The Scottish Enlightenment was not an overnight revolution.
Seventeenth-century Scotland was mired in superstition and religious intolerance. Men and women were accused of witchcraft, tortured, tried and executed. Blasphemy was punishable by death.
In 1697 an 18-year-old university student named Thomas Aikenhead stood at the gallows in Edinburgh. He had been found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death.
At his trial it was said that Aikenhead had ‘ridiculed the Holy Scriptures’ and claimed that they were ‘stuffed with madness, nonsense, and contradictions’. He had called the Old Testament ‘Ezra's fables’ and said that Christ was an ‘imposter’ who had ‘learned magick in Egypt’ so he could ‘perform those pranks which were called miracles’.
Thomas Aikenhead pleaded for mercy and took back everything he had said. The Lord Advocate James Stewart called for the death penalty. Stewart condemned Aikenhead for ‘shaking off all fear of God’ and for venting ‘wicked blasphemies against God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.’
When Aikenhead was found guilty the Lord Advocate stated ‘you ought to be punished with death... to the example and terror of others.’
On the day of his execution Thomas Aikenhead wrote ‘It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure.’
Aikenhead was hanged at two o’clock on the afternoon of January 8 1697. He was the last person executed for blasphemy in Britain.
It has been said that the death of Thomas Aikenhead haunted 18th century Scotland. The repressive Presbyterian church, ‘the Kirk’, that had demanded Aikenhead’s life had also decreed that every Scot should be able to read the Bible. As the 18th century dawned three-quarters of Scots could read.
Scotland’s universities in Glasgow, Aberdeen, St Andrews and Edinburgh had been important centres of learning for hundreds of years – now they would become the central to the birth of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Francis Hutcheson was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. He was determined to change the face of theology in Scotland, noting, 'I hope I am contributing to promote the more moderate and charitable sentiments in religious matters in this country.’
Among Hutcheson’s students was Alexander ‘Jupiter’ Carlyle who became a leading moderate within the Presbyterian Kirk and rose to become Moderator of the General Assembly and Dean of the Chapel Royal. The harsh Calvinist ministers lost their grip on power as the moderate party within the Kirk gradually changed the Church of Scotland.
The Union of the Parliaments in 1707 and the failure of the Jacobite rising in 1745 had settled many political battles. The Kirk had become more moderate and open to debate and new ideas.
The foundations were laid for the Age of Enlightenment.