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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
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]
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2005
I enjoyed this dip into a pocket of history that I knew only by allusion from other works. Historical surveys are always entertaining; this one might have been improved by providing more depth and analysis--erudition--in probing the subtleties of the philosophical or economic world of the luminaries presented, or suggesting a reading program.
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on October 30, 2013
Buchan's book explores that crucial moment in time when Edinburgh became the crucible for the formation of what can only be called the modern temperament. It is a startling story indeed: how a dingy, dirty, provincial backwater suddenly glowed incandescent for a brief but important and shinning moment. And thus, in a period of less than half a century, it hosted notables like David Hume and Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, James Boswell, Robert Burns, James Hutton, Sir Walter Scott, and later one of my favorite Scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, all of whom rethought and reworked the foundations of our social and scientific worldview.

It goes almost without saying that Buchan's work is a book of formidable scholarship, studying Edinburgh at one glowing period of time -- from 1745 to the end of the century. Yet it is told with the kind of passion one would expect of the likes of the Tom Cahill's of the world.

It readily answered for me the question all such "bolts out of the blue" always beg: Why this place, and why at this time? I had often asked myself the same question about both Italian and the Harlem Renaissance. For Edinburgh, the author's answer was a simple and straight forward one, one that invariably appears in similar circumstances: In a time of radical upheaval, a group of committed, talented but unselfish friends came together with passion, energy and ideas to help themselves better understand the world. It sometimes happens that in doing so, they also just manage to change it forever. It was in Edinburgh that a unique gathering of the finest minds of the day came together and made breathtaking innovations in architecture, politics, science, the arts and economics, all of which continue to resonate today.

And even though it answered for me the question usually begged by bolts out of the blue like Edinburgh turned out to be, still somehow, the book didn't click or come together for me. Perhaps there was just too much detail, detail that might have come alive for me had I been walking the streets of Edinburgh, but fell flat as I tried to picture it through my mind's eye thousands of miles away. The book had 107 pages of footnotes, no lest!

Perhaps too I felt like I did walking the street of Seville recently, the tour guides' analysis a half millennium later, seemed woefully inadequate; like a great intrusion on the sensibilities of Spaniards living and walking the streets of Seville in a completely different time. To me it seemed a rude and unnecessary appropriation of their history to be used today simply for mercenary purposes? And in addition, for Edinburgh most of the people and events could equally be ascribed elsewhere -- like nearby Glasgow.

It is difficult not to compare this book to similar Cahill's books. This one of course is denser, carefully footnoted and infinitely more scholarly, but Cahill is able to take similar material and weave together a much more compact and compelling story. Even though impressive scholarship, if I have a choice, I will choose Cahill every time. Three Stars.
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This book is mostly about the city. It is a light, broud summary of Edinburgh at the end of the 18th Century.

If you are looking for much about David Hume, Adam Smith and other Scottish intellectuals of the time I can't recomment this book. Their treatment is sketch, superficial. I don't think the author has the intellectual heft to them justice anyway.

A light, entertaining book but keep your expectations in check.
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on February 25, 2014
Very entertaining and informative account of the strong participants of the Scottish Enlightenment. It describes a rapid rise of acity from a filthy backwater to intelectual prominence.
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14 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2004
Because of its glowing reviews and my strong interest in learning more about Edinburgh and Scotland, I had high expectations for this book. I was very disappointed. It assumes that the reader has a strong knowledge of Scottish history, so the neophyte will not learn much. Yet, the book is written at such a superficial level that a knowledgeable person will learn nothing new. As another Amazon reviewer points out, the book is essentially themeless and has no point of view. I know that the book received many positive reviews, but it is difficult to know what audience will get much out of it. I havn't been this disappointed in a book for a long time.
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7 of 16 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 22, 2005
While Mr. Buchan provides interesting bits of knowledge, the book as a whole lacks a sense of cohesion to this reader. It seems torn between an attempt at a history of Edinburgh during a specific time and a random discussion of famous Scots of the same era.

While Mr. Buchan is a good writer, this is not a great book.
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8 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2004
This treatise is well-researched and chock-full of historical facts about an interesting period. But I often asked myself where Buchan was going with it all. There seemed no theme, except the simplest "Edinburgh was an interesting place then" or very narrow theses at best.
Also, the editing is sloppy. Paragraphs are misplaced, and there are occasional errors in spelling or grammar. Antecedents are missing or lost.
Another draft might have made for an excellent book.
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