The Other Scottish Enlightenment

In the popular imagination—and that of many scholars—the Scottish Enlightenment is forever associated with skeptics like David Hume, moderate Presbyterians such as William Robertson, and those like Adam Smith who lay somewhere in between. Such luminaries working in one of Europe’s most isolated countries facilitated a revolution of ideas that produced modern economics, pioneered new approaches to ethics, law, and politics, and facilitated great advances in engineering, medicine, botany, geology, architecture, and chemistry.

How and why this happened in this specific place and time has been the subject of numerous books. Yet most such inquiries don’t consider that the intellectual movement which changed the world was preceded by another, very different Scottish Enlightenment: one more cosmopolitan than that of Smith, Robertson, and Hume and which reflected a quite dissimilar political and religious complexion.

That at least is the thesis of a new book by Kelsey Jackson Williams. In The First Scottish Enlightenment: Rebels, Priests, and History, Williams argues that long before philosophers like Francis Hutcheson, lawyers such as Lord Monboddo and Lord Kames, or proto-sociologists like Adam Ferguson rose to fame, Scotland had already experienced an Enlightenment. Mostly located in north-eastern Scotland, this First Enlightenment, as Williams calls it, consisted of Scottish Episcopalians, Catholics, and Jacobites (supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty). At odds with the Whig Presbyterian establishment that dominated Scotland after 1688, the enlightened scholarship of these outsiders was to influence everything ranging from how to study history to the composition of Scotland’s literary canon.

Whose Enlightenment?

Needless to say, Williams’ argument runs counter to how many today understand the Enlightenment movements which reshaped the European world from the late 17th century onwards. It challenges, for instance, those who regard the Enlightenment experience as a type of precursor for contemporary secular liberalism. As Williams writes, “If Jacobites were Enlightened, where does that leave us?” Perhaps conventional divisions like reactionary versus progressive, moderate versus radical, or Whig versus Jacobite actually “conceal more than they reveal and distort the nature of 18th-century ‘Enlightened’ thought.”

Williams’ book adds to the growing evidence that the 18th-century Enlightenment was more complex than appreciated and underscores the error of reading this period through the lens of political preferences of the present.

In truth, Williams is pushing at an open door. Back in 1967, Hugh Trevor-Roper hinted in a widely-read essay that the Scottish Enlightenment’s origins owed something to “Jacobite, Episcopalian” north-eastern Scotland. When this argument was restated by Colin Kidd in 2005, it sparked an intellectual furor. In recent years, there has been greater recognition of the religious enlightenment movements which flourished throughout the 18th century and how they pursued political, educational, and economic reforms without compromising their core theological commitments. Ulrich L. Lehner’s work on different Catholic enlightenment movements, for example, has made it harder than ever (to the dismay, I imagine, of integralists and secular progressives alike) to caricature 18th century Catholicism as a vast reactionary monolith totally opposed to the new learning’s emphasis on critical and empirical reasoning.

The scope of Williams’ book is more modest than the horizons to which it points. His focus is limited to a relatively narrow period (60 years) of intellectual endeavor and, even more specifically, to how a small group of Scottish lawyers, Jacobites, Episcopal clergy, and Catholic priests deployed Enlightenment methods to rethink the study of history. The result is a book that adds to the growing evidence that the 18th-century Enlightenment was more complex than appreciated and underscores the error of reading this period through the lens of political preferences of the present.

A Scottish International

One fascinating part of Williams’ analysis concerns his explanation of why and where this first Scottish Enlightenment took off. You don’t have to look far to find descriptions of pre- 18th century Scotland as a semi-barbarous Northern European backwater. Williams, however, illustrates that north-eastern Scotland, a region in which Presbyterianism struggled to make inroads against Episcopalism and Catholicism, was highly integrated into continental European trade, military, and educational networks. Long before the Reformation, generations of Scottish soldiers served in the mercenary armies of European monarchs. Scottish merchants from Aberdeen and the surrounding environs likewise ranged far and wide across the European landscape.

Perhaps most importantly, Scottish aristocratic and commercial families sent many of their children to study in continental European establishments. In some instances, they wanted their heirs to acquire the best of Protestant Europe’s learning. At the time, this was mostly located in the Low Countries, especially Leiden. Between 1650 and 1750, approximately 1,313 Scottish students graduated from Leiden alone, with most studying law and medicine. In the case of Catholic families, study abroad was the only option if you wanted your children to be educated in religiously like-minded institutions. But whatever the confessional differences, all these Scots found themselves in environments in which they could not help but encounter the new learning circulating widely throughout continental Europe by the late 17th century.

It’s also the case that, following the triumph of the Whig cause in Scotland after the Glorious Revolution, those who had first backed Charles II and then James II (VII of Scotland) were excluded from active involvement in political life from 1688 onwards. One effect of this on-going purge, one which extended into the universities, was to encourage families like the Episcopal Earls of Panmure and the Catholic Dukes of Gordon to immerse themselves in educational and artistic pursuits.

