Northern Lights

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Literature and Gentility in Scotland by David Daiches
    Edinburgh, 114 pp, £6.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 85224 438 X
  • New Perspectives on the Politics and Culture of Early Modern Scotland edited by John Dwyer, Roger Mason and Alexander Murdoch
    John Donald, 340 pp, £15.00, August 1982, ISBN 0 85976 066 9
  • Adam Smith by R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner
    Croom Helm, 231 pp, £12.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 7099 0729 X
  • Sister Peg edited by David Raynor
    Cambridge, 127 pp, £15.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 521 24299 1
  • Boswell: The Applause of the Jury 1782-1785 edited by Irma Lustig and Frederick Pottle
    Heinemann, 419 pp, £15.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 434 43945 2
  • Muir of Huntershill by Christina Bewley
    Oxford, 212 pp, £8.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 19 211768 8

The leading figures in all these books are well-known, and are located in a period of conspicuous intellectual activity in the Scotland of the mid and late 18th century. This was the time when the modern social sciences were created as areas of legitimate study, much of their content for the use of teenage university students. There was also a modest literary revival. The great men of the Scottish Enlightenment, if they wrote at all, for some of them suffered from the academic disease of inability to put pen to paper, wrote in distinguished prose. Boswell was a literary innovator and knew it. Professor Daiches, in his small book, links the poetry acceptable in this period with the rise of genteel expression and shows how, in the pursuit of a language capable of wider circulation than the old vernacular, much of the traditional Scottish poetic inheritance was pushed aside. English English came naturally to Boswell, less naturally but effectively in the sentences of Adam Smith and David Hume, but at the cost of the reservation of the Scottish tongue for casual, domestic or low-life use. Yet, as Daiches reminds us, with an exceptionally happy choice of quotations, the literary endeavours of the upper class were accompanied by a genuine achievement in the vernacular by Fergusson and Burns, even though the prosodic forms available were by then restricted.

The Scottish Enlightenment with its accompanying literary shadow, inevitably raises historical problems of causation. Is there a collection of social or institutional preconditions which may be shown to account for it? If there is, then serious research needs to be done on Scottish government and society in the early 18th century, for the understanding of both of these remains limited. We ought also to be looking critically at the intellectual sterility of the central decades of the 17th century, when such mental exploration as there was in Scotland seems to have been directed almost exclusively at the power politics of theocracy, except for a few eccentrics such as Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty. Theocratic failure and national defeat took place before the first signs of intellectual innovation. The most interesting 17th-century forerunner of the 18th-century efflorescence is Stair, whose Institutions captivate by their simple and lucid style: at the same time, by infusing system and theory into an inchoate and inadequate structure of law, they gave the new and growing class of professional lawyers something to chew on, a starting point in intellectual life. This lawyer group, mostly landholders of medium scale, became a key element in the Scottish Enlightenment, and since there does not seem to be at other times in history any special affiliation between lawyers and gentry, on the one hand, and exploratory thought, on the other, except perhaps in the court of Henry II of England, we need to look closely at the social setting. In a recent collection of essays, New Perspectives on the Politics and Culture of Early Modern Scotland, Hugh Ouston produces work on the institutional changes brought about during and immediately after James VII’s forced cool-off in Scotland in the early 1680s; others of the essays show a willingness to investigate aspects of Scottish society, both civil and ecclesiastical, before the Enlightenment. These voices have mostly not been heard before, and the book is at least one indication of approaches to answers to some of the problems. I suspect that there is still a lot to be done, and that other approaches, based on social structure rather than on the activities of a small élite, will also be fruitful.

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