Scotlands History\|Scottish Enlightenment

Introduction by Professor Tom Devine

Painting of Parliament Close, bustling with figures from the 18th century

What made the Scottish Enlightenment possible?

It’s a real puzzle - because if you look at the period before the Enlightenment, Scotland was a poor country. They even executed witches a few decades before the Enlightenment - the Ministers of the Church were not very tolerant. So how come a country like that produces one of the greatest cultural developments in 18th century Europe? 

There are two or three things I would draw attention to. The first is, for many centuries Scotland’s scholars had links with Europe - they had gone to European universities really from the 13th century onwards and they were plugged into the ideas developing in those institutions. 

Some of those ideas percolated through to the Scottish universities in this period. I will just give you one example: the great Edinburgh University medical school which was world famous in the 18th century - it really started as a consequence of its founders having gone to university in Holland which was previously the most advanced centre.

The second thing is that after the Reformation, the Reformers decided to establish a school in every parish.  They wanted in particular to allow people to read the Bible. In order for that to happen, they had to develop certain skills - particularly reading skills. It didn’t happen immediately but by about a century, a century and a half after the Reformation which took place in the 1560-1570’s, most parishes, particularly in Lowlands Scotland, had a school and that meant that there was a general respect for learning in this society.

We know that almost all children went to school in those areas for about three, four, five years. The average was about between seven, nine, nine and a half, ten at least for part of the year and you’ve got to remember this was not compulsory and it wasn’t free. This eventually fed into a society which was comfortable with matters of the mind, which in a sense what the Enlightenment was all about.

During the period of the Enlightenment a lot of the old barriers to cultural development begin to collapse. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which had previously been fanatically opposed to new ideas, begins to become more tolerant. At the same time you have the Union of 1707 so Scottish politics disappears south of the border with two parliaments becoming one - so by the mid-18th century there really is little in the way of passion in Scottish politics, especially after the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746.

That meant that the Scottish thinkers, the scholars, the intellectuals, they didn’t have to take political sides - they were able to discuss freely and of course I emphasise the word freely because in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, where the Enlightenment was really centred, it was a very social Enlightenment and it was lubricated by alcohol. The discussions took place in taverns. There were literally dozens of clubs, so a lot of these things were shared over the dinner table or over a glass of wine. It was a wonderfully civilised and sociable atmosphere. You could have an argument between two of the major figures but afterwards they would still remain friends. That is one of the things we need to re-learn!

The final thing I would draw attention to is the revolution which occurred in the same period in the Scottish universities. There had been three universities before the Reformation; by the time of the Enlightenment there were five: two in Aberdeen - Kings College and Marshall College - one in Edinburgh, one in St Andrew’s and one in Glasgow. At the time England only had two. The Scots used to boast about this - Aberdeen City had as many universities as the whole of England combined!

They were probably, up to the end of the 17th century, competent institutions, but by no means world class but in the 18th century they are revolutionised; they are changed fundamentally. They start to lecture in English - previously it had been in Latin. They start to establish specialist teaching. It’s amazing to think that in the old Scottish universities, one man would take the students through all parts of the curriculum, but when you get into the 18th century, it’s the beginning of what we now call the Professor - somebody who is a specialist and has a research interest in a particular area.

The other thing about these universities is that they’re incredibly open to ideas from all over the world, particularly Europe and England and the university teachers in them associate with the town. Adam Smith’s great work, ‘The Wealth of Nations’ is littered with references to the conversations he had with Glasgow merchants. It comes back to this aspect of sociability again and since the economy of Scotland was developing in the 18th century some of these urban centres were thriving - Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh - and it is interesting that the one university which made little impact on the Enlightenment was the university that was in a town that was developing, St Andrew’s.

All these things come together in a mix that helps to produce the Scottish Enlightenment.

It was part of a general European flowering of the world of the mind but what marks it out the Scottish Enlightenment was its range – there is everything from history to geology, philosophy to medicine, and architecture to poetry - this is also the age of Burns. The Scottish Enlightenment would have a great impact - particularly on the empire across the Atlantic, as Scottish thought was taken to America by Scottish immigrants.


Professor Tom Devine

Professor Tom Devine is Head of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, Director of the Scottish Centre of Diaspora Studies, and Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography. He is the only historian elected to all three national academies within the British Isles.

Tom is a prolific writer. He has published over 100 academic articles and 28 books including the bestselling ‘Scotland's Empire 1600-1815’ and ‘The Scottish Nation: 1700-2007’.