Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

2 Origins of the Scottish Enlightenment

2.1 The Act of Union, 1707

Before examining Scottish science in detail, we need a sketch of the particular Scottish historical background from which an astonishing cluster of intellectuals and ideas emerged. It needs to be said at the outset, however, that there is no scholarly consensus as to why a small, poor country in Northern Europe should have made such a disproportionately large contribution to the thought of the age.

The event in Scottish history which tends to polarise opinion among scholars is the Act of Union with England, of 1707. The crowns of the two nations had been unified a century earlier, in 1603, when the Stuart James VI became king, not just of his native Scotland, but also of England, where he reigned as James I. But in 1707, Scotland gave up its parliament, and henceforth, the government of the country shifted from Edinburgh to Westminster. Some scholars have seen the Act of Union as precipitating a crisis in Scottish identity. Where, after 1707, might the intellectual energy of the nation be expressed?

The politically ambitious would speed to Westminster and join the scramble for office, shedding, in the process, their national loyalty. But what of those who remained in Scotland, yet who wished to contribute publicly to the nation's affairs? One route that might be predicted leads to the development and nourishing of a distinctive Scottish national culture, in protest against the loss of nationhood entailed by the Act of Union. After all, Scotland had its own languages – Gaelic in the Highlands, and Scots (a very markedly distinct form of English) in the Lowlands – and had its own unique culture and social system, especially in the Highlands. Perhaps we would predict the birth, after 1707, of a Scottish national, cultural movement.

This route was not taken. The leading lights of Scottish society came, almost wholly, from the Lowlands, and they directed their energies towards the establishment of an English-speaking, urban, civilised, commercial society that did not brandish Scottishness at every turn. Notably, they tended not to throw in their lot with the two Jacobite rebellions (of 1715 and 1745) which sought to restore the Stuart monarchy in Britain, and which embodied aspirations for Scottish national independence. The unwillingness of Scottish intellectuals to become identified with what they saw as a defeated, out-moded national culture is illustrated by one of the elegant deathbed utterances of perhaps the foremost intellectual of the age, the philosopher David Hume. He died, it was reported, ‘confessing not his sins, but his Scotticisms’: that is to say, he regretted not having succeeded in purging residual Scots phrases from his otherwise immaculate English prose.

For some scholars, then, the Act of Union had a ‘traumatic effect’. It left the Scottish elite bereft of real political institutions, yet dissatisfied with the remnants of an ancient Scottish culture. They engaged, it is argued, in a search for a new ‘cultural style’ (Phillipson, 1973, 1981).

For other scholars, the origins of the Scottish Enlightenment are to be found not in a sudden trauma, but buried within long traditions in the Scottish economy and society. Scotland was certainly a poor, small country in the late seventeenth century, it is acknowledged, but a number of writers have looked hard at seemingly moribund institutions and found that commercial, scientific and philosophical life was stirring. For these writers, the Scottish Enlightenment was the flowering of Scotland's own indigenous traditions. Three areas of enquiry have been fruitful: the Church, the universities and the economy.


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