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Edinburgh World Heritage/Learning/Classroom Resources/Old Edinburgh/City of Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment

What was the Scottish Enlightenment?

  • Recommended for second level Social Studies (SOC 2-03a) and third level social studies (SOC 3-02a & 3-06a)

The Scottish Enlightenment was part of a wider European movement, reaching its height in this country between 1750-1800. The great French philosopher and historian Voltaire (1694-1778) said ‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation’. At this time European thinkers challenged old ideas about almost every aspect of life. They argued that the way forward was to use “reason” when seeking answers to questions. People should not just accept what they were told, they should question ideas. It was the beginning of the modern world as we know it.

The Scottish Enlightenment covers commonly taught topics, like Robert Burns, but there are also other areas of study, including the elegance and mathematics of Robert Adams’ architecture, or the work of the young Edinburgh architect, James Craig which has influenced modern urban planning. Inspired by Arthur’s Seat, the Crags and Castle Hill, James Hutton was the first person to look at the science behind volcanoes, and it was the forgetful but very clever man Adam Smith whose writings still influence world governments today.

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A who’s who of the Scottish Enlightenment

An original ‘it girl’, Alison Rutherford’s parties were attended by many of the great figures of the Enlightenment. We know that some of the following leading Enlightenment figures went to them, and there’s a good chance others did too…

  • Alison Rutherford (aka Mrs Cockburn), whose parties were the original social network of Edinburgh, bringing great minds together through food, dance and debate.
  • Robert Burns, a new boy in town and a heart-throb with the gift of the gab. Alison befriended him when he moved to Edinburgh. He wrote poems and collected songs and was very amusing. He became very famous…
  • Adam Smith, the economist whose work influences how we live today. He was also a bit absent minded, talked to himself, and occasionally also fell into holes; yet, like his friends, he was a genius.
  • James Hutton, a geologist who was interested in everything, volcanoes, canals, plant dyes and soil erosion, you name it.
  • David Hume, the most important philosopher and historian of the day. He was fond of lively company, discussing ideas, and enjoyed his food and drink. He was one of Alison’s best friends.
  • Robert Adam, the must-have architect for that little place in the country or city elegance, great with fireplaces and inspired by sheep’s heads…
  • Joseph Black, a popular chemist who helped to bring about the industrial revolution. He was known for his sociable nature, card playing, smart clothes and his green umbrella.
  • John Hope, the botanist, turned Edinburgh’s botanic garden into a world leader in the study and cultivation of plants. He was also a little bit obsessed with rhubarb…
  • Lord Hailes, historian and judge, who created a knowledge network connecting great minds in Edinburgh and beyond.
  • James Craig, a young builder who won a competition to design the New Town and who knew a thing or two about politics.
  • William Cullen, a celebrity doctor, who was adored by his students. He had a good bedside manner and a nice little sideline in expensive consultations by post.

City of Genius

The Scottish Enlightenment was particularly focused on Edinburgh where a group of extraordinary people came together to create possibly the most dynamic city on Earth. Many of the greatest scientists, artists, philosophers, designers, writers, economists and more were all working side by side, bouncing their ideas off each other, learning from their friends, and debating their discoveries. They were interested in everything and were truly interdisciplinary in their approaches. They tended to know one another and socialised together. They had much in common, but above all, they shared two principles: Observation & Analysis. Their discoveries and new thinking built the foundations of a modern way of life. In just a few streets, new ways of thinking had emerged which would go on to change the world. Edinburgh truly was a city of genius and the world would never be the same again.

Join Jock and Tam, as they take you back  to a time when Edinburgh was known as a ‘hotbed of genius’. You’ll never believe the people they had in back of their sedan chair…