2.3 The Enlightenment

Scotland had a major role in the intellectual and cultural Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and here, as elsewhere, the Enlightenment is widely understood as a key process in the development of the modern world.  With a basis of rational humanism and scientific empiricism, the Enlightenment entailed the re-formation of thought in politics, economics, science, philosophy and other fields. In this process, Scotland held an eminent, globally-significant position and influence.  Research into this phenomenon can connect the ‘Enlightened’ ideas of Scotland's great thinkers with material, practical and other developments 'at home' and it can seek to understand the connections forged through the Enlightenment between Scotland and the wider world.

The Enlightenment was more than a state of mind and it is more than a matter of intellectual history.  It was a material process, affecting the organisation of built and open space, and enacted through all kinds of material culture from the specialist equipment of scientific enquiry to mundane white ceramics and transparent window glass (see Leith glassworks).

The Playfair Collection of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century chemical apparatus at National Museums Scotland represents the ‘golden age of Edinburgh chemistry’ when students flocked from England, Continental Europe and North America to attend the lectures of William Cullen, Joseph Black and Thomas Charles Hope (Calder 1989). The image is a detail of a hydrostatic press from the university teaching collection, ordered from the inventor, Joseph Bramah (1748-1814) in 1807, © NMS.

The new scientific and rational outlook associated with Enlightenment was manifest in technological advances which arose from Enlightenment research and which facilitated the growth of industrial production and fed the massive increase in consumption that characterises the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Buildings, especially in urban areas, were material expressions of Enlightenment.  In their neo-classical or classically-influenced styles they positioned the middle classes of eighteenth-century Edinburgh or Dundee as the heirs of the Greeks and Romans (Miskell  2002).  A range of buildings also developed with the express purpose of furthering the Enlightenment goals of knowledge and understanding.  Universities, colleges and medical schools accommodated scientists, writers and students and, for the Enlightened amateur, the later eighteenth century saw the development of Literary and Philosophical Societies, which provided lecture and demonstration rooms as well as libraries and laboratory spaces.  Some time later – from the mid nineteenth century – such provision was developed for the working classes with the development of Sunday schools and, later, board schools, and mechanics' institutes, public libraries and reading rooms.  Buildings archaeology can contribute to the understanding of how these places were designed and used to promote certain understandings of the world and relationships between people.

Landscape archaeologists can develop the understanding of how Enlightenment thought and practice materialised in practice in the organisation of both ‘polite’ and working landscapes, agricultural estates and farms, and the layout of settlements and urban districts.  Here, Enlightenment proceeded hand-in-hand with the re-working of field boundaries, the clearance of settlement and the planning of new townships, villages and urban neighbourhoods and in the transformation of social and environmental relationships (Dalglish 2003; Tarlow 2007).  Research into these materialisations of Enlightenment should explore its connections with Improvement (see section 2.4 and Chapter 8: ‘People and Landscape’.)