ONE of the best career choices for any bright young Highlander after the Union of 1707 was to join the British army, with its ever widening opportunities.

Among the most versatile of these men was Adam Ferguson.

He is still remembered as a highly original philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment – indeed his reputation has in the 21st century been enjoying a revival. And this was a youngster who started life as a modest army chaplain.

Born in July 1723, Ferguson was guided into the Church of Scotland by his father, himself the minister of Logierait, a parish in Perthshire on the boundary of the Highlands and the Lowlands. The bright boy kept winning bursaries that took him away to prestigious schools and colleges.

By 1745, he was in Edinburgh on his final course of study for the ministry of the Kirk – shortly before Prince Charles Edward Stuart arrived there with his Jacobite army.

Not that this deterred Ferguson for a minute. Gaelic was his native tongue and his father stood on good terms with the anti-Jacobite ducal family of Atholl. The lad was the sort of person greatly sought after in his time and place, a loyal Whig with a Highlander’s background.

He did not need to wait long for a job. He became depute chaplain of the newly formed 43rd regiment, famous as the Black Watch. He had completed only two of six years of divinity studies before he was hastily examined and ordained by the Presbytery of Dunkeld.

He was already doing well enough, but now celebrity came within reach. Suddenly everybody had heard of Ferguson as the young minister who made his mark on May 11, 1745, at the Battle of Fontenoy in Belgium.

Modern historians tend to doubt this as hearsay but for Ferguson it served his purpose anyway. Walter Scott later repeated the gossip about the valiant chaplain who with sword in hand led his men into battle.

A colonel caught a glimpse of him in action and asked him if this was really the right thing for a man with a Church commission. Ferguson shouted “Damn my commission!”, and charged onwards.

If the story was true, it must have taken place between his ordination on July 2 and his first sermon, which he preached on September 11. If it was not true, then at least it records the sort of outstanding reputation he had won at such a young age in Scotland, as a man who was remembered more for his martial spirit and love of valour than for his clerical calling.

It makes psychological sense. He was a Highlander who did right what so many other Highlanders did wrong, notably by choosing his religion according to the leadership of his Church and therefore causing his superiors no trouble.

The Scots Magazine finally summed it up in an obituary where Ferguson was said to have prided himself on being a “constitutional Whig”. His classical learning and his family’s Presbyterian “ideas of political right” had enhanced his “love of freedom” as a loyal subject of an enlightened Scotland.

These views found expression in his first published work, A Sermon Preached In The Ersh Language,To His Majesty’s First Highland Regiment Of Foot”.

The sermon was translated into English and published in 1746 at the request of the Duchess of Atholl. It was, pure and simple, “a vigorous denunciation of the Pretender, of popery, and of France”.

Once on his way, Ferguson found it easy to slip from one career path to another, advancing a little with each step. At first he stayed for a while with the army. In 1746, he was raised to the rank of principal chaplain to the Black Watch. In 1747, he is reported to have seen action again at the Battle of Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands.

HE served in the Black Watch until 1754, including two tours of duty in Ireland. He remained proud of his military experience for the rest of his life. It seems clear that he liked to write about the army, and that the image he gave himself while doing so pleased him as a man and as a Scot.

Far more than any other thinker of the Enlightenment, Ferguson was to insist on military valour as a cornerstone of civic virtue. He did so long after the end of his active service in both army and Church.

By this time Ferguson was a friend of Adam Smith, and wrote to him asking from now on to be addressed “without any clerical titles, for I am a downright layman”. Yet he retained both his ordination and his eldership for some years afterwards.

Another friