Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 September 2020
The phenomenon of the Scottish Enlightenment has become the focus of such a vast scholarly industry, as well as being extolled as a political and cultural icon in Scotland and in North America, that it is easy to lose sight of just how recently it was identified as a specific historical occurrence. As Charles Withers and Paul Wood pointedly remind us in Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment, the first book-length study on the Scottish Enlightenment was only published in 1976 and the term only came into general use in the previous decade. Indeed, we can probably date the inauguration of the Scottish Enlightenment as a historical happening – and a historical issue – to Hugh Trevor-Roper's address to the Second International Congress on the Enlightenment at St Andrews in 1966. What this date implies, however, is that the period of the emergence of the Scottish Enlightenment as a matter of intellectual concern is identical with the period of the emergence of modern Scottish nationalism, since the Scottish National Party went from having no MPs in 1964 to having eleven in 1974. Such a conjunction between the rise of the Scottish Enlightenment and the rise of Scottish nationalism is deeply ironic, since the Enlightenment has been regarded by nationalists, at least until recently, as a distinctly Unionist phenomenon, whose major proponents, such as Trevor-Roper, were committed to resisting Scottish self-government. Indeed, Trevor-Roper's original account of the Enlightenment emphasised that it was only made possible by breaking down ‘the barricades of a defensive nationalism’, an achievement which he was in turn to defend by putting up barricades to the establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament in the 1970s. What has come to be seen as one of Scotland's most significant contributions to world culture has, paradoxically, been treated with deep suspicion by nationalists, precisely because it has been so enthusiastically supported by anti-nationalists as proof that nationalism in Scotland would be incapable of producing a culture of world significance. The emphasis of Enlightenment historiography has been, according to nationalists, on the fact that the Scottish Enlightenment was produced not from native resources but from external – and, especially, English – influences. Put crudely, the Union was the fundamental cause of the Scottish Enlightenment and therefore any challenge to the Union is a betrayal of Scotland's greatest intellectual achievements.