Guide to Scotland
   Gateway to the British Isles since 1996
A Brief History of Scotland

Presented by Peter N. Williams, Ph.D.

Chapter 11: Transformation

Fueled by locally produced iron, the shipbuilding industries of the Clyde soon became the envy of the world. Watt's great invention, among other things, led to steam replacing sail, from time immemorial the capricious and cumbersome method of propelling ships. Perhaps the definite moment came in 1812 when Henry Bell 's Comet used steam power on its experimental run on the River Clyde (forerunners such as Fulton's Clermont in 1807 had showed the way). By 1823, Scotland had built 95 steamships. Even before the general adaptation of the steam engine to marine engineering, however, the dredging of the Clyde had allowed Glasgow to accept ocean-going vessels and to quickly rise to preeminence as Scotland's leading port.

Improvements in road building aided in the growth of the towns. In 1803, working for the Highland Commission for Roads and Bridges, Thomas Telford began to supervise the building of the new "parliamentary roads" that, with the necessary bridges, were to provide stagecoach links between almost inaccessible parts of the country. Feverish activity in road building was matched by progress in the construction of canals, though the hilly nature of most of the terrain prohibited such successful developments such as were taking place in England. Nevertheless, canals linked the major industrial centers, proving their worth in securing large profits from freight and passenger traffic.

In 1767, James Craig designed his great showpiece, Edinburgh New Town, as a center of British patriotism and an assertion of that city's (and Scotland's) place in the Union. St. Andrew's Square had its counterpart in St. George's Square; the principal streets were named Princes, George, Queen, Hanover and Frederick. Only 22 years after Culloden, the erection of such fine buildings showed Scotland's greatly increased prosperity in a country whose economy was expanding faster than that of any other part of Great Britain. They showed a proud and tasteful opulence matched in many other Scottish towns, made fat on commerce. With the benefits brought about by imperial trade came the Scottish enlightenment, a movement unparalleled for its achievements in so many intellectual and artistic endeavors.

While Glasgow was getting rich from trade, (its Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1783, was the first in Britain) Edinburgh was moving in another direction. In the second half of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, Edinburgh, no longer the capital of an independent state, was also booming. It shucked off its loss of stature by becoming one of the great literary, intellectual and artistic centers of Europe.

In 1757, David Hume, one of the world's greatest philosophers in that or any age, marveled 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 in which we make use of; is it not strange, I say, that, in these circumstances, we should really be the people most distinguished for literature in Europe."

It was not an idle boast. Hume's outstanding work in philosophy (in which he conceived of the discipline as the inductive, experimental science of human nature, which had a profound influence on European thought) was matched by that of William Robertson in history, Joseph Black in science, John Millar in social theory and the towering Adam Smith in economics. Smith's 1776 publication of his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations proved to be one of the greatest, certainly one of the most influential classics of all time. And it was Scotsmen Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell, who founded the "Encyclopedia Britannica" in 1768.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Scotland's universities, with their "open-door policies" of accepting poor but talented students, were turning out far more, and far-better educated graduates than their counterparts in Oxford and Cambridge, both of which were mired in their medieval curricula in which Latin and Greek predominated. Scotland's universities were more in tune with what was required to sustain a growing economy and population.

As early as 1726, Edinburgh had created a full Faculty of Medicine with Chairs of Botany, Medicine, Anatomy, Chemistry and Midwifery. Medicine became a particularly strong discipline in all the Scottish universities and Scottish doctors began to fill English practices (they still do). In 1729, Edinburgh's famous infirmary, far ahead of its time in its approach to treatment of the sick opened. Another innovation was the substitution of English instead of Latin as the language of the lecture room. This not only greatly facilitated the study of Isaac Newton in physics and John Locke in philosophy, but also made their works available to a much wider audience.

David Hume published his "Treatise of Human Nature" in 1739-40; it was the first series of his books on philosophy. In 1754, he published the first volume of his "History of England", a book to be re-issued countless times. The book was followed by William Robertson's "History of Scotland" in 1759, also an instantaneous success. At Edinburgh in 1764, Allan Ramsay founded a literary society. At the same time, there was a surprising revival of interest in Scots dialect verse, including the publication of James Watson's "Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems"; William Hamilton's edition of Blind Harry's "Wallace," (which greatly influenced Robert Burns); and the anthologies of Allan Ramsay, including "The Gentle Shepherd," the "Evergreen" and "Tea-table Miscellany."

Chapter 11: Transformation Continued