The Scottish Enlightenment

The 18th Century in Europe has been called the 'Age of Enlightenment'. It has also been referred to as the 'Age of Reason' and the 'Age of Improvement'. As is so often the case with historical processes which commentators find convenient to encapsulate under a title such as the 'Enlightenment', it is difficult to decide when this period begins and when it comes to an end. The roots of the Enlightenment lie in the European Renaissance of the 16th Century. A new perspective had developed with regard to the relationship between humanity and the universe. Rather than being condemned to be the passive victims of irrational forces or divine providence, human beings were coming to be seen as potential masters of their own destiny, liberated by their capacity to exercise reason - to think and question.

By the beginning of the 18th Century, in Scotland the civil turmoil and violence resulting from the religious conflicts of the previous century had subsided. The failure of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising marked the ending of the Stuart challenge to the Hanoverian dynasty with its all of its attendant uncertainties. Scotland was now united with England under a single king in conjunction with a merged parliament sitting at Westminster. This stability brought growing economic prosperity and with it the flowering of what has come to be known as the 'Scottish Enlightenment'. Scotsmen made ground-breaking contributions to the sciences of chemistry, medicine and geology. They also set the foundations for new sciences of society and the study of the mind. Although the late 18th Century saw an unprecedented level of intellectual activity, the origins of the Scottish Enlightenment can be found in the late 17th Century and its conclusion was reached in the early years of the 19th Century. Scotland was a country on the periphery of Europe. It had a small population and was a relatively poor nation. The contribution which this nation made to human knowledge, both practical and theoretical during this period, is out of all proportion to its size. Why this should have been the case, is still a matter for debate. This intense intellectual ferment was centred around thriving urban centres where universities were based - Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow. But new ideas were spreading throughout the country and influencing all aspects of cultural and economic life. 


During the 17th Century in Europe, science was beginning to make big strides forward. It was clear that progress in understanding the workings of the world depended on careful observation of events rather than purely the contemplation of the mind. Experience, then, rather than thought alone, came to be regarded as the key to the pursuit of knowledge about the world. At the same time, the material world was increasingly depicted as a mechanism in which events and objects interacted automatically rather than through supervision by an unseen hand. The mind which thinks and absorbs experience was viewed as fundamentally different in character from the material world. The mind occupied no space and operated according to the laws of reason - the material world, by contrast, occupied space and was governed by physical laws. This evolving model of mental and physical reality produced a dilemma. If physical events could only take place by means of interaction with other physical events within a self-contained material realm, how could these events impress themselves on our minds through experience? In effect, how can a physical event cause a mental event? If we cannot answer this question clearly, how do we know that any of our experiences are caused by or relate in any way to events outside ourselves? This became a key issue in the theory of knowledge. 

In 1734 the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume settled in France. He was seeking an environment which would allow him to apply his attention entirely to scholarly enquiry. The result was his ' Treatise on Human Nature'. He began to question the direction which European philosophy was taking. There was, he suggested, no prospect of progress in attempting to decide upon the true nature of a physical world which lay beyond the senses or in speculating on how it might interact with our minds. The appropriate study for the philosopher, he suggested, is human experience itself, the means by which the human mind is constructed from patterns in feeling and sensation and the way in which the human mind organises and draws inferences from similarities and contrasts in the flow of experience. David Hume's contribution to philosophy stimulated thinking among his contemporaries which gave rise to the social sciences and modern psychology. He had a major influence on European philosophy in a broader sense and is considered to be one of Europe's greatest philosophers. 

In 1785 Dugald Stewart became Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University. Stewart was a leading exponent of a philosophical movement known as the Scottish School of Common Sense. This movement was given direction by Dr.Thomas Reid who held the Professorship of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. Reid was a leading critic of David Hume's philosophical position. One of Hume's key assumptions was contained in what has been described as his Theory of Ideas. In essence 'ideas', here, are closely identified with images held in the mind during the process of thinking. As such they are classed as comparable to the images involved in normal perception, differing only in degree of vividness. This identification can then lead to the conclusion that all perceived and imagined images are of a type and are in a sense all 'in the mind'. By challenging this assumption and carrying out a complex analysis of the relationship between the processes of thinking and perceiving, Reid endeavoured to create a pathway out of what he regarded as a philosophical dead end. In doing so, his intention was to dispel the doubts which were engendered by David Hume's philosophical position: doubts about the reality of an external material world which we could perceive directly and doubts about the place of God in the universe. Thomas Reid has not achieved the level of fame as a philosopher which we associate with David Hume, and has not received the attention in his own native land over the years, which some feel he deserves. His influence has, however, spread well beyond Scotland and in certain respects he is considered to have anticipated a number of important philosophical developments which took place in the 20th Century. 

