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History & Immigration > History of Scotland > Scottish Enlightenment

History of Scotland

The Scottish Enlightenment:

After union with England, Scotland transformed from one of the poorest countries in Europe to the hub of intellectual enlightenment and scientific revolution. Reaping the economic benefits of free trade within the ever-expanding British Empire, the Scots were finally prosperous enough to devote themselves to higher pursuits such as art, philosophy, and science. Having instituted Europe's first compulsory schooling in 1496, Scotland continued to emphasize the importance of education throughout the Protestant Reformation. With the Education Act of 1633, Parliament mandated the establishment of a Church-supervised school, locally funded through land taxation, in every parish in the country. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Scots were among the most educated populace in Europe, enjoying a 75% literacy rate.

University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh

With the help of the twin stimuli of universal education and economic prosperity, Scotland joined France as champions of Enlightenment. The University of Edinburgh rose to become Europe's beacon of learning and understanding as its celebrated faculty members embraced the principles of humanism and rationalism. Philosophic giants such as David Hume and Adam Smith rejected the notion of authority that could not be justified by rational means, seizing instead upon a belief in the limitless ability of the human mind. Scotland's Enlightenment thinkers devoted themselves to empiricism and practicality to a degree that distinguished them from their Continental counterparts, driven by their profound conviction that their work could provide improvement, virtue, and practical benefit for both the individual and the whole of society.

The Scots made great advances in every field they touched: Patrick Bell revolutionized agriculture with his reaping machine; James Hutton pioneered the field of paleobiology; Joseph Black and Lord Kelvin heralded the era of modern physics; James Young Simpson relieved the suffering of women in childbirth; Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott ushered Scottish literature onto the world stage. The achievements of the Scots were so encompassing that even Voltaire, the titan of European Enlightenment, had to concede, "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization."

The effects of the Scottish Enlightenment traveled far beyond the British Isles, even farther than the boundaries of the European continent. As the Scottish diaspora began to pour out of Scotland and into the wider world, so did their intellectually radical liberal attitudes and ideas.

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