Scotland’s Enlightenment may have been due to the Union of 1707 when Scotland suddenly had no parliament or king to improve the country's education. OR this surge of philosophical thought was the success of the historic universities of St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, at a time when England only had two. Scotland’s Belle Époque began in the mid C18th and continued for a century. It marked a move from religion into reason: in politics, art, science, medicine, engineering and philosophy.
Thomas Reid (1710-96) studied philosophy in Aberdeen, then became a Presbyterian pastor. Long studies convinced Reid that scepticism was incompatible with common sense. Thus he rejected sceptical empiricism in favour of his own Philosophy of Common Sense.
David Hume (1711-76) spent most of his time considering subjects like morality, conscience, suicide and religion. This sceptic distrusted miracles and the supernatural; instead he focused on the potential of humanity and its inherent morality. This did not go down well ..as the majority of Scotland was very religious. Hume became as one of the famous philosophers writing in English, producing important works on human nature, religion, British history and politics.
His work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) claimed that the observational study of the science of man should be the basis of all other fields of study: religion, moral philosophy and politics. This was a radical and controversial proposition in Scotland. As one of the Edinburgh literati/intellectual elite, Hume was a founding members of the Select Society.
Rev Thomas Reid
by Henry Raeburn, 1795
Allan Ramsay (1713-84) was born in Edinburgh, the son of the poet and bookseller Allan Ramsay. He trained in Italy and London, where he established himself in 1738, and eventually became the leading British portrait painter of the mid-C18th. Among many others he painted David Hume and King George III. Ramsay initiated the very intellectual Select Society, along with David Hume, Adam Smith and James Burnett, Lord Monboddo.
Hugh Blair (1718-1800) was a leading figure in the Church of Scotland. He too was one of Edinburgh’s literati, an early member of the Select Society and early fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. As Professor of Rhetoric at the Edinburgh Uni from 1760, he held the first dedicated chair of English in any university.
Blair gave public lectures on English language and literary criticism, and he chaired a literary sub-society created by the Select Society. Blair wrote a preface to James MacPherson's Fragments of Ancient Poetry in 1760. In 1763, he published A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, establishing Blair's reputation as a literary critic.
Adam Smith (1723-90) was a philosopher and political economist from Kirkcaldy in Fife. He belonged to the literati élite of Edinburgh, and was friends with Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson, David Hume and other key figures. Smith was also a founding member of the Select Society. Two of Smith's works became key texts of the Enlightenment. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) was a critical examination of ethics, suggesting that morals arose from human sense and feeling, not from rational calculation. An Inquiry in to the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), aka The Wealth of Nations, advocated a free market unregulated by the state ie capitalism.
James Hutton (1726–97) was a geologist, physician, chemical manufacturer and experimental agriculturalist in Edinburgh. This Father of Modern Geology did work involving sophisticated chemical experiments and used science to theorise about the age of the earth’s rocks, upturning biblical “data”.
James Boswell (1740-95) was born into a wealthy family in Edinburgh. His father was a judge in the country’s highest courts, so he had his son sent to an exclusive academy. Boswell entered the University of Edinburgh in 1753, where he began his law studies and expanded his social horizons. Boswell did not seriously consider a literary life until his later years, in which he began writing verses and letters for publication in The Scots Magazine. He became a writer of political essays and travel accounts, and was famous as the biographer of Dr Samuel Johnston.
Robert Fergusson (1750-74) from Edinburgh was best known for his poetry. At St Andrews University, he loved studying English literary texts. In 1769, Fergusson returned to Edinburgh where he interacted with local singers, musicians and actors, and enjoyed theatre life. During this time he had poems published in Edinburgh magazines.
In 1773 Fergusson published a volume of his poems. He was a member of Edinburgh's Cape Club, but in late 1773 he fell ill and had to retire. Supported by the Cape Club, Fergusson died in 1774 at just 24. Edinburgh’s important publisher Thomas Ruddiman brought out further collections of Fergusson's poems post-death which eventually inspired Robert Burns.
Robert Burns (1759-96) was born in Ayr. His parents were tenant farmers who ensured their son was well educated and widely read. In under two years, Burns had spent most of the money he made from his published poetry, so in 1789 he began work as an Excise Officer in Dumfries. The hard work this new job entailed, combined with his dissolute lifestyle, began to harm Burns' health.
Burn’s radical political views influenced many of the poems that he wrote. Alexander Pope was his favourite English poet and Fergusson was his favourite Scottish poet. Some years after Fergusson's tragic death in 1774, Burns paid for a headstone and memorial inscription for his hero's grave. Burns in turn died tragically in 1796, at 37, and was buried with full honours.
The Scottish Enlightenment
by Alexander Broadie, 2001
You may like to read The Scottish Enlightenment and Literary Culture, edited by Ronnie Young et al, 2016.