Thomas Reid (1710-1796) was a Professor of Moral Philosophy first at Aberdeen then, succeeding Smith, at Glasgow. Reid was the founder of the influential ‘common sense’ school of philosophy and a critic of Hume and Smith. He was worried that the philosophical scepticism apparent in Hume’s writings went too far and threatened to undermine our trust in our perceptions of the external world. Reid, like Ferguson, was also a Minister of the Church of Scotland (the Kirk) and his concern about Hume’s scepticism extended to the impact it would have on religious belief. With the exception of Hume, and possibly Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment was markedly less anti-clerical than the French Enlightenment. Hugh Blair (1718-1800), another member of the literati, was perhaps the most influential clergyman in Scotland. As Minister of the High Kirk of St Giles on Edinburgh’s High Street for forty years, Blair developed a reputation as gifted preacher. He also had a parallel academic career as the first Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Edinburgh University, a position which is often held to be the first chair in English Literature. Also closely associated with the Kirk was William Robertson (1721-1793). Robertson was perhaps the central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a bestselling author of histories of Scotland, America and Europe. He was a Professor and later the Principal of Edinburgh University, the leader of the Moderate (enlightened) faction in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Moderator of the Kirk, and Historiographer Royal for Scotland. The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment were leading figures of the establishment in eighteenth century Scotland. With the support of powerful political patrons such as the Duke of Argyll, they were able to advance the interest of their Moderate faction within the Kirk and the Universities. Under Robertson’s leadership the literati were able to protect Hume from persecution by the ‘popular’ or evangelical faction who distrusted his scepticism and supposed atheism.

All of these thinkers built their reputation in history and philosophy, with David Hume referring to the eighteenth century as the historical age of the historical nation. But the Scottish interest in history was not mere antiquarianism. They were devoted to the empirical method that they learned from Newton and wanted to use the evidence of history as an empirical basis for their own theories about society. The Scottish Enlightenment is characterised by a desire to bring science to bear in support of social improvement.

The Scottish Enlightenment also included leading figures in the natural sciences. Smith’s friend and executor Joseph Black (1728-1799) was a professor at Glasgow and Edinburgh. Black was one of the eighteenth century’s greatest chemists, isolating carbon dioxide and conducting path breaking experiments on latent heat. His friend James Hutton (1726-97) studied chemistry and medicine at Edinburgh and made a fortune by perfecting the production of ammonium chloride. He began to tour Scotland observing rock formations and in 1795 produced his Theory of the Earth, the first modern account of geology. Black also practised as a physician, and Scotland became famous for producing some of the leading medical men of the eighteenth century. John Gregory (1724-1773) was a pioneering professor of medicine at Aberdeen then Edinburgh, and William Cullen (1710-1790), Professor of Medicine at Glasgow and then Edinburgh was hugely influential in the development of modern medical education. He also conducted experiments that led to the discovery of artificial refrigeration. The brothers John (1728-1793) and William Hunter (1718-1783) were pioneers of modern surgery, dentistry, obstetrics, and anatomy. William was also an avid collector who left his holdings to form the basis of the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. The Scottish Enlightenment also included a number of pioneering engineers. James Watt (1736-1819) worked as instrument maker at the University of Glasgow. While there he developed the separate condenser for the steam engine, an innovation that paved the way for the industrial use of steam. Thomas Telford (1757-1834) was the leading civil engineer of his day and his Caledonian Canal help to bisect the Highlands of Scotland and together with the Forth and Clyde canal opened up water transport in the Scottish mainland.

If there is a physical symbol of the Scottish Enlightenment it is probably the New Town of Edinburgh, whose Georgian elegance stands in contrast to the medieval old town. The architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) was a childhood friend of Adam Smith and his Palladin style and neo-classicism dominated the profession at the time. In the world of the arts the portraitist Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) painted many of the central figures of the period, while the cartoonist and caricaturist John Kay (1742-1826) provided amusing sketches of Edinburgh life. In literature we find the novelists Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) and Henry MacKenzie (1745-1831), and the poets Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) and Robert Burns (1759-1796).

The Scottish Enlightenment was a part of the wider European enlightenment with most of the main figures spending time on the continent and regularly meeting and corresponding with the literati and philosophers of other countries. The Scots gained admiration from the likes of Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke and Benjamin Franklin, all of whom acknowledged the role of the Scottish Enlightenment in the intellectual leadership of Europe. As Tobias Smollett observed, the Scottish Enlightenment was a ‘hot-bed of genius’.