City of Genius - Teachers Notes
The remarkable Scottish Enlightenment period in the second half of the 1700s, and the resulting changes in Edinburgh’s society and the city’s physical landscape, provide a basis for varied activities across the curriculum.
BBC Radio 4 In Our Time - Melyvn Bragg discusses the origins and impact of the Scottish Enlightenment with Professor Tom Devine...Read more
The Scottish Enlightenment period hinged on key people whose names are familiar today. These people are recognised as the ‘founding fathers’ in their respective fields, and are honoured by statues, street names and art work around Edinburgh today; Adam Smith (economics), David Hume (philosophy), Joseph Black (chemistry), James Hutton (geology) were just some of the names whose work began to change the world.
What were their lives like? What enabled them to be the great creative minds of their time? What did they do and what impact did they have then, and on our world today?
The impact of their thinking and work meant that life was changing in Edinburgh at the time of the Scottish Enlightenment. Peace had come to Scotland following the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, schools were starting to open, shops opened on the streets and trading with other countries was formalising, newspapers and libraries were new additions to life, so communication and understanding was improving.
The physical environment was changing and this can clearly be seen in old maps of the city. Edinburgh as a city was growing as the results of a design competition became the New Town we know today. Street names were named after the things which were important at that stage in the life of Scotland (Thistle, Rose, George, Queen, Princes etc.) and the new development was fundamentally different from the way the city had existed up until that point in the jumble of the Old Town.
Language and Literacy
The Scottish Enlightenment period offers opportunities for descriptive writing, dialogue writing and diaries.
As the physical landscape of the city changed, how would Edinburgh dwellers have viewed what they saw? What did it look like as the New Town began to be built on the north of the city? What was it like when the Nor Loch was drained or as the North Bridge was being constructed? What would it have been like as the ‘Earthen Mound’ (the material from New Town excavations) appeared, to become the Mound we know today?
What of the people and the jobs which were changing at the time? There were sedan chair carriers, the first people to open shops (the luckenbooths) on the Royal Mile, the first newspapers and doctors in the first hospital. What conversations did they have? What would their observations have been on what they could see and on how life was changing?
Sciences / Technology
The Scottish Enlightenment was a time when science became a basis for new understanding about how the natural world worked and what people could do with their new understanding of it.
New views on the age of the earth meant that geologists were important people while understanding of chemistry meant the introduction of new industrial processes. Meanwhile there were important developments in medicine and the introduction of surgery. Edinburgh got its first hospital beds and there was an understanding of the connection with nature and health as Edinburgh’s Physic Garden (on the site of what is now Waverley Station) allowed the use of the medicinal properties of plants.
Explore the connection between the medicines we use today and plants. How important is the natural world in the way we live our lives?
What industrial developments resulted from the knowledge which was growing during Enlightenment and what did that mean for society e.g. the development of the steam engine and its impact on mass production.
What are similar large scale changes which have happened at other stages in history e.g. introduction of computers and the internet.
What did the development of medicine mean for society and what further developments have happened in medicine between then and now; anaesthetics, vaccinations and what will be the developments of the future e.g. genetics.
Religious and Moral Education
The Scottish Enlightenment was the start of a period of change for churches. The church was highly influential in society and there were even laws relating to religious belief e.g. people were put to death for blasphemy. The influence of the churches could be found in many ways, e.g. schools were set up in each church parish to help people to be able to read the bible.
During the Scottish Enlightenment some figures such as the philosopher David Hume were vocal about their belief in man and not God. Things were changing and society slowly began to accommodate different views.
What is the picture of religious tolerance today? How do people of different faiths live in the same community and respect each other? How does the Scottish picture compare with other parts of the world?
Your Own Enlightenment
What would it look like to have an Enlightenment Week in school or even just an Enlightenment Day? Just like in the 1700s, could there be different ways for people to sit down and talk together and to think creatively together?
What would happen if a class took time to think about the area where everyone lives, what life is like there and what could be done differently and better for the good of all.
The brief could be to come up with ideas to design improvements to areas near the school, or maybe you want to think big and design a whole new town.
On a smaller scale you could look at things which could be improved in and around the school environment, or in the way things happen throughout a school day, and come up with solutions for these.
People could be appointed as experts with different skills, assigned to consider the problems. Others might be asked to come up with ideas for new inventions, and of course as with the original Enlightenment, there could be awards and accolades for the top thinkers or for those who have made outstanding discoveries.