During the 18th Century, professional gentlemen who were sufficiently wealthy maintained homes in the country which provided a refuge from city life. Dugald Stewart owned the house of Nether Catrine on the banks of the river Ayr. Here he spent his summer vacations. The building was a 17th Century farmhouse which had been developed by adding a first floor and fashionable neo-classical features. It was in this house, that Dugald Stewart introduced Robert Burns to Lord Daer (Basil Douglas-Hamilton), the Kirkcudbright landowner. This was Burns' first encounter with a member of the nobility and it is believed that his entry to Edinburgh society was planned at this meeting. Catrine was also chosen as a site for the establishment of a cotton spinning mill powered by the river Ayr. This venture was planned and financed by local landowner Sir Claude Alexander and David Dale who had set up the spinning mills at New Lanark in collaboration with Robert Owen. Ironically, it was the coming of this industry - another feature of the Age of Improvement - which drove Professor Stewart away from what had, up until that time, been a peaceful rural retreat. 


When the union of the Scottish and English parliaments took place in 1707, a single combined parliament was established at Westminster. The task of maintaining the separate identity of the Scottish nation fell to three institutions - the Law, the Kirk and the Universities. Even today Scotland's distinctness within Great Britain is dependent in large part on the separate practices and principles represented in these three traditions. During the 18th Century, in the absence of a Scottish based parliament, the direct management of Scottish society was in great part, devolved to the legal establishment. One family played a pre-eminent role in this world. In 1689 Robert Dundas (Lord Arniston) became Senator of the College of Justice. The next two Dundas generations also produced leading figures within the legal establishment. Henry Dundas (Viscount Melville) became Solicitor General in1766 and Lord Advocate in1775. He was also a Member of Parliament, and during a large part of the second half of the 18th Century, exercised an immense influence over Scottish affairs. Henrietta Scott, the heiress who acquired the Kilmarnock estate and other lands across Ayrshire was the grandniece of Viscount Melville. 

The strength and independence of the Scottish legal system during the 18th Century was due in great part to the fact that it had been given an integrated form in the late 17th Century in a comprehensive work which grounded Scots Law on a coherent system of principles. James Dalrymple (Viscount Stair) came from an old Ayrshire family which had acquired land in Galloway. In 1670 he became president of the Court of Session and a member of the Privy Council. He retired from public life for a period, during which he produced a work on the theoretical aspects of law - 'The Institutes of the Law of Scotland'. Viscount Stair wrote in English and not in Latin which had up to that time been the conventional language of scholarship. In his approach to the task of reassessing and modernising Scots Law, he sought guidance from continental legal thinkers. Laws can have a number of different sources. They can derive from established custom. They can also develop through the decisions of judges in particular cases. The legal structure which Viscount Stair sought to construct would be based on a foundation of principles of right and wrong which were capable of receiving universal acceptance. From these broad outlines, a system of laws was derived which would ultimately allow authoritative judicial decisions to be made in particular cases. This reforming of Scottish legal theory, provided the secure basis for legal thought and practice well into the 18th Century.


The early 18th Century saw a trend towards Anglicisation in Scottish culture. This was particularly the case where language was concerned. The traditional Scots language had been the language of the Royal Court before it moved to London in 1603. Now it was beginning to be regarded as archaic in a society in which progress was increasingly identified with standardisation around an English norm. This process brought about a recognition on the part of some Scottish writers of the value of what was being lost from Scottish literary and oral culture. The poet Allan Ramsay was one of these. Allan Ramsay was born in 1686 in the village of Leadhills in the Lowther Hills which straddle the border of Dumfriesshire and Lanarkshire. His father was a lead mine manager and his mother the daughter of a Derbyshire miner who had come to pursue his trade in Scotland's thriving lead mining industry. Perhaps the differing linguistic traditions presented to him by his parents gave Ramsay a particular sensitivity to variation and change in dialect. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a wig maker in Edinburgh. In the city he would have become aware of a shift in language influenced by a southern English dialect. He began to write poetry in Scots and also collected traditional verse. He incorporated these into his first collection in 1724 titled 'The Ever Green'. In 1725 he published his best known and most popular work 'The Gentle Shepherd'. This was a drama placed in a Lowland rural setting. Robert Burns drew inspiration from Ramsay's work and also followed his lead in becoming a dedicated collector of traditional Scottish verse. Burns' poem 'The Cotter's Saturday Night' which was published in the first edition of his work in Kilmarnock in 1786, was largely modelled on Ramsay's earlier pastoral drama. 

