Scottish Enlightenment

The ‘long century’ from (1685-1815) when Scotland was part of, and, at times, at the forefront, of European and worldwide intellectual and scientific debate and discovery has had a huge impact upon Scottish society.

It is possibly too easy to simply list the names and achievements of those who lived during Scottish Enlightenment, which saw Scots take a leading role in fields including Economics (Adam Smith); Engineering (James Watt); Geology (James Hutton); Architecture (Robert Adam); Sociology (Adam Ferguson and John Millar); Chemistry (Joseph Black); and Philosophy (David Hume, Thomas Reid and Francis Hutcheson).

Certainly the above list represents an amazing collection of people who were products of a cultural infrastructure that shaped and enabled a huge range of achievements.

However, from my own research I would like to identify the features of Scottish society at that time that enabled and promoted such radical and productive thinking.

To my mind these inter-connected features were:

Education: Exceptionally well educated compared to other countries; Average age of university students was 15; Parish school system promoted literacy; Encyclopedia Britannica – subversive by allowing the wider public access to knowledge.

Social Mix: University fees a tenth of Oxford University; Half the students at Glasgow University were from artisan or agricultural families; Education not solely the preserve of the nobility.

Dialogue: Civilised discourse was encouraged through the establishment of clubs; disagreement sparked and generated a momentum for new ideas.

Migration: Scots travelled the world taking their ideas with them and informing developing societies and their institutions in the Americas and Southern hemisphere, which found their way back to Scotland.

European connections: 12 Scottish Rectors of the University of Paris by the time the enlightenment commenced; Scots more likely to be educated in Europe than England; Scottish thought influencing the European intellectual agenda.

As a product of that society the following inter-connected characteristics emerged that can still be observed in Scottish society:

Challenging the Status Quo: Why should we do it this way? A willingness to find alternative ways of thinking and doing things that paved the way for, revolts of all kinds through their theories and practical inventions, from the agrarian and industrial revolutions, which, in turn, shaped modern society.

Scepticism about authority: Who says we must think this way? Escaping from the clamp on ideas by the Church; Refusing to accept opinion simply because it came from someone in a position of power or authority.

Evidence led: Where is the proof? Predating our current obsession with ‘big data’ David Hume led the way through his promotion of empiricism, e. if you can’t observe it cannot be true, (which led to him being wrongly accused as an atheist) but informed a remarkable scientific flourishing in Scottish society.

Common Sense: Human beings innately know what constitutes right and wrong? Rebuttal to Hume’s scepticism; Thomas Reid at Aberdeen University set in motion an alternative to Hume’s ideas which spread to France and America.

Personal liberty: What should I be entitled to do as a citizen? “Self-evident” rights, one of the first principles of US political and legal thought can be traced back to Thomas Reid who influenced James Wilson, one of the six original justices of the Supreme Court of the United States; The International human rights act can be traced back to some of the thinking emanating from the Scottish enlightenment.

The legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment surely runs to the very core of what we think it is to be Scottish:

our willingness to challenge the status quo;
our scepticism of authority;
our to commitment to debate and discussion;
our passion for education;
our scientific mindset;
our common sense; and finally, surely one of our most defining characteristics,
our passion for human liberty and freedom.
Finally, it could be argued that the connection between Scotland and Europe is a huge factor in our cultural and intellectual heritage and one that we should be wary of discarding as a consequence of a referendum that is driven by short term issues and political expediency.