Edinburgh's Scottish Enlightenment

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The Edinburgh Enlightenment of the 18th Century

The Failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite rebellion put new strains on the union between Scotland and England - but it also led indirectly to the one of the greatest ever flowerings of Scottish patriotic pride and identity.

After the '45 and Culloden, many people south of the border thought of the Scots as little more than Jacobite barbarians who could only be civilised by introducing them to English ways.

However, the Scots decided to hit back - and they did so by producing some of the greatest thinkers, writers, historians and scientists the world has ever known.

This incredible explosion of talent, which was centred on Edinburgh, became known as the Scottish Enlightenment. It created men of genius who were determined to show the world that - despite the Act of Union - Scotland remained very much a living, breathing nation.

However, the changes which were taking place in Edinburgh in the second half of the 18th century weren't just intellectual. The physical shape of the city was changing, too.

The creation of the New Town was a masterpiece of architectural planning which showed that the Scots could design buildings and streets as grand and elegant as anywhere in the world.

The result was that Scotland's capital became a place which rivalled London for the brilliance and influence of its citizens and for its desirability as a place to live.

As well as the determination of the Scots thinking classes to show their mettle after the failed Jacobite rebellion, one of the reasons for the explosion of talent in the late 18th century was Edinburgh's reputation as a seat of learning.

The university was particularly known for its teaching of medicine, but students were allowed to attend lectures in a range of subjects and this helped to broaden their outlook and give them an open, critical view of life.

Another reason was that following the Act of Union, the old rulers of Scotland - the nobility - had largely gone to live in London. This left a political and social vacuum in Scotland which clever, educated men (and they were all men) were able to fill.

Some of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment are still known and respected around the world to this day. One of the most important of them all was the philosopher and historian David Hume, who tried to describe how the mind works in acquiring knowledge.

Hume, who eventually became Keeper of the Advocates Library in Edinburgh, spent much of his time in England and abroad and wrote his vast masterwork A Treatise of Human Nature, which examined human understanding, emotions and morals.

Another Scots genius whose influence still resonates to this day is the Kirkcaldy-born economist Adam Smith. He spent eight years writing one of the world's greatest ever theories of economics, a remarkable work known as An Inquiry Into The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Smith argued that economies should be based on enlightened self interest tempered by the hand of God, which would provide happiness and prosperity.

The Wealth of Nations was so influential that it is impossible to overstate its importance. It was treated like a Bible by the Victorians, and even modern politicians refer to it regularly. Since it was first published, it has never been out of print.

There were plenty of other influential figures during this golden period in Scottish history. The architect Robert Adam, for instance, introduced radical new styles based on classical sources. His work can still be seen in the design of Culzean Castle in Ayrshire and the elegant frontages of Register House and Charlotte Square in Edinburgh's New Town.

Other developments during this period were the invention of statistics and the production of the world's first comprehensive population census by the Rev Alexander Webster. He managed to calculate the exact population of Scotland at the time as 1,265,380 compared to the five million who live north of the border today.

To my mind, most remarkable of all was the founder of geology the farmer and industrialist James Hutton who through careful attention to the physical phenomena before his eyes developed a theory of geological change and transformation that forms the bedrock for modern geology and and by creating a theory that allowed for huge time periods produced a theoretical underpinning for the later work of Charles Darwin who read Hutton's work whilst sailing around the world.

In publishing, too, Edinburgh excelled. The rush for knowledge led to the creation of Encyclopaedia Britannica in the city by the printer William Smellie in 1768. Even Robert Burns came to the capital in 1786 to arrange for the publication of some of his work.

The Building of the Edinburgh New Town 

However, as well as developing mentally, Edinburgh was changing physically. For centuries, the city had centred itself around the Castle and Holyrood Palace. There was a simple reason for this - it was hemmed in to the north by marshland and a lake known as the Nor' Loch, and so didn't really have room to expand.

The decision was taken to get rid of the loch by draining it - a move which would also make the rest of the ground firmer. This was done, creating the valley through which the main railway line into Waverley station from the west now runs.

However, this still left the problem of bridging the valley, allowing access from the Old Town to the higher ground to the north. This was finally solved in 1772 when the North Bridge, 70 feet high and 1130 feet long, was completed.

Even before the route to the north had been fully opened up, an innovative decision had been taken to develop an entirely new planned urban area. This became known, unsurprisingly, as the New Town.

A competition was held to decide who the architect should be, and a 27-year-old called James Craig - the nephew of the poet James Thomson, who wrote the words of the song Rule Britannia - emerged as the winner.

Craig had decided that the New Town should be a grand and elegant spectacle, mirroring the confidence and European spirit which were found in Edinburgh at the time. At the same time, however, it was to pay homage to Scotland's place within the union and the supremacy of the Hanoverian kings.

He decided to centre his design on three streets running from east to west with a square at each end. In deference to the monarchy, he called his new avenues Princes Street, George Street and Queen Street, with the squares called St Andrew Square and St George - later re-named Charlotte - Square. The narrow lanes in between, Rose Street and Thistle Street, reflected the national flowers of Scotland and England.

The elegant, classically designed townhouses Craig created quickly became popular and provided new housing for the professional classes. Lawyers and judges, for instance, seized the opportunity to move out of the cramped and dirty old town and to relocate across the valley into the pleasant new accommodation the New Town provided.

The result was that Edinburgh society divided, and the New Town quickly became the place to live. The Old Town began to crumble and decay, hit by falling rents, and became a home largely to the poor and destitute.

In other parts of Edinburgh, however, great things were happening. The spread of classical architecture led to it being dubbed the Athens of the North. Designs and follies based on ancient Greece went up in places such as Calton Hill. The aim was to create an elegant, spacious and beautiful city which represented the very best in urban living.

The New Town was one of Scotland's greatest ever statements of confidence in itself and its own abilities, and arguably its greatest ever architectural success. To this day, students, locals and tourists from all over the world admire the area's beauty and grace, which act as a perfect complement to the ancient, picturesque, higgledy-piggledy and once again fashionable old town.

The Enlightenment is a part of Scotland's past which isn't just history. Whether in the thoughts of David Hume and Adam Smith or the geological theories of Hutton or the statistics of Webster or the striking form of Edinburgh's architecture, this proud and golden period continues to live today.


Meanwhile...

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