Edinburgh World Heritage - News Article


Enlightenment Edinburgh: A Guide

Birlinn Ltd, one of Scotland’s leading independent publishers, has recently published a marvellous celebration of Enlightenment Edinburgh by renowned historian Sheila Szatkowski.

Aug 24, 2017

In the Edinburgh Review of 1838, Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850), literary critic and judge, declared that Edinburgh owed its extraordinary site and landscape to Nature. Nature ‘laid every foundation, and disposed of its rocks and its hills, as if she had designed it for the display of architecture.’ In his lifetime, Jeffrey witnessed the city of his birth burst out of its medieval boundaries to expand northwards into a New Town that would make Edinburgh the most extensive example of a Romantic, classical city in the world. This New Town has been described as a physical representation in stone of the Enlightenment in Scotland.

The Enlightenment was a cultural pan-European phenomenon of the long 18th century which saw remarkable changes in law, philosophy, science, literature, the arts, engineering and architecture. In Scotland, by 1750 the most literate nation in Europe, this moral, scientific and political movement was driven by the urban intelligentsia of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Edinburgh however was the beating heart of the Enlightenment in Scotland. The intellectual courage and prowess of its philosophers along with the vision of its civic leaders created a new post-Union metropolis that put the city on the world stage.

The first exodus from the medieval confines of the Old Town to another distinct area of the city began in the 1760s going southwards to George Square. The boldest leap however was northwards, beyond the Castle and the Nor’ Loch. Published in 1752 the “Proposals for carrying out certain Public Works in the City of Edinburgh” became the enlightened blueprint for the greatest urban regeneration project of the century. It proclaimed that “so necessary and so considerable an improvement of the capital cannot fail to have the greatest influence on the general prosperity of the nation.” It was time for a new rational urban order set in a rolling landscape of new ideas and opportunities.

Fifteen years later came the 1767 Act for extending the Royalty of the City and the adoption of James Craig’s amended 1766 grid plan for the New Town. After a hesitant start, by the 1790s the social watershed was soon in full flood. Deserting the sordid and overcrowded ‘vertical’ streets of the Old Town, the Edinburgh elite headed for champagne and chandeliers in the New Town. Robert Adam’s rigid and clean-cut Palladian style was the preferred choice for the new ‘gentleman architect’ and ‘builder architect’ until the 19th century. Thereafter the ‘professional architects’ raised the Hellenic torch of the Greek revival to make Edinburgh, not only intellectually, but architecturally the ‘Athens of the North’.

In defining the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment, some scholars have limited it to the era of Hutcheson, Hume and Smith while others extend its influence and impact through to the later generations of Dugald Stewart, Francis Jeffrey and Sir Walter Scott. This guide to the people and places of Enlightenment Edinburgh extends its reach towards 1850 to include the later generation of practical intellectuals in science, architecture and engineering who consolidated the legacy of the Enlightenment as a basis for the modern age.

This is a book about people and places, clubs and conversations, and a celebration of how topography and cultural achievement came together to create the great enlightenment city that is Edinburgh.

Sheila Szatkowski is a writer and historian based in Edinburgh. Her interest in the Scottish Enlightenment began at Edinburgh University under the tutelage of George E. Davie, philosopher and author of The Democratic Intellect. She is currently completing a biography on the life andvunpublished works of John Kay (1742-1826).

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