Northern Lights


Just before everything closed down I took myself to the National Library’s Scottish Enlightenment exhibition, Northern Lights, having meant to go ever since it opened, and realising that I was unlikely to get another chance.

This put on display a fair number of the library’s holdings from the period, both printed books and original letters, along with commentary on them and wall displays setting the scene

As you came in an introduction gave the background – enlightenment thoughts spreading across Europe, and the situation in Scotland with four universities and other institutions which provided the ground for these to grow, in spite of a recent century of religious and political upheaval. The 1707 Act of Union specifically protected Scots law and the Scottish church and universities, and lawyers, ministers and professors went on to play a large part in enlightenment thought.

A touchscreen display here gave more information on various characters involved, and I was interested to see among them Alexander Carlyle, who has a true Age of Sail link as one of Collingwood’s most regular correspondents – described here as a ‘Church of Scotland minister and Enlightenment gossip!’ There were various bits of his writing among the displays, and I enjoyed following him through.

The first section was on philosophy and religion – morality and human nature, and the conflicts between Hume’s sceptical philosophy and the ‘Common Sense’ philosophers, and the second on Social Science and Academic Innovation – more philosophy, really, historiography and the developments which produced new academic disciplines.

The third was on language and literature, both theories of rhetoric and the exploration of Scottish identity with the Ossian poems and the Scots poems of Ferguson and Burns, and the fourth section, on art and architecture, looked at philosophical ideas of taste and the origin of beauty, as well as the practical achievements of people like the Adam brothers and Allan Ramsay and Henry Raeburn.

The next section, on science, was the one which interested me most, with several of my old friends turning up – Hutton and his rocks, the gravity experiments on Schiehallion, and Colin MacLaurin, whose monument I’ve seen at Glendaruel – as well as a lovely quote from John Gregory which made me think of Stephen Maturin:

Every physician must rest on his own judgement… to make a judicious separation between those [facts] founded in nature and experience and those which owe their birth to ignorance.

But even better, there were also things which were new to me – James Lind writing about experiments with the use of citrus fruit to cure scurvy in 1753, and Lord Kames writing to his cousin, also James Lind, in 1772, about the effects of different climates on plants and animals unsuited to them, and how this might apply to people who settle in different countries, and asking for observations from the voyage he was about to set out on.


A final section was on society, or mostly on societies – gathering to discuss and debate, and taking a strong interest in Scottish culture and possible improvements to Scottish life.

Overall it was very interesting, and the information in the displays was good, but I always feel with this kind of exhibition that you end up with a display of books as objects, one page visible, when the idea in theory is that the books are there as providers of information. The little displays that they have at the top of the stairs often simply show the covers of the books, which although less informative is less tantalising!

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