“Inner immigration,” as it’s called, often occurs in such circumstances and occasionally produces significant intellectual endeavors. In this case such activity was fueled by the well-stocked libraries of these families’ great houses. Not only did they serve as educational resources for surrounding like-minded Episcopal and Catholic gentry; these libraries were filled with books collected by those who went on grand tours of the continent. Many of these same families had relatives living abroad, some of whom taught at Scottish Catholic educational institutions in Paris, Rome, and Regensburg. Such individuals and colleges formed part of the vast Jacobite networks that extended from Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Paris in France to Madrid, Rome, Berlin, and as far east as St. Petersburg.

These well-connected groups of Scots moved easily across international boundaries while remaining bound together by strong political and religious ties. Loyalty to the exiled Stuarts and adherence to doctrines like the divine right of kings, however, went hand-in-hand with exposure to new ideas, unprecedented access to an immense array of scholarly resources, and the subsequent creation of what Williams calls “an intellectual and literary tradition which was more than just polemic or conservative defense.” Indeed, much of this tradition was focused on myth-busting—especially historical myths.

Upending History

While Enlightenment movements are invariably associated with revolutionary advances in the natural sciences, some of their most formidable achievements occurred in the field of history. Whether it was biographies like Voltaire’s History of Charles XII, King of Sweden or Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the emphasis was upon building, on the foundation of established and provable facts (often corroborated by study of archaeological evidence), interpretations of history that sought to dispel ignorance, reduce uncertainty, and exorcize superstition to shed light on the truth about the past. 

The work of the political and religious outsiders of the First Scottish Enlightenment established foundations for historical inquiry which were too intellectually compelling to be denied.

In some cases, Enlightenment historians were pursuing very particular agendas. More than a few wanted to build cases for the efficacy of enlightened absolutism. Some sought to present Christianity as an essentially decadent cultural force. Others, however, were primarily concerned with casting a critical eye upon assumptions from the past. Williams demonstrates that this was especially the case with early Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. They weren’t prepared to accept any number of long-standing historical claims at face-value, particularly in light of their insistence upon the importance of finding and critically analyzing archival and other sources.

One figure who featured prominently in this area was Father Thomas Innes (1662-1744). An Aberdeenshire native, Innes studied at the Scots College in Paris, was ordained as a Catholic priest, travelled widely, lived most of his life in continental Europe, and was a fervent Jacobite. But he also numbered among the most innovative historians of his time.

Innes’ most famous work, his Critical Essay on the Ancient Inhabitants of the Northern Parts of Britain, or Scotland (1729), comprehensively dismantled the myth of the “Ancient Monarchy”—the idea that there was an unbroken line of Scottish kings, and thus a type of Scottish identity, which stretched back to 330 BC—an idea that dominated Scottish historiography. “The collapse of the Ancient Monarchy mythos,” Williams states, “was the single greatest shift of Scottish historical thought, in the eighteenth century, or at any other time.”

What’s remarkable is that Innes managed to conduct his ground-breaking research in libraries located in cities like Edinburgh where, if his true identity had been discovered, he could have been subject to the harsh anti-Catholic penal laws of the time. But the end-result of Innes’ willingness to take such risks was that he cleared the way for a thorough-going exploration of Scotland’s past, especially through “the discovery and interpretation of yet unknown manuscripts.” Such work, Williams adds, became “the catalyst for and the inventor of much that is now familiar in modern Scottish historical studies.”

Part of that success involved Innes adopting the attitude that, to quote him directly, “We live in an age in which all ancient accounts of history, however confidently delivered by modern writers, are brought back to a trial.” In other words, no matter how elegantly written a text and however prestigious the author, nothing was to be taken at face-value. Everything was subject to critical reasoning. This is a classic Enlightenment mindset.

Suppression, then Vindication

Innes died in Paris in 1744. One year later, Prince Charles Edward Stuart landed in Scotland and launched the second of the great Jacobite Rebellions—one which we now know came much closer to toppling the Hanoverian dynasty than many suppose. Following the Rebellion’s defeat in 1746 and the subsequent crackdown on Jacobitism throughout Scotland in its Episcopal and Catholic heartlands, the mainstream Scottish intelligentsia sought to relegate this early Enlightenment tradition of historical scholarship to obscurity. According to Williams, this reflected their desire to immerse themselves and Scotland into a consolidated British identity. This implied dispensing with anything to do with a past focused on the Scottish nation, associated with rebellion, and considered unusable in a post-1745 world.

Despite such attempts at intellectual forgetting, the early Scottish Enlightenment’s impact persisted. The work of these political and religious outsiders had established foundations for historical inquiry which were too intellectually compelling to be denied. By the mid-19th century, manuscripts such as Innes’ second and hitherto unpublished treatise, his Civil and Ecclesiastical History of Scotland, 80 to 818 (1853), were being printed and distributed by intellectual clubs throughout Scotland. These writings, Williams points out, have continued to set the contours of modern Scottish historiography until the present day.

For a group of people often regarded as anachronisms even in their own time, that is no small achievement. What remains to be explored is how these early Enlightenment figures, pushed to the political and religious peripheries of Scottish life, may have shaped the post-1745 Scottish Enlightenment. More surprises, I suspect, lie in store for us. 


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