As the Edinburgh Festival season approaches, Alistair MacDonald, a senior policy analyst based at the British Council office in Edinburgh, explains how the city became a leading centre of world culture and the lessons about international openness that can be learned from its golden age.

‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation’

The philosopher David Hume might not have called it cultural relations or soft power, but as one of the World’s greatest thinkers he well understood the value of internationalism, co-operation and trust in building a better future for mankind. 

The origins of modern economics, sociology and linguistics can all be traced to the Scottish Enlightenment

Hume was one of the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment, an extraordinary flowering of rational thinking and scientific endeavour centred on the libraries, salons and universities of Eighteenth Century Scotland. His contributions to philosophy were matched by the scientific discoveries of Joseph Black, James Hutton and Sir John Leslie. At the same time that Black was unlocking the secrets of “fixed air” [carbon dioxide], figures like Adam Smith and James Burnett were inventing the social sciences. The origins of modern economics, sociology and linguistics can all be traced to the Scottish Enlightenment. Likewise Robert Adam’s classical revival architecture, Henry Raeburn’s portrait of The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddington Loch and James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson reflect the impact of the artists of the Scottish Enlightenment. 

The genius that poured forth from Eighteenth Century Edinburgh impacted globally, influencing the US Founding Fathers and the great thinkers of Paris, London and Berlin. At the time Scotland was a nation of barely 1 million, compared to a population of just under 6 million in England, 25 million in France and 15 million across what is today Germany. The Scotland of the Eighteenth Century was nevertheless an integral and indeed a leading part of the wider intellectual world. The Scottish Enlightenment was very much a part of the British and European Enlightenment – the Scots shared the values of rationalism and humanism of Voltaire, Kant, Descartes and Rousseau, enriching it with their own very British empiricism. People and ideas passed back and forth between Great Britain, continental Europe and the American colonies. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, was a direct response to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume had a complex relationship as full of drama and ego as it was an intellectual debate on primitivism and the social contract. 

The Scottish Enlightenment was powered by its five universities (St Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh and King’s College and Marischal College, both in Aberdeen). At the time England still only had two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) while institutions in continental Europe were under pressure from a succession of ruinous wars and regimes hostile to dangerous, revolutionary thinking. Scotland offered a high quality liberal education to both Scots and international students who were attracted by a reputation for innovation and excellence, most especially in what we would call today the physical and life sciences, law, the social sciences and philosophy. Scottish institutions were more open - and less expensive - than their English and continental competitors which, combined with the extensive network of Scottish schools that allowed bright young Scots greater social mobility than many of their contemporaries and gave rise to a broader, more socially mixed and intellectually vibrant student body (Scottish Literacy and Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland and Northern England 1600-1800 by R A Houston). That openness to ideas and to engagement with new thinking from Europe and the colonies enriched the intellectual life of Scotland’s cities. Edinburgh in particular came in for praise from international scholars with Thomas Jefferson noting, “So far as science is concerned, no place in the world can pretend to competition with Edinburgh.” Benjamin Franklin in turn asserted that “the University of Edinburgh possessed a set of truly great men, Professors of Several Branches of Knowledge, as have ever appeared in any age or country.” Franklin, a true polymath, corresponded regularly with James Watt of steam engine fame. For his part, Voltaire recognised the contribution of the Scots of his era commenting, “we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.”

Radical ideas

Radicalism bubbled away in Scotland as it did in the colonies and Revolutionary France. High levels of literacy meant the Scots of the Eighteenth Century were probably the most well-read people on earth. Newspapers and publishing houses boomed - the Scots were up to date on the latest developments from around the globe and watched with intense interest the birth of the United States and the French Revolution. The education enjoyed by the likes of Scotland’s national poet Rabbie Burns created an appetite for political change across the country - ‘A Man’s A Man for A’ That reflects in song the reformist ideas of Thomas Paine. The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers in turn helped shape the political thinking of the radicals in France and the American colonies - the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence reflect Franklin’s friend Hume’s rationalism. 

The exchange of ideas and the free movement of scholars between Scotland, England, Europe and the colonies in the Eighteenth Century built respect and admiration internationally. Fascinatingly, Scotland’s influence in the period owed little to the Government of the time. It was down to the achievements of individuals and strong and independent institutions. The relative political stability of the Scottish state after the paroxysms of the Jacobite rebellions, growing international connections and economic success through expanding trade with the American colonies, and the benign neglect of the authorities in London, provided an enabling environment, offering the freedom to think and act relatively free of the restrictions of state involvement and patronage. 

The country which was the originator of The Wealth of Nations and the science of geology has in more recent times given us the telephone, television, penicillin - and Dolly the Sheep. Scotland’s scientific and engineering achievements are matched with a continuing contribution to the arts and culture - Harry Potter, Trainspotting and Grand Theft Auto. The recognition of the importance of education and culture, and of openness, reciprocity and trust to Scotland’s international success is also driving the Scots forward today. International researchers and students continue to choose Scotland’s universities, with Scottish institutions enrolling a higher proportion of students from around the world than competitors elsewhere in the UK. Scotland’s reputation in STEM subjects and the social sciences remains high internationally.

Just as the Scottish economy benefitted from the intellectual and scientific achievements of the Eighteenth Century with the advent of steam power and free trade, so today culture, innovation and education are driving Scotland’s success. The Edinburgh International Festivals are a global phenomenon – generating over £261 million in tourism revenue in 2010. Beyond their direct economic impact, collectively the Festivals are a huge source of soft power, projecting Scotland’s attractiveness and reputation internationally. They promote an image of Scotland and the UK as an open, welcoming, and vibrant place that, just as in the Scottish Enlightenment period, is interested in the world and eager to engage, to share and debate. That internationalism, the emphasis on reciprocity, the willingness to work and sweat together with others, today sees Scotland’s researchers, artists, politicians and entrepreneurs linking up with counterparts around the globe to collaborate in developing new thinking and the latest scientific techniques, from nanotechnology to ‘tractor beams’. National and local authorities play a key role, recognising the importance of combining respect for institutional independence with creating a benign, enabling environment that offers individuals and organisations the freedom to thrive. It is a model that serves Scotland well.

Scotland has long been an incubator or radical thinking with influence far beyond its borders

And just as radical intellectual energy roiled in the salons of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow in the Eighteenth century, so the invigoration of public life that has followed the establishment of the new Scottish Parliament in 1999 has seen a revival in political debate with levels of public engagement significantly higher than elsewhere in the UK and much of continental Europe. Scotland has long been an incubator or radical thinking with influence far beyond its borders. Whether it is Thatcherite market liberalisation, the birth of the Labour movement, or the thinking of the modern Scottish Nationalist Party, there is a direct line from the insights of Adam Smith and the humanity of Robbie Burns to many of radical political movements of recent times. 

Today Scotland is still very much a nation of the progressives, innovators and natural philosophers. What new breakthroughs will it present to the world in the Twenty-first century, and what lessons could other parts of the UK learn from its soft power success?