I RECENTLY received an email from a reader asking if I could explain more about the Scottish Enlightenment – which, as she stated, keeps getting mentioned without anyone really explaining what it was.

Back in January 2018, I wrote a short series of columns on the Enlightenment and focused on three of its major figures – David Hume, Adam Smith and Thomas Reid, the founding genius of the philosophy that come to be known as the school of common sense. All three studied and wrote about various forms of philosophy and all three were rightly famous in their own time. I finished that series by writing: “I have said before and will repeat it again: it is a time for a new Scottish Enlightenment to once again make ideas and innovation the weapons that we use to confront the future in a world that has never needed common sense more than it does now”.

It would need an entire book to chronicle the Scottish Enlightenment, but for the next few weeks I am going to select some of the Enlightenment figures who, for whatever reason, have faded from view. By doing so I hope to show the sheer breadth of thought that existed in Scotland in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

In his essay on the Scottish Enlightenment for Britannica.com, the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica, the late Stewart Sutherland, Baron Sutherland of Houndwood, perfectly defines the Enlightenment as being “of the conjunction of minds, ideas, and publications in Scotland during the whole of the second half of the 18th century and extending over several decades on either side of that period.”

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It is highly appropriate to quote the late Lord Sutherland and Britannica.com because the professor was himself someone who would have thrived in the Enlightenment period, and because Encyclopedia Britannica was a direct product of the Enlightenment, being first published in Edinburgh in three volumes between 1768 and 1771. Sutherland goes on to write: “Contemporaries referred to Edinburgh as a ‘hotbed of genius’. Voltaire in 1762 wrote in characteristically provocative fashion that ‘today it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening’, and Benjamin Franklin caught the mood of the place in his autobiography (1794): ‘Persons of good Sense…seldom fall into [disputation], except Lawyers, University Men, and Men of all Sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh.’”

The capital was at the heart of the Enlightenment, but as we shall see, Glasgow, Aberdeen and other parts of Scotland produced and nurtured Enlightenment figures. I will also show how the Church of Scotland brought forth significant men of the Enlightenment – sadly they were nearly all men, but I will include at least two women.

I am particularly interested in Enlightenment figures who developed as that famous Scottish archetype, the Lad o’ Pairts. The numbers and qualities of such men are much exaggerated, but a sizeable number of individuals became Lads o’ Pairts, including the man I am going to profile today, the Reverend John Walker. There is no doubt that the Scottish Enlightenment was enabled by the fact that so much of the Scottish population were literate – the school in every parish policy of John Knox and his fellow Protestant Reformers took a firm hold in the late 17th century, as confirmed by the Education Act of 1696.

By 1750, between 65% and 70% of Scottish men could read and write. Female illiteracy, however, continued to be as high as 90% in places for well into the 19th century. To me, the biggest transformational change in Scottish education which really gave birth to the Enlightenment was the development of the curricula at Scotland’s universities – St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen – from 1700.

PRIOR to then, universities usually trained lawyers and church ministers, and it was common for students to end their studies without taking a degree. Chairs of medicine were founded in the first quarter of the 18th century and by the 1740s, Edinburgh’s school of medicine was reckoned to be the best in the world. Other sciences began to be studied and it was no surprise that great thinkers like Adam Smith were also university professors. The universities encouraged students to undertake a wide range of studies and not stick to one subject, which is how the Enlightenment grew apace as completely new sciences were brought in to Scotland and seized on merrily by professors and students hungry for learning.

The National: Chemist and physician Joseph BlackChemist and physician Joseph Black

Reverend John Walker was in his time a key figure in the Enlightenment, but is generally forgotten now. That’s a pity, because he was an extraordinary man by anyone’s standards, someone who at one time or another studied and taught botany, zoology, chemistry, geology and meteorology. He was also a hydrologist and mineralogist, as well as being a historian.

All this he combined with a distinguished career as a minister of the Church of Scotland, which culminated in him being elected Moderator of the General Assembly in 1790.

Born in 1731 in Edinburgh’s Canongate, Walker was the son of John Walker, rector of Canongate Grammar School, and his wife Eupham nee Morison. Taught at his father’s school, Walker was 15 when he entered Edinburgh University, and in 1749 he began to study for a divinity degree. Five years later, with the degree achieved, he was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Kirkcudbright.

All the time he was continuing to study numerous subjects at Edinburgh University, and was recognised as a particularly brilliant student by Professor William Cullen who introduced him to the leading lights of the Enlightenment, including David Hume and the chemist and physician Joseph Black.

Walker did not become a minister until 1758. Kay’s Edinburgh Portraits, those wonderful anecdotal biographies with etchings and some caricatures produced by John Kay, described what happened next: “Dr Walker’s first presentation was to the parish of Glencorse, about seven miles to the south of Edinburgh, and which includes part of the Pentland Hills within its range. Here an excellent opportunity presented itself to the young clergyman for improvement in his favourite study of botany – a science to which he had been early attached, and in which he had already made considerable progress, as well as in other branches of natural history. In this sequestered and romantic district, Dr Walker passed some of the pleasantest years of his life. Those hours which he could spare from his pastoral duties were generally spent in exploring the green hills of the Pentlands, and in making additions to his botanical specimens.”

WALKER next moved to the parish of Moffat, where he acquired a nickname. As John Kay explained: “In this extensive parish a new and inviting field presented itself for exploring the vegetable kingdom of nature; and it is probable that the frequency of his botanising excursions – the utility or propriety of which were not appreciated by his parishioners –procured for him the title of “the mad minister of Moffat.”

By now his fame as a botanist and naturalist was such that in 1764 he was offered the chance by the General Assembly of the Kirk to make a tour of the Highlands and islands to compile a report on the local population, their agriculture, fisheries and the general state of the north of Scotland. In all he would make six journeys to the Highlands and the Hebrides, and his collections of plants and minerals were groundbreaking in those days – he was the first person to sample the mineral Strontianite, named after the place where he found it. His journeys provided him with ample material to study many branches of science, but it was only posthumously that his book, An Economical History of the Hebrides and the Highlands of Scotland, was published.

His efforts in mineralogy had not gone unnoticed by the authorities of the day, and over the course of several years he was employed as a scientific adviser by the likes of Lord Bute, Lord Hopetoun and especially Henry Home, Lord Kames, who, as we shall see next week, would go on to be a major Enlightenment figure himself.

A curious trait of Walker’s was that he was always dressed to impress, and insisted on having his hair “curled and tonsured” most days. John Kay recounted: “The doctor himself used to mention that he was one day walking in a gentleman’s park, where he had been collecting insects, with the handles of an insect net projecting from his pocket. Two ladies were walking near, and he heard one of them say: ‘No wonder the doctor has his hair so finely frizzled, for he carries his curling tongs with him’.”

In 1778, the chair of Natural History at Edinburgh University fell vacant and John Walker applied for it. He was in competition for the post against William Smellie, most famous for editing the first edition of Encyclopedia Britannica – he will also feature in this short series. Walker won and took up his post in 1779 while still minister at Moffat. The travelling between Moffat and the city was just too much for him, and he came under pressure from his parishioners, who had resolved that he should resign his professorship. John Kay explained: “The parishioners of Moffat were alarmed at the circumstance of their minister’s appointment to the professorship, justly conceiving that, distant as they were from Edinburgh upwards of 50 miles, it was impossible he could properly attend to his pastoral duties. Several meetings of Presbytery were held on the subject, but the doctor found ways and means to smooth down the opposition; and he continued for some time to hold both appointments. Owing to the discontent of the people, however, he found his situation extremely irksome and disagreeable.

“A few years subsequently he was happily rescued from his difficulties by the Earl of Lauderdale, who gave him the church of Colinton, about four miles from Edinburgh; where, from its proximity to the town, he could more easily fulfil the relative duties of his appointments.”

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The move to Colinton was the making of Walker, who was at last able to widen his studies to include meteorology and the new science of geology. He took up gardening with a passion and grew plants and trees for experiments. He was no great lecturer, but the sheer volume of information which he was able to give to his students on a whole range of subjects mean that his lectures were always well attended, and he started the creation of a museum with his own plants and rock samples. Many of his students went on to have distinguished careers themselves, including Sir James Hall and the explorer Mungo Park.

When the Royal Society of Edinburgh was formed in 1783, Walker was one of its first members, and in turn that gave him connections into society. He enjoyed the company of the many brilliant men in Edinburgh at that time, but as a minister he is recorded as having been austere and formal in the pulpit.

One other curious aspect of his life is that he did not marry until his 58th year, taking the much younger Jane Wallace Wauchope as his bride. They had no children.

Walker’s health began to decline in the 1790s and his eyesight began to fail. He was blind by the time of his death on December 31, 1803. John Walker is buried in Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile.