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Enlightenment in a Smart City

Edinburgh’s Civic Development, 1660-1750


Murray Pittock


Edinburgh: University Press, 2018

Hardback. 296 pages. ISBN 9781474416597. £80

Paperback. 296 pages. ISBN 9781474416603. £19.99


Reviewed by Clarisse Godard Desmarest

Université de Picardie Jules Verne, Amiens





Murray Pittock’s new book examines the mechanisms that brought about change in Scotland at the end of the seventeenth and in the first half of the eighteenth century, and it focuses on the importance of Edinburgh for the nation’s society and economy. The book is different from past studies on the Scottish Enlightenment in that it does not belong to the history of ideas – the Enlightenment is considered, rather, through the lens of the cultural historian. Professor Pittock explains that the Scottish case fits uneasily into the standard narratives relating to the Enlightenment, as summed up in three main approaches (universal, particular or national, and relative), because Scotland was both small and not a state. Many studies on the Scottish Enlightenment are based on a national model and express, according to the author, undue self-congratulation. A new historiography, confident of Scotland’s achievement, indeed evolved at the same time as the development of modern Scottish nationalism in the late 1960s, in reaction to a previous Anglo-centric view of history. The Act of Union with England was therefore no longer seen as providing the necessary conditions for the Scottish Enlightenment to occur. In this context Pittock reminds us of the positive connotation that the word ‘Enlightenment’ encompasses in Scotland, which contrasts with the strong prejudice against the word on the Continent. More recently, historians have attempted to stress the transformations which were already happening in the late seventeenth century – Pittock acknowledges the value of Alexander Broadie’s study of Scottish philosophy in relation to Continental ideas of that period.

Pittock stresses the importance of considering the ideas of David Hume and Adam Smith as the reflection of more fundamental social and cultural changes. He also values the significance of clubs and associations and other agents of innovation outside the Church, the Law or the University, especially for the early stage of the Enlightenment. The book justifies the use of the expression ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ which the author defines as ‘the application of reason to knowledge in a context of material improvement’ [14]. It argues in favour of a relatively advanced intellectual infrastructure and cosmopolitan connectivity which helped lay the ground for a social, intellectual and cultural response to economic decay in the seventeenth century. The civic networks in Edinburgh, all minutely deciphered and explained, help account for the unprecedented cultural change in the city between 1680 and 1750. The cosmopolitan dimension of Edinburgh society was unique and was reflected in the press and in Jacobite politics. The latter was particularly important in intensifying bonds between individuals and groups in Scotland and on the Continent, in particular Italy and France. This argument goes against many prejudices against Jacobitism and Jacobites who, as eloquently demonstrated by the author, were in fact enablers of civility and civilisation [219]. As he has successfully done for Jacobitism in previous publications, Pittock casts a new light on how the Enlightenment really operated on all levels in Scotland, and in its capital.

This book is therefore about the continuing role of the capital as a cultural if not a state actor. A vast range of areas are covered including – but not limited to – art, music and theatre, education, freemasonry and taverns, the trades and professions. By examining material conditions the book helps explain the paradox that the Enlightenment flourished at a moment when Scotland lost its statehood. Pittock points out also that, for the development of ideas in the capital, the New Town development signified the end of the very same close-knit society which had made possible the emergence of the Enlightenment from its roots in the ‘Old Town’. The author therefore nuances the view of A.J. Youngson who, notwithstanding his major contribution to the field of economic, social and architectural history, suggests in his work on the New Town, The Making of Classical Edinburgh (1966), that the intellectual success of Edinburgh depended on urban changes. Whilst acknowledging the centrality of the 1752 Proposals for Carrying Certain Public Works which led to the development of the New Town, Pittock considers that there was a strong focus on urban improvement even before 1700. In his analysis of the mechanics of change he suggests that the urban transformations in Edinburgh resulted as much from basic necessity as from Sir Gilbert Elliot and Lord Provost George Drummond’s proposals (or indeed earlier projects by James VII and the Earl of Mar).

The author traces the origin of Edinburgh’s intellectual and cultural life, arguing that a geographically contiguous environment, a diverse workforce and a supportive policy environment created the stimulus for the Enlightenment, in a way quite similar to Vancouver and San Francisco today. Edinburgh had the necessary ingredients for becoming a ‘Smart city’ of 1700, thanks to its connected leadership and engaged citizens. We are told that unlike elsewhere on the Continent, and in France in particular, there were no prejudices against class in Edinburgh – the aristocracy, the gentry and the professions could therefore mingle and jointly cooperate towards improvement. The city also had government and national institutions such as Parliament House, the Scottish Estates, and the Privy Council, before 1707, as well as the College of Physicians (1681) and the Advocates Library (1688) – all major conduits of innovation. The stacked tenements in the Old Town laid out in the European manner favoured the bustling of energy, and the author considers that the strict fire regulations which prevented the use of candles in shops in 1701 can only have encouraged more socialising out of doors and in taverns. Allegations of inferiority of Edinburgh cannot be fully substantiated as shown by, for instance, the extent of travel arrangements in the Scottish capital – there was a much higher coverage of sedan chairs per head in Edinburgh than in London in the early eighteenth century [60]. Despite the common descriptions of filth in Edinburgh by visitors, it should not be thought that London, or other early modern cities, was cleaner than Edinburgh at the time, as hygienic measures were taken by the burgh and the government before 1700.

Pittock emphasises Edinburgh’s multicultural aspect in this era which may be hard for us to imagine. The degree of cosmopolitan exchange was probably greater than in London itself. The extensive trade with the Low Countries, the value of a Dutch education for Edinburgh’s elites, the return of Royalist exiles and the presence of Dutch painters were all key factors of innovation, through the heterogeneous experience of agents. The privileged connections with France also meant that the French received extensive support from the Scots – the Huguenot community had been coming to the capital since the sixteenth century. The growth of Moderatism in the Kirk was also key in this first phase of the Enlightenment according to Pittock and as previously demonstrated by Richard Sher in Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment (1985). A Moderate way transpired in the University under the rule of Principal William Carstares from 1703, but Pittock argues that the Presbyterian Town Council may paradoxically have contributed towards slowing the process by which the University established itself as an intellectual power-house in the mid-eighteenth century. Law and medicine were also undergoing rapid development in Edinburgh, and the training of Scots was international.

In the Arts, also, Scotland and Edinburgh lay at the heart of European networks [chap. 4]. The cross-overs between art and politics are highlighted in the discussion on the Jacobite community in Italy before and after the Jacobite Rising of 1715. Pittock’s study of training, patronage and collecting offers a valuable complement to Basil Skinner’s Scots in Italy in the 18th century (1966). In his enlightening insight into Allan Ramsay the elder, Pittock shows that the poet and playwright belonged to a group which was determined to make Edinburgh the centre of cultural innovation. In poetry, Ramsay’s genius was to absorb and defend the Scots Doric tongue for the purpose of enlivening the Scottish language and culture in Edinburgh and beyond.

The last chapter of the book, on booksellers, newspapers and libraries, contends that Edinburgh newspapers, from the late seventeenth century, were to pose a challenge to the imported London-based newspapers, as well as drawing on them extensively. It is pointed out that the Union did not lead to a collapse of the Scottish press, but rather to the beginning of its distinctive national voice. In his comparison of Edinburgh and London newspapers, Pittock concludes that Edinburgh prints were not simply compilations from the London ones. The Edinburgh press’s strong interest in foreign news reports is one among many examples which reinforces the argument that Scotland, and Edinburgh, have a long-time standing within Europe.


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