History Explorer: The Scottish Enlightenment

As part of our series in which experts nominate British locations to illustrate historical topics, Alexander Broadie explains how Glasgow University inspired some of the 18th century’s most brilliant thinkers.

This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Glasgow University’s main building, a magnificent neo-Gothic edifice on top of a hill overlooking the city, dates from the middle of the 19th century. But parts of the building – in particular sections of its fine gateway, now known as Pearce Lodge, and the Lion and Unicorn stairway, next to the Memorial Chapel – can be traced back to the 17th century; the statues of the lion and unicorn that flank the stairway were created in 1690.

Both the stairway and the lodge form a visual link with the university’s glorious past. During the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, Glasgow’s was, in the fullest sense, an Enlightenment university, as indeed it still is.

The Enlightenment movement championed reason over tradition and was characterised by great scientific and intellectual achievements. It was a truly international phenomenon, yet shone nowhere more brightly than in Scotland, and in Scotland nowhere more brightly than in Glasgow University.

For a country to have an Enlightenment, two elements must be in place. The first is a large number of creative people who think for themselves instead of merely assenting to authority. The second is a level of toleration that permits such people to express themselves without risk of retribution.

On these two counts, by the standards of the day, Scotland was one of the most enlightened countries in 18th-century Europe. In many places, but especially in the cities of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and particularly in their universities, there were creative thinkers, some of them geniuses, informing or even transforming the various academic disciplines.


Adam Smith, ‘the father of economics’. © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

In Aberdeen in the early days of the Enlightenment were men such as Colin Maclaurin, a brilliant mathematician who won warm praise from Sir Isaac Newton, and the liberal educational theorist George Turnbull. One of Turnbull’s students at the city’s Marischal College was Thomas Reid, who would later replace Adam Smith as professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. He was the most important figure in the Scottish school of common sense philosophy, which was dominant in North America and France during the following century.

Meantime, at Edinburgh University we find the philosopher Dugald Stewart, the sociologist Adam Ferguson and the historian William Robertson. And living in the capital city, but not having university posts, were David Hume, one of the greatest philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, and James Hutton, whose Theory of the Earth has earned him the title ‘founder of modern geology’.

At Glasgow University, along with Smith and Reid, was the philosopher Francis Hutcheson, the physician William Cullen, the chemist Joseph Black and the engineer James Watt.

These formidable thinkers took advantage of the Scottish religious and political authorities’ relatively relaxed attitude to new and challenging ideas to set the agenda for cutting-edge research across Europe.  Things were very different in France, whose many enlightened figures had to contend with an absolutist monarchy and church and a powerful system of state censorship. One lumière was Denis Diderot, a writer hostile to Christianity, whose book Letter on the Blind landed him in prison in the fortress of Vincennes for three months.


Specimens from the Enlightenment period are on display at the university’s magnificent Hunterian Museum. © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

By contrast, though David Hume was widely (if wrongly) believed to be an atheist, he was never threatened with imprisonment. In fact, he was the life and soul of the societies to which he belonged, whose membership included ministers, judges, professors, aristocrats and artists, such as the painters Allan Ramsay and Henry Raeburn, and architects William Adam and his sons John and Robert.

No one illustrates the role of Glasgow in Scotland’s Enlightenment better than that giant of moral philosophy, Adam Smith – a c1867 statue of whom stands near Bute Hall in the university’s main building. Smith had a long relationship with Glasgow University: as an undergraduate, then a professor – first of logic and rhetoric and later of moral philosophy – and, for two years at the end of his life, as lord rector.

Smith is now widely hailed as the ‘father of economics’, and it was while lecturing at Glasgow University that he formulated the theories that would lead to his writing The Wealth of Nations (1776), a work long recognised as one of the greatest contributions to economic theory ever.

Smith famously argued the case for free trade, contending that trade barriers do not benefit the country that imposes them; on the contrary, he showed that protectionism causes a rise in prices and a lowering of employment prospects. He also argued that schooling should be made universally available and paid for by the government, even sketching out the syllabus that the schools should follow.


Alexander Broadie pictured on Glasgow University’s famous Lion and Unicorn staircase. © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 

The natural sciences are no less a feature of the Scottish Enlightenment than are philosophy and political economy. During a period of 10 years at Glasgow, one of its professors (and a former student of Glasgow), the aforementioned Joseph Black conducted research into heat. In the course of this research, he probed the science behind two major natural phenomena, which he termed latent heat and specific heat. This work makes him one of the founders of the science of thermodynamics.

Among Black’s closest collaborators was James Watt, scientific instrument-maker to Glasgow University. Watt produced a brilliant solution to the problem of how to construct an efficient steam engine – and, in doing so, helped transform the productivity of Britain’s manufacturing industries.


Glasgow University. © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Some of the scientific instruments used by men such as James Watt, Joseph Lister and Lord Kelvin are held at the university’s magnificent Hunterian Museum, founded by Dr William Hunter (1718–83), a groundbreaking obstetrician and teacher. The museum, showcasing Hunter’s remarkable collections of specimens, manuscripts and other Enlightenment material, opened to the public in 1807 and is hailed as one of the finest university collections in the world.

 

The Scottish Enlightenment: five more places to explore

1) Arniston House, Gorebridge, Midlothian

In 1726 Robert Dundas, Lord Arniston, commissioned the Enlightenment architect William Adam to build a new country house on the site of the existing tower house.


Arniston House is a Palladian gem that has barely changed for 250 years. © The Arniston Estate 

Completed by William’s son John, this truly magnificent Palladian building, incorporating two rooms of the original tower house and with amazing baroque plaster-work by Joseph Enzer in the hall, remains largely unchanged. There have been Dundases at Arniston since 1571.

2) Siccar Point, near Cockburnspath

Siccar Point, on the North Sea coast, 40 miles east of Edinburgh, is famous for displaying vertical strata of rock jutting up through horizontal strata of less resistant rock. The rocks’ remarkable formation helped James Hutton, a genius of the Scottish Enlightenment, formulate the idea of ‘deep time’ – the concept that the Earth is far, far older than the few thousand years suggested by creationists.

3) Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, Ayr

The cottage in which poet Robert Burns (1759–96) was born was built in the 1730s; the south end, consisting of a living room and byre (cowshed), was built by his father, William, in 1757. It is now a fine museum. Nearby are the ruins of the Auld Kirk of Alloway, the scene of the demon revelry in Burns’s 1790 poem Tam o’ Shanter.

4) Edinburgh New Town

Edinburgh New Town was begun in 1767 to a design by James Craig on land north of Edinburgh’s densely populated Old Town. A classic gridiron plan, it consists of three principal east-west streets joining St Andrew’s Square in the east and Robert Adams’s Charlotte Square to the west. It was later expanded to the east and the north, forming a magnificent area of continuous Georgian layout and architecture. The nomenclature of the streets is Hanoverian and unionist, a reminder that an early design for Edinburgh New Town was in the form of the Union Jack. The Old and New Towns are now officially a World Heritage Site.

5) New Lanark, South Lanarkshire

Now a World Heritage Site, this purpose-built mill village was founded by businessman and merchant David Dale in 1785. The welfare and education of the workers, many of them children, was important to Dale.

After 1799, his son-in-law Robert Owen introduced better safety rules, a contributory fund for medical care, and an astonishingly enlightened system of education for all. This was a realisation of Adam Smith’s doctrine that economic activity should be within a moral framework.

Alexander Broadie is an honorary professorial research fellow at Glasgow University. His books include The Scottish Enlightenment (Birlinn, 2007).

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