Art and Technology

In the summer of 1736, two young Scotsmen set out on a journey to Italy. One was Alexander Cunyngham (Cunningham) of Caprington which is now part of Kilmarnock. He had received a training in medicine. The other was Allan Ramsay (1713-85), son of the poet of the same name. Trips to the continent which are often described as the 'Grand Tour' - were a standard part of a young gentleman's education in the 18th Century. In this case the young Allan Ramsay had more in mind than a cultural jaunt. He was heading for Rome with the intention of studying his chosen profession - painting, in the company of the leading European artists of his day. Alexander Cunningham recorded their adventures in a diary. He returned to Scotland in 1737 leaving Allan Ramsay in Italy. Ramsay travelled from Rome to Naples in order to continue his studies. By the end of 1738, Ramsay had returned to Britain and had set himself up as a portrait painter in London. He was soon writing to his old travelling companion that he was now playing 'first fiddle' and had swept aside his competitors - the portrait painters who were already established in the capital. Realistic portraits of people had been painted in Roman times. During the middle-ages images in human form were generally sacred in nature. Portraiture of human individuals had then been re-established as an art form during the Renaissance. This revival reflected the 'Humanism' which underpinned the Renaissance and which continued to inform the Enlightenment. Human interests and human achievements were seen as suitable subjects for artistic celebration. In Italy, Ramsay studied under painters who were still linked to the earlier classical traditions but his mature approach to portraiture still reflected the northern habits of observation and realistic depiction. Ramsay's cultural interests were broad and his painting was only one aspect of his life as an Enlightenment thinker. 

During the years from 1774 to 1778 Allan Ramsay was assisted in his London studio by a young Scottish painter of promise - Alexander Naysmith. Initially, under the influence of Allan Ramsay, Naysmith painted portraits. Later he would paint landscapes. Ramsay passed on to Alexander Naysmith, his belief in the importance of drawing as an aid to analytical observation. Naysmith's landscapes frequently include an element of architectural interest. This reflects the fascination with the relationship between classical architecture and ancient landscape which preoccupied Allan Ramsay during the later period of his career when Naysmith worked with him. Alexander Naysmith's education as a painter was broadened further when he travelled to Italy in 1782. His expenses were paid by an Edinburgh banker, Patrick Miller. In 1785 Patrick Miller purchased the estate of Dalswinton in Dumfriesshire. The estate had been badly managed and required improvement. One of the tenants who he engaged in order to carry forward this project was Robert Burns. Burns moved into the farm at Ellisland on the Dalswinton estate in 1788. It was probably through his association with Patrick Miller that Robert Burns had first come into contact with Alexander Naysmith with whom he established a friendship. Both young men held radical political views. Naysmith painted the portrait of Burns which was the original for the portrait engraving which appears in the Edinburgh edition of his poems. Patrick Miller had started out as a sailor before becoming involved in the world of finance. He was interested in new technology and naval engineering. On the 14th of October 1788 the first steam powered boat was put into commission on Dalswinton Loch. The steam engine powering the boat had been designed by William Symington. It has been suggested that both Naysmith and Burns were passengers aboard this remarkable paddle steamer. 

The Land 

After the failure of the Jacobite Uprising in 1745 a body was set up to administer the land which had been confiscated from those who had actively supported Prince Charles Edward Stewart in his bid for power. In 1776 Lord Kames, the philosopher and lawyer who was one of the Commissioners published a work on agricultural improvement titled - 'The gentleman farmer, Being an attempt to improve agriculture, by subjecting it to the test of rational principles.' During the Enlightenment period the human faculty of reason which illuminated the most abstract philosophical concerns was also directed towards the most practical challenges which faced a growing economy. Patrick Miller applied the same enthusiasm for inventiveness in his farming as he did to his experiments with multiple hulled paddle driven boats on Dalswinton Loch. Miller had purchased his estate at Dalswinton near Dumfries with a view to its improvement without first having inspecting it. He was unpleasantly surprised by the poor state of his recent purchase when he visited the estate for the first time and recorded his regret at having committed this investment. For Robert Burns, his tenancy of Ellisland farm on Patrick Miller's Dumfriesshire estate repeated an unhappy theme which had attended his family's earlier experiences in farming. New agricultural practices were increasing the fertility of existing farmland and were making possible the cultivation of land previously unsuitable for growing crops. The process of improving farmland was not short term and for those struggling to render the most exhausted and acid soils fertile, life was not easy. Insufficient capital to invest in the enterprise also undermined the efforts of families like those of Robert Burns to make a success of their farms. Burns doubted the viability of Ellisland as a means of providing for his large family from the start. He prudently took steps to secure a posting in the excise service as an alternative solution to his financial problems leaving farming behind. 

At the beginning of the 18th Century, Scotland was populated and farmed in a manner little changed since medieval times. Rather than being organised around a nucleus like English villages, in the Scottish landscape, people lived in smaller scattered settlements referred to as 'ferm touns'. There was a tendency for families to hold tenancies jointly and many aspects of agricultural labour were carried out collectively. Land was divided into 'infield' which was the better land situated immediately around the habitation and the 'outfield' which lay further away. The infield was intensively cultivated and manured. The outfield was sporadically used for crops but mainly used for animal grazing. The crops grown were limited with oats providing the staple food for the family. Fundamental to the new approach to agriculture was the division of the landscape into enclosed fields. Where stones were plentiful, dry stone dykes were built, elsewhere hedges were grown to create barriers. Among the advantages which this presented, was the fact that crops could be grown and animals reared in close proximity to one another. A wider range of crops was being grown and land periodically allowed to rest in order to recover fertility. The new farms were organised around a farmhouse with buildings to accommodate animals and store harvested crops. These farms were run by tenant farmers with farm servants whom they employed. Fewer people were now needed to farm the land. This process of change in rural society had started to take place in England many years before. From there it spread up the east coast of Scotland before gathering momentum in the south-west 

As agricultural practices changed, different landscapes were adapted in different ways to increase their profitability. Tree planting was carried out. By the 18th Century, Scotland had become a largely treeless environment. Marshes were reclaimed and roads upgraded. In the Highlands the lairds found their hills and glens suitable for rearing sheep. After the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising, depopulation of this region took place at a disastrous pace as sheep replaced clansmen. We know these events as the 'Highland Clearances' and they still loom large in the nation's memory. In essence, the same movement of population took place across the country. In Galloway towards the end of the 17th Century cattle rearing was on the increase as demand from south of the border developed. The borders had ceased to be a lawless zone since England and Scotland were united under one crown in 1603 and commercial communication was now possible between south and north. By the early decades of the 18th Century enclosure took place as the land was turned over to cattle grazing. Dry stone dykes were built. When poor harvests hit the rural population and they were unable to pay rent, evictions took place and their land made available for enclosed cattle grazing. In 1723 events reached crisis point. An annual fair held near Castle Douglas offered an opportunity for local people whose tenancies were under threat, to combine to take direct action. Sir Alexander Gordon of Earlston had been active in pressing ahead with enclosure. The Earlston estate was targeted by tenantry who began to dismantle stone dykes. The 'Galloway Levellers Revolt' had started. Other landowners like the Earl of Galloway also received the attention of the Levellers. Negotiation was attempted but the destruction escalated until the unrest was quelled by the intervention of military force in the form of a body of dragoons. After a number of skirmishes, the protesters were rounded up and secured in Kirkcudbright gaol. The resistance to change collapsed and, as in the Highlands, many of the displaced farmers had no options left apart from emigration. 

In the same year as the Levellers Revolt took place the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland was instituted. The secretary of this body was an energetic agricultural experimenter - Robert Maxwell of Arkland near Kirkpatrick Durham. New crops like turnips and potatoes were being introduced and new mecahical devices designed to replace manual labour on the farm. Cattle breeding in Galloway focussed on beef cattle. In Ayrshire breeders concentrated on producing dairy cattle. The movement of people from the land was effectively managed in some cases with planned villages being set up and alternative forms of employment provided. The Earl of Loudoun in Ayrshire, dealt with change more successfully than some of his Galloway counterparts had done earlier in the century. In 1752 he founded the village of Darvel which absorbed and employed surplus rural population. Darvel subsequently grew into a thriving weaving town. Other planned settlements were established across the south-west, such as Moffat and Newton Stewart. The money which funded many of these developments was supplied by Scotland's emerging banking system. In other cases the profits of mercantile activity were invested in agricultural improvement. Richard Oswald was a merchant operating from London with estates in America and the West Indies. In 1764 he acquired the estate of Auchencruive near Ayr. A decade later he purchased the Cavens estate near Kirkbean in Galloway. These properties were managed according to the latest principles of agricultural improvement. By 1793 Colonel William Fullarton of Fullarton in Ayrshire could write - 

'A stranger passing through these districts, must be surprised to observe such a multitude of agricultural defects still existing: But his applause would undoubtedly be excited, when he understood the great difference between the present management and that which took place forty years ago.' 

Fifty years after Colonel Fullerton wrote these words, the Reverend Matthew Biggar of Kirkoswald, would describe the transformation which had taken place in the countryside, as 'a total and happy revolution'. Whether the destitute emigrants from Galloway who had taken part in the Levellers Revolt would see the events of this period in the same light as Matthew Biggar is open to question. Indeed, the fact that improvements on Richard Oswald's Ayrshire and Galloway estates were financed in part by the labour of slaves on the other side of the Atlantic, raises the question as to exactly how 'enlightened' the Age of Reason was. 

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