Robert Burns's father was a poor farmer from Alloway in southwestern Scotland, who taught his son to make a living by handling a plow. But he also saw to it that young Robert received an education worthy of an English gentleman, including studying Latin and French. For the future poet, it opened up an incredible new world. "Though I cost the schoolmaster some thrashings." Burns remembered later, "I made an excellent scholar." The first books he read were a biography of Hannibal and The Life of Sir William Wallace, lent to him by the local blacksmith. "The story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins," Burns recalled, "which will boil along there till the flood gates of life shut in eternal rest." By the time he was sixteen, Burns the budding Ayrshire plowman had made his way through generous portions of Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Addison's Spectator essays, and the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay, along with Jeremy Taylor on theology, Jethro Tull on agriculture, Robert Boyle's lectures on chemistry, John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, several volumes on geography and history, and the French Enlightenment philosopher Fenelon's Telemaque in the original.
Do we treat Burns's case as typical? Of course not. But his story does illustrate how early on reading and writing became embedded in Scottish society, even in rural areas.
In Edinburgh the book trade was an important part of the local economy. There were six publishing houses in 1763, for a city with a population of only sixty thousand. By 1790 there were sixteen. Papermaking become a mainstay of the national economy; in fact, as the historian Anand Chitnis notes, "of Scottish domestic manufactures, only woolens, linen, and hemp, iron and liquors employed more people than the paper industry." The paper mill was often the only industry in rural villages and hamlets in the Lowlands agricultural belt. The one at Currie brought two hundred new inhabitants into the village when it opened.
Bookselling, printing, the paper and ink industries a whole range of businesses to service a large literate public. An official national survey in 1795 showed that out of a total population of 1.5 million, nearly twenty thousand Scots depended for their livelihood on writing and publishing and 10,500 on teaching. All this meant that despite its relative poverty and small population, Scottish culture had a built-in bias toward reading, learning, and education in general. In no other European country did education count for so much, or enjoy so broad a base.
This attitude also decisively shaped the character of Scotland's universities and would play a key role in creating modern Scotland. But their roots ran solid and deep. Glasgow and St. Andrews, in particular, enjoyed a long tradition that reached back to the Middle Ages. The greatest figure of later medieval thought, John Duns Scotus, had been a Scot, while John Mair, dubbed "the prince of philosophers and theologians" at the University of Paris, finished his career teaching at both Glasgow and St. Andrews (his students there included George Buchanan and John Knox). In 1574 an observer wrote that "there is no place in Europe comparable to Glasgow for a plentifull and gude chepe mercat of all kind of langages artes and sciences."
The University of Edinburgh and Aberdeen's Marischal College and King's College had been founded more recently, but, like Glasgow and St. Andrews, they never became remote ivory towers or intellectual backwaters, as eighteenth-century Oxford and Cambridge did. Despite their small size, Scottish universities were international centers of learning, and drew students from across Protestant Europe as well as England and Ulster (since only Episcopalians could attend Oxford or Cambridge or Trinity College in Dublin).
Thanks to the swelling tide of literacy, these universities became in effect centers of popular education as well as more academic learning. Between 1720 and 1840 the college student population of Scotland trebled. Knowledge of Latin was usually enough to get you in, and many students learned this at their parish schools. A university education was also relatively cheap.
At Glasgow the tuition fee of five pounds a year was one-tenth the cost of going to Cambridge or Oxford. This meant that students like the Edinburgh apothecary's son Thomas Aikenhead were more the rule rather than the exception. A father in trade, commerce, or the professions was more typical than a working- or labouring-class one; but even this contrasted with the socially top-heavy landed gentry and aristocratic student bodies in the English universities. More than half of the students at the University of Glasgow between 1740 and 1830 came from middle-class backgrounds. Many, although probably not very many, of the rest came from lower down the social ladder.
In the eighteenth century, sons of artisans and shopkeepers and farmers, some as young as thirteen or fourteen, would scrape together enough money to pay their university fees, attending lectures alongside Frasers and Maxwells and Erskines, the sons of Scotland's most aristocratic families. Robert Foulis, who was an apprentice barber and the son of a maltman, spent his spare time in the 1730s taking classes with the University of Glasgow's most distinguished philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, as well as the mathematician Robert Simson. Hutcheson was so impressed by Foulis that he hired him as his classroom assistant. It was the sort of scene unimaginable at Oxford or Cambridge until very late in the Victorian era.
Nor were boys the only ones who benefited from this. Auditing university classes became a favorite hobby among Edinburgh and Aberdeen townspeople, just as professors regularly engaged in a "community outreach" to offer classes to students outside the academic setting.
Robert Dick, at the University of Glasgow, taught natural philosophy to a lecture hall of townspeople, men and women, in the 1750s. In the early nineteenth century, University of Edinburgh chemistry professor Thomas Hope's public lectures drew more than three hundred serious-minded ladies from the town. For middle-class Scots, education was more than just a means to professional credentials or social advancement. It became a way of life.
Monday, March 7, 2016
The Life of Sir William Wallace, lent to him by the local blacksmith.
From How The Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman. Page 24.