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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2004
According to Thomas Cahill, the Irish Saved Civilization. Perhaps so, but according to James Buchan it was the Scots who moved civilization forward to modern times. Even at that, it was Edinburgh that became the pivot of the Scottish Enlightenment. With the expulsion of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, the "auld Reekie", stinky, backward, provincial Edinburgh, was transformed into an intellectual hotbed. Philosophy, science, medicine and other fields found expression through this city to the world. Pushing aside the clans, tartans and the remains of the Celtic traditions, a new outlook developed in Scotland's capital. The speed of its rise was phenomenal. Within twenty years a wave of philosophers, scientists and poets, accompanied by a revision in social standards swept the city.
Analysing the Scottish Enlightenment is a monumental task. Controversies and inconsistencies abound. This Calvinist society rose to support a Roman Catholic pretender to the British throne. While condemning the Papacy as intruding on the lives of the faithful, the Scottish Kirk was thoroughly integrated into the education, politics and legal system of Edinburgh. Buchan neatly ties all these conflicting forces into a readable, highly detailed package. He is able to expose all these facets with minimal confusion as he introduces us to the major figures that would make the city a northern Athens. His focus is on personalities, with leading figures ambling, cavorting or dashing across the pages according to their style.
His first noteworthy figure is, of course, David Hume. Perhaps no individual set the tone for the Scottish Enlightenment as did Hume. Controversial and inconsistent in his own way, he struggled to shed the impediments of traditional dogmas while avoiding accusations of rebellion or heresy. He set the tone Edinburgh lights would follow - travelling the Continent, examining the human condition, and writing in "Southern English", as Buchan calls it. The language of London was a key element in what was to follow. English, instead of "Scottish English" would be the export licence conveying ideas up and down the British island, thence abroad.
Hume is followed by such notables as Adam Smith, John Home, the strange saga of James MacPherson's attempt to resurrect Scots' traditions by fabricating them, and the founder of geology, James Hutton. Other, lesser known lights, but surely contributors to this Northern Renaissance are dramatist Alexander Wedderburn, publisher Robert Chambers and the more practical contributions of George Drummond. There is more to Edinburgh's rise to prominence than the expressions of thoughtful men. In this period, the city descended from an enclave surrounding its "castle in the air" to build up the surroundings with residences, schools and market centres. The "salacious" hobbies of dance and the theatre intruded on the Kirk's disdain and overcame it. Promenading, weather permitting, was no longer hazardous. Although whisky replaced ale as the most consumed drink, imbibing moved from ale house to town house. This practice helped enable the role women to improve and conversations expanded to include both sexes.
Buchan has granted us a vivid and readable account of Edinburgh's burst of intellectual and social hatching. He does assume a certain level of knowledge on the reader's part - a level unlikely to be found on this side of the Atlantic. He graces the narrative with some illustrative material, but no matter how much the publishers include, there couldn't be enough. The maps of the city would be more useful if larger, but the tone the time is well conveyed. Some of his conclusions might be arguable, but his making Charles the son, and not the grandson, of Erasmus Darwin must be noted. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]