How Edinburgh changed the world: the Scottish Enlightenment

In a single day in 1624, eleven women, suspected of witchcraft, were reported to have been killed in the excrement-laced marsh Nor’ Loch after being subjected to the infamous ‘swimming test’: throw a young woman into a deep chasm of water, sometimes weighed down by stones; if she sinks and drowns, she is considered innocent, but if she floats, then she’s guilty of witchcraft, a crime so dreadful that punishment was strangulation at the stake, followed by public burning.

For centuries, Edinburgh’s Old Town was rife with superstition; anarchy, immorality and crime were endemic along its narrow streets and secretive wynds and closes. Yet barely more than a hundred years after the barbaric slaughter of eleven innocent lives in Nor’ Loch, as Edinburgh expanded beyond its punishing walls with the emergence of the New Town, some of the world’s greatest minds were engaging in a new approach to living and learning, helping to forge, not only the most dynamic and forward-thinking city on the planet, but the very structures that underpin modern society across the globe.

The City of Genious

Edinburgh is the city from which emerged many technological breakthroughs that have revolutionised the world, from medical x-rays and anaesthesia to the electric toaster and the telephone. Even the humble digestive biscuit and the (not so unassuming) deep fried Mars bar have their roots in Edinburgh’s creative mindset. But it was the Scottish Enlightenment that made these things possible, by revolutionising academic thinking and turning minds away from the rigidity of scripture, instead proposing a more scientific approach to learning that placed greater emphasis on understanding from observation and analysis.

The Scottish Enlightenment spawned a revolution in art, literature, medicine, engineering, science and politics, all underpinned by a new philosophy. Driven by the work of David Hume, one of the world’s greatest philosophers whose statue stands proudly along the Royal Mile today, Edinburgh’s populace began to throw off the age-old superstitions that had, for centuries, guided their daily lives. Instead, they pondered the serious questions of the day, about morality and religion, wrote, discussed and debated. And from this different way of thinking grew a new society in which the wretched, diseased and immoral existence of the Old Town residents could be banished, as Edinburgh – the ‘Athens of the North’ – surged ahead, inspiring the people of the city, and the country, to grow intellectually as world leaders.

Today, thousands of promising intellectual minds arrive at Edinburgh’s universities from all over the world, many engaged in the technology and medicine for which the city is renowned. But the legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment is widespread, in every piece of engineering that owes its roots to the Industrial Revolution; in modern economic systems and financial houses; in the chambers of democracy in nations the world over; and in the intercontinental free trade schemes across the globe that foster a spirit of friendly competition while rejecting isolationism and confrontation.


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