Scotlands History\|Scottish Enlightenment

Impact of the Enlightenment

'Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.’

Sir Winston Churchill

The legacy of the Enlightenment is still with us today.

The ideas and advances that emerged from the Scottish Enlightenment had a great impact across Europe,  America and Australia.

Today many historians believe that the Scottish Enlightenment helped to shape the modern world.

The 'Science of Man'

David Hume's aim was to found the 'Science of Man' – nothing less than the study of human nature by scientific means. As his books were translated into numerous languages his ideas echoed around the world.

Hundreds of years after his books were first published they can still inspire fierce debate. Today, David Hume is widely regarded as one of the world's greatest and most influential philosophers.

The power of steam

James Watt's genius powered the Industrial Revolution. Steam power brought new and startling innovations.

Coal mines used steam engines to pump water from deep underground. Textile mills harnessed the power of steam to drive looms. Steam trains and steam ships revolutionised transport around the world.

James Watt's name became so closely tied to 'power' that a unit of power, the 'watt' (one joule of energy per second) was named in his honour.

Free trade and the making of America

Economist Adam Smith corresponded with Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the American republic, about his economic theories.

And Enlightenment ideas guided Thomas Jefferson as he drafted the American Declaration of Independence.

There's more about this in Free trade and the making of America.

Scotland was a small country on the edge of Europe but, in the 18th century, it became home to some of the world’s greatest minds. Most of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment taught in the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen. Over the years they educated thousands of students.

'Is it not strange that, at a time when we have lost our Princes, our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the Presence of our chief Nobility, are unhappy in our accent and pronunciation, speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue which we make use of; is it not strange, I say, that in these Circumstances, we shou’d really be the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe?’

David Hume

As the founders of the Scottish Enlightenment died a new generation took their place. In the century that followed the works of Hume, Smith and Hutton gained ever wider recognition and the Scots carried Enlightenment ideas around the world.

An illustration of an 18th century man sitting at a desk with a book
A photo of David Hume's mausoleum on Calton Hill, Edinburgh
A photo of the exterior and chimney of a steam engine house

Picture credit:

Man at desk with book: From 'Kay 's Orginals Volume 2'. (c.1880s). Digitised by Edinburgh Bookshelf.

David Humes's mausoleum on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, designed by Robert Adam. Taken by Óscar Palmer and published on Flickr.

Exterior and chimney of the Ellenroad Engine House in Rochdale. Taken by Reinhold Behringer and published on Flickr.

Places to visit

The Centre of New Enlightenment

Based at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, this centre offers free education workshops for 10 to 14 year-olds focused on questioning accepted ideas and changing the world.