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Edinburgh: 5 ways it changed the Scottish Enlightenment

Edinburgh in the 18th and 19th centuries was a fascinating place to say the least. The ideas, books, and discoveries that came to light in this scholarly city still have an impact on us today. To give just a small example of how our wee city changed the world, we’ve put together a list of five ways Edinburgh's ideas and inhabitants influenced this key historical period. 

1. Leading scientific discovery

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh was founded in the late 17th century by Robert Sibbald, the University of Edinburgh’s first Professor of Medicine. This led to the University becoming one of the world’s major centres of medical education. Our Medical School led thinking not just in medicine but in many other branches of science. One of its most famous alumni is chemist Joseph Black, who discovered carbon dioxide and developed the first chemical formulae.

2. Hosting The Select Society

Many of the groundbreaking developments from the Scottish Enlightenment period stemmed from the in-depth intellectual discussion that happened at scholarly clubs. The Select Society and The Poker Club were two of Edinburgh’s most famous clubs, boasting members including advocate Lord Kames, and his protégés: economic pioneer Adam Smith and leading philosopher David Hume.

3. Proposing evolution

James Burnett, better known as Lord Monboddo, was a graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s Law School. Like many of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Lord Monboddo had interests in many different academic and cultural areas. Despite his legal background, he is most famous for developing the study of historical linguistics. His interest in evolution of language also led him to propose ideas about wider evolution, a theory that later championed by Charles Darwin.

4. Publishing the Encyclopædia Britannica

A key aspect of the Scottish Enlightenment was the sharing of ideas and knowledge. The Encyclopædia Britannica, first designed and published in Edinburgh in 1768, was a major English-language reference work that went on to be used around the world. The Encyclopædia continued to be produced in Edinburgh for more than 130 years, when it was bought by an American company. Although the printed edition ended in 2010, the Encyclopædia is still available online today.

5. Unearthing geology

Edinburgh-born James Hutton originally attended the city’s University to study Classics at only 14 years old. After inheriting a farm from his father, he developed an interest in the formation of the land around him, and even had a house built opposite Edinburgh’s famous rock formation, Salisbury Crags. Study of rock formations led him to propose a theory that is key to geology even today: that the earth’s crust changes over time due to external causes. James Hutton is buried in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, just a short walk from the University where he studied.


Want to find out more? You can discover how Edinburgh led this world-leading movement in The Scottish Enlightenment in Context (four weeks) and Culture and Society in the Scottish Enlightenment (two weeks). Each course lets you explore Edinburgh in the context of the Scottish Enlightenment, much of which is still the same today.