Crowded with genius : the Scottish enlightenment : Edinburgh's moment of the mind /
James Buchan.
1st ed.
New York : HarperCollins, 2003.
xi, 436 p. : ill.
0060558881 (acid-free paper)
More Details
New York : HarperCollins, 2003.
0060558881 (acid-free paper)
general note
Includes index.
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter
Crowded with Genius
The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind

Chapter One

Auld Reekie

Edinburgh in the warm September of 1745 was a handsome, cramped and discontented provincial town of approximately 40,000 people, just embarking on modernity. As a capital city, it was nothing much. It had lost its royal court to London in 1603, when King James VI succeeded to the English throne, and its nobility followed at the amalgamation of the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707. Edinburgh had no manufacturing, and its trade was a set of pettifogging monopolies, down to who had the right to rent out the pall at burials or run coaches to the port of Leith. The town lived off lawyers attending on the Court of Session and clergymen coming to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and gentry sending their children up to school and spending the winter in town. In the first age of millionaires, an Edinburgh family was rich with £1,000 a year.

There were nine Presbyterian churches, each with two ministers, and two more outside the walls; two banks (which survive) and a couple of general merchants that could discount commercial bills; two thrice-weekly newspapers (one Whig, one Jacobite) and The Scots Magazine, founded in 1739 and full of trials, poetry, bills of mortality, and a narrative of Scots and world affairs; four printing-works to garble Bibles and law papers; offices of the Friendly and Sun Fire Insurance schemes; a fund for the widows of ministers of the Kirk; a few brewers between the Cowgate and the walls; and three mail coaches to London a week: though there were men alive to tell Sir Walter Scott that once the return mail brought just a single letter for the whole of Scotland. A stagecoach ran monthly to London, spending at least ten days on the road, though a private chaise could do the journey faster. It was not until the time of Robert Burns's visit in 1787 that the journey was cut to sixty hours.

The parliamentary Union with England in 1707 and the abolition of the Scottish Privy Council a year later had demolished the formal administration of Scotland. In as much as the country was ruled at all during the long ascendancy in London of Sir Robert Walpole, it was controlled by the Duke of Argyll and a clutch of law officers. The Edinburgh Town Council, whose constitution had been violently disputed but altered very little since the time of James VI, was a permanent oligarchy that nominated its own successor from candidates submitted by restrictive merchant and craft guilds and even elected the town's MP. Advocates and clergymen, being unincorporated, had no say in either election.

The Council met in a building in Parliament Close hard against the south-west corner of the high church of St Giles and did its drinking at Lucky Wilson's tavern in Writers' Court. Its ordinary membership was twenty-five, which could be expanded under precise and obscure conditions to thirty-three. In the words of a reforming pamphlet of 1746, 'Is it a Small Matter, with you, that the Gentlemen in the Administration of this great City, who should represent near Forty Thousand, do at no time represent Forty of the Inhabitants.' 'Omnipotent, corrupt, impenetrable,' as a witness wrote of the nineteenth-century councillors, ‘they might have been sitting in Venice.' They controlled the trade of the town and of the Port of Leith, the street-lights and weights and measures and water supply, and named the ministers to the kirks, the doctors to the High School and the under-janitors to the College. As for the College professors, the magistrates might arrive in a body unannounced to hear a new appointment lecture. The purpose of the Council was to maintain peace between the guilds and, in alliance with the Kirk-sessions and the Presbytery, an atmosphere of unctuous piety.

From a distance the town was a palisade of towers rising, in the phrase of Robert Chambers, 'from a palace on the plain to a castle in the air'. Between Castle Hill and Holyrood ran what Daniel Defoe called 'the most spacious, the longest, and best inhabited Street in Europe'. It was called in its upper section the Lawnmarket; then lower down the High Street, which was closed at the bottom by the gate called the Netherbow Port; and, at the bottom, the Canongate. In parts the street was so broad that five carriages could have moved abreast, but so high-cambered that four of them would have overturned.

Confined by its site, the Lawnmarket and High Street made a sort of antique Manhattan. With nowhere else to go, the pressure of population had squeezed the stone apartment blocks or 'lands' upwards. Those at the back of Parliament Close towered twelve storeys above the Cowgate. Seen from the shores of the Firth of Forth, the garlands of wood -- and peat-smoke round these pinnacles had given rise to a nickname for the town: Auld Reekie.

Between the lands, the wynds and closes ran steeply down ravines to the waters of the North Loch, or to the Cowgate. In those filthy lanes, between sagging houses showing their gables to the street and pigs rooting in the gutters, every condition mingled. As a young medical student named Oliver Goldsmith wrote in 1753 or 1754, 'you might see a well-dressed duchess issuing from a dirty close'. Indeed, Jane Maxwell, who in the second half of the eighteenth century became Duchess of Gordon and the leader of Edinburgh society, was once seen riding up the High Street on a sow which her sister drove on with a stick.

The lands themselves accommodated dancing-masters and Lords of Session and all sorts in between. The dark scale-stairs were upright streets, a thoroughfare of Musselburgh fishwives, sweeps or coal-porters and barefoot housemaids. Sir Walter Scott, who had lost six siblings to the bad air of College Wynd ...

Crowded with Genius
The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind
. Copyright © by James Buchan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2004-06-01:
Buchan has written a particularly readable book concerning the 18th-century transformation of Edinburgh from a poverty- and disease-ridden city to "the marvel of modern Europe." It was in this city that there came to be a gathering of some of the most remarkable minds of the time--James Black, James Boswell, Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, James Hutton, Sir Walter Scott, and others. Enlightenment Edinburgh, redolent of the Greek city-state and the Renaissance, represents one of those collective cerebral occasions that are remarkable as both spectacle and accomplishment. Revealed is the quantum leap in thought that constitutes the driving force of civilization. Endnotes and index are both ample and helpful. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels and libraries. G. J. Martin emeritus, Southern Connecticut State University
Appeared in Library Journal on 2003-10-15:
Until the early 1700s, Edinburgh, Scotland, was considered a smelly backwater, mockingly known as auld reekie. After the union with England, the city became, for a short time, the epicenter of learning, contributing enormously to the age of science and reason. Men such as David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Hutton were only a few of the influential figures that contributed to this modern-day Athens. In addition to the huge strides made in medicine, agriculture, and economics, novelist and critic Buchan (The Persian Bride; Frozen Desire) discusses Edinburgh's cultural reawakening and its focus on building projects to boost its world-class status. He argues that the "well-established Protestant institutions" in Scotland contributed greatly to the intellectual and creative innovations that characterized Edinburgh in the 18th century, yet it was the very questioning of strict Calvinism that freed men's minds as they attempted to understand the world around them. Much is made of the philosophical underpinnings of Edinburgh's achievements, which unfortunately can make for dry and ponderous reading. This book will be of interest chiefly to serious students of Scottish history. Recommended for academic libraries and large public libraries with special collections in British history.-Isabel Coates, MISt, CCRA-Toronto West Tax Office, Mississauga, Ont. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2003-09-01:
In a span of 50 years in the late 18th century, Edinburgh, a city of merely 40,000 inhabitants, contained some of the Enlightenment's most important thinkers, such as philosopher David Hume, economist Adam Smith, biographer James Boswell and scientist James Hutton. Buchan, a Whitbread-winning novelist and critic, brings this remarkable era to life, opening with a brief history of the failed rebellion of 1745 and the romanticism that lingered in the Scottish psyche. He also stresses the importance of the Presbyterian Church, but emphasizes that it lost much of its power over Scottish intellectuals. One such intellectual was the influential philosopher David Hume, who was attacked as a heretic but being, in his own words, "naturally of cheerful and sanguine temper," he "soon recovered the blow." A similarly sharp portrait is painted of the life and work of Adam Smith, whose work expressed the rise of the power of commercialism. Buchan also devotes some of his narrative to science, examining Edinburgh as a global center of medical education, and to literature, in which Scotsmen such as novelist Henry Mackenzie and poet Robert Burns would blaze the way for the Age of Romanticism. Throughout, Buchan writes well and does a fine job arguing the case for Edinburgh's disproportionately large impact on 18th-century intellectual history. Yet much of this material has been covered before, most recently in Arthur Herman's enjoyable How the Scots Invented the Modern World, which many readers might find more accessible on complex matters like Hume's philosophy. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Nov. 28) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
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Publishers Weekly, September 2003
Library Journal, October 2003
Booklist, November 2003
Boston Globe, March 2004
Choice, June 2004
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Table of Contents
Prologuep. 1
Auld Reekiep. 4
Charlie's Yearp. 24
The Disease of the Learnedp. 56
The Philosopher's Operap. 85
Smaller Joys from Less Important Causesp. 119
The Thermometer of the Heartp. 141
Torrents of Windp. 173
The Savage and the Shopkeeperp. 208
The Art of Dancingp. 241
Earth to Earthp. 272
The Man of Feelingp. 300
Epiloguep. 335
Notesp. 341
Indexp. 415
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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