Scottish Education in the Eighteenth Century

Scottish education in the eighteenth century concerns all forms of education, including schools, universities and informal instruction, in Scotland in the eighteenth century.

At the beginning of the period there was a largely complete network of parish schools in the Lowlands, although there were gaps in provision in the Highlands. Wealth from the Agricultural Revolution led to a programme of extensive rebuilding of schools. From the 1790s urban schools were often rebuild in a more imposing classical style. Many poorer girls were taught in dame schools, informally set up by a widow or spinster to teach reading, sewing and cooking. Literacy rates were lower in the Highlands than in comparable Lowland rural society, and despite these efforts illiteracy remained prevalent into the nineteenth century. Increasing numbers of girls from the higher social orders were taught in boarding schools. Female literacy rates remained high, but there were highly educated women who emerged as authors in this period.

Scottish universities went from being small and parochial institutions, largely for the training of clergy and lawyers, to major intellectual centres at the forefront of Scottish identity and life, seen as fundamental to democratic principles and the opportunity for social advancement for the talented. Chairs of medicine were founded at all the university towns. By the 1740s Edinburgh medical school was the major centre of medicine in Europe and was a leading centre in the Atlantic world. Access to Scottish universities was probably more open than in contemporary England, Germany or France. Attendance was less expensive and the student body more representative of society as a whole. The system was flexible and the curriculum became a modern philosophical and scientific one, in keeping with contemporary needs for improvement and progress. Scotland reaped the intellectual benefits of this system in its contribution to the European Enlightenment. Many of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment were university professors, who developed their ideas in university lectures.