Scottish Universities in the Eighteenth Century

The five ancient Scottish university colleges recovered from the disruption of the Reformation, civil wars and Restoration with a lecture-based curriculum that was able to embrace economics and science, offering a high-quality liberal education to the sons of the nobility and gentry. They established chairs of mathematics, astronomy was facilitated by the building of observatories, and Robert Sibbald was appointed as the first Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh and he co-founded the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1681. helping the universities to become major centres of medical education and would put Scotland at the forefront of Enlightenment thinking.

In the eighteenth century Scotland's 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 Marsichial College (1700), Glasgow (1713), St. Andrews (1722) and a chair of chemistry and medicine at Edinburgh (1713). It was Edinburgh's medical school, founded in 1732 that came to dominate. By the 1740s it had displaced Leiden as the major centre of medicine in Europe and was a leading centre in the Atlantic world. The universities still had their difficulties. The economic down turn in the mid-century forced the closure of St Leonard's College in St Andrews, whose properties and staff were merged into St Salvator's College to form the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard.

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. Humbler students were aided by a system of bursaries established to aid in the training of the clergy. In this period residence became divorced from the colleges and students were able to live much more cheaply and largely unsupervised, at home, with friends or in lodgings the university towns. 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. The first major philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment was Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), who held the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1729 to 1746. A moral philosopher who produced alternatives to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, one of his major contributions to world thought was the utilitarian and consequentialist principle that virtue is that which provides, in his words, "the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers". Much of what is incorporated in the scientific method (the nature of knowledge, evidence, experience, and causation) and some modern attitudes towards the relationship between science and religion were developed by his protégés David Hume (1711-76) and Adam Smith (1723-90). Hugh Blair (1718-1800) was a minister of the Church of Scotland and held the Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh. He produced an edition of the works of Shakespeare and is best known for Sermons (1777-1801), a five-volume endorsement of practical Christian morality, and Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), an essay on literary composition, which was to have a major impact on the work of Adam Smith. He was also one of the figures who first drew attention to the Ossian cycle of James Macpherson to public attention.

Hume became a major figure in the sceptical philosophical and empiricist traditions of philosophy. His scepticism prevented him from obtaining chairs at Glasgow and Edinburgh. He and other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers developed what he called a 'science of man', which was expressed historically in works by authors including James Burnett, Adam Ferguson, John Millar and William Robertson, all of whom merged a scientific study of how humans behave in ancient and primitive cultures with a strong awareness of the determining forces of modernity. Indeed, modern sociology largely originated from this movement. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776) is considered to be the first work of modern economics. It had an immediate impact on British economic policy and still frames twenty-first century discussions on globalisation and tariffs. The focus of the Scottish Enlightenment ranged from intellectual and economic matters to the specifically scientific as in the work of William Cullen, physician and chemist, James Anderson, an agronomist, Joseph Black, physicist and chemist, and James Hutton, the first modern geologist.