In the popular imagination—and that of many scholars—the Scottish Enlightenment is forever associated with skeptics like David Hume, moderate Presbyterians such as William Robertson, and those like Adam Smith who lay somewhere in between. Such luminaries working in one of Europe’s most isolated countries facilitated a revolution of ideas that produced modern economics, pioneered new approaches to ethics, law, and politics, and facilitated great advances in engineering, medicine, botany, geology, architecture, and chemistry.
How and why this happened in this specific place and time has been the subject of numerous books. Yet most such inquiries don’t consider that the intellectual movement which changed the world was preceded by another, very different Scottish Enlightenment: one more cosmopolitan than that of Smith, Robertson, and Hume and which reflected a quite dissimilar political and religious complexion.
That at least is the thesis of a new book by Kelsey Jackson Williams. In The First Scottish Enlightenment: Rebels, Priests, and History, Williams argues that long before philosophers like Francis Hutcheson, lawyers such as Lord Monboddo and Lord Kames, or proto-sociologists like Adam Ferguson rose to fame, Scotland had already experienced an Enlightenment. Mostly located in north-eastern Scotland, this First Enlightenment, as Williams calls it, consisted of Scottish Episcopalians, Catholics, and Jacobites (supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty). At odds with the Whig Presbyterian establishment that dominated Scotland after 1688, the enlightened scholarship of these outsiders was to influence everything ranging from how to study history to the composition of Scotland’s literary canon.