Composing the Scottish Enlightenment
“Really it is admirable how many Men of Genius this Country produces at present,” wrote David Hume to his countryman Gilbert Elliot in July 1757. “Is it not strange,” he continued, “that, at a time when we have lost our Princes, our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the Presence of our chief Nobility, are unhappy in our Accent and Pronunciation, speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue which we make use of; is it not strange, I say, that, in these Circumstances, we shou'd really be the People most distinguish'd for Literature in Europe?” (LDH, 1:255). In this well-known passage, Hume articulates the central paradox of the Scottish Enlightenment: how did a poor, tiny country on the geographical fringes of Europe, which was once a sovereign kingdom but had recently lost its monarchy (in the Union of Crowns of 1603), its Parliament (in the Union of 1707 that gave rise to Great Britain), and many of its greater nobility (who now enjoyed the high life in London), and whose men of letters wrote in a language (formal English) that differed from the one most of them spoke (Scots, or more commonly a form of English heavily tinctured with Scots)—how did such a nation that was no longer a nation-state emerge as a leading force in the republic of letters? But Hume's statement is also an exaggeration. Did he really believe that in 1757 Scots were “the People most distinguish'd for Literature in Europe”? In the letter, Hume gives only two examples to support his claim: a recently published epic poem by William Wilkie, The Epìgoniad, which never attained the Homeric stature that Hume thought it merited, and William Robertson's History of Scotland, which would not appear in print for another two years.