Scotland in the 1700s displayed one of those moments in history of startling concentrations of civilizational effervescence - Athens in 500BC, The American colonies in the late 1700s - so much talent on so many fronts. Scotland at that point in history was not an obvious location for such a flowering. Poor, remote, dominated by England and burdened by a clan culture.
In 1696, ironically the same year Thomas Aikenhead was arrested, Scotland's Parliament passed its "Act for Setting Schools," establishing a school in every parish in Scotland not already equipped with one. Each parish was now to supply a "commodious house for a school" and a salary for a teacher of not less than a hundred marks (or about sixty Scottish pounds or five pounds in English money) and no more than two hundred.
The reason behind all this was obvious to any Presbyterian: boys and girls must know how to read Holy Scripture. Knox's original 1560 Book of Discipline had called for a national system of education. Eighty years later Parliament passed the first statute to this effect. The 1696 act renewed and enforced it. The result was that within a generation nearly every parish in Scotland had some sort of school and a regular teacher. The education must have been fairly rudimentary in some places: the fundamentals of reading and grammar and nothing more. But it was available, and it was, at least in theory if not always in practice, free.
Historians are still arguing about how many Scots really learned to read and write as a result of the School Act. In this, as in so many things, the Highlands lagged far behind. But one thing is certain: Scotland's literacy rate would be higher than that of any other country by the end of the eighteenth century. An English observer noted with astonishment that "in the low country of Scotland ... the poorest are, in general, taught to read." In 1790 nearly every eight-year-old in Cleish, in Kinross-shire, could read, and read well. By one estimate male literacy stood at around 55 percent by 1720; by 1750 it may have stood as high as 75 percent, compared with only 53 percent in England. It would not be until the 1880s that the English would finally catch up with their northern neighbours.
Scotland became Europe's first modern literate society. This meant that there was an audience not only for the Bible but for other books as well. As the barriers of religious censorship eventually came down in the eighteenth century, the result was a literary explosion. Intellectuals such as Adam Smith and David Hume wrote not just for other intellectuals but for a genuine reading public. Even a person of relatively modest means had his own collection of books, and what he couldn't afford he could get at the local lending library, which by 1750 virtually every town of any size enjoyed.
A good example is Innerpeffray, near Crieff in Perthshire. Its library's records of book borrowing run from 1747 to 1800. They show books loaned out to the local baker, the blacksmith, the cooper, the dyer and the dyer's apprentice and to farmers, stonemasons, quarriers, tailors, and household servants. Religious books predominated; but more than half of the books borrowed were on secular themes, and included works by John Locke, the French Enlightenment naturalist George Louis Leclerc de Buffon, and Scotland's own Enlightenment historian, William Robertson. Literacy opened up new cultural choices, and reinforced others: a specifically Scottish reading public developed, with an appetite for the new as well as the familiar and well-worn.