Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Regular readers of this blog, if any exist, should not be surprised by now that sometimes I nerd out about one thing or another.
Last week I was in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and it quickly climbed the chart of my favorite cities in the world. I won’t suggest that it was solely because of what Edinburgh represents in the annals of human achievement, but I won’t say that it didn’t play a role either.
Considering that Scotland was a small, poor, and repeatedly invaded corner and backwater of Europe, far as it was from the traditional capitals of Western culture such as Paris and Rome, it was truly remarkable what took place here in the 18th and 19th centuries. “The Athens of the north,” some proudly called it, evoking the ancient Attica of Plato and Socrates and Sophocles and Aristophanes. “A hotbed of genius,” said some others. And they weren’t exaggerating.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Scotland’s population was about one-fifth that of England, and its wealth about one-thirty-sixth. And yet in the next century and half, Scotland produced, among others, Adam Smith, the father of economics; the great empiricist philosopher David Hume; Hume’s greatest opponent Thomas Reid; Sir Walter Scott, the most influential novelist of the 19th century; the Scottish poet laureate Robert Burns and his immediate predecessor Robert Ferguson; the philosopher Thomas Carlyle; James Clerk Maxwell, the third-greatest physicist of all time behind only Newton and Einstein; James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine; and Mary Somerville, the woman for whom the word “scientist” was coined.
This was what came to be known as “the Scottish Enlightenment.” Without this astonishing period of achievement, as a species we would still be mired in the dark ages in many respects. In practical terms, without Maxwell’s Equations none of us would have working electronics, never mind that smart phone in your pocket. Our policymakers would understand markets and currencies little better than Caesar and Augustus. Railways would never have been built, never mind air travel. In more abstract terms, we would have a much poorer understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. Without the benefit of empiricism and its demand for evidence, we would be much more beholden to ancient superstitions.
(From my private perspective, I would note that the Scots have been some of the greatest travel writers in history. Alexander Burnes, the British envoy in 19th century Kabul and cousin of the poet Robert Burns, composed the first magnum opus of British imperial travel writing, Travels into Bokhara. The tradition persists to this day with authors such as Rory Stewart, now a Member of Parliament. William Dalrymple, another Scotsman, descendant of Enlightenment figure Alexander Dalrymple, and no literary slouch himself, has argued that the Scottish tradition of travel writing is also a legacy of empiricism and its imperative to observe the world for what it is. Sounds about right to me.)
No less fascinating than the Scottish Enlightenment itself is what caused it. In 1566, the infant James VI was crowned king of Scotland. In 1603, Elizabeth I of England died without an heir. James, being the great-grandson of Elizabeth’s aunt Margaret Tudor, now inherited the English throne as well. He moved down to London to become James I of England and never looked back. Fast forward a century to 1707, and the Acts of Union formalized the marriage of England and Scotland, creating what we now call Britain or the United Kingdom.
Scotland now lost its political independence. But it was just then, as Hume himself noted, when the Scottish parliament dissolved to join that of England, that the Scottish people became the world’s greatest nation of overachievers.
It was no coincidence. Nations often discover their most creative selves when they, willingly or not, join the company of other nations. So the Irish would go on to become the greatest writers in the English language just when Ireland struggled for independence from Britain. So the Bengal Renaissance took place in India at the height of British colonialism on the subcontinent. So the United States came to bestride the world like a colossus through the infusion of immigrant energy — until, one supposes, right about now.
Of course, the once colonized Scottish, having embraced the merger with England, in this same period became some of the greatest colonizers the world has ever seen. But that darker side of the story will be for another day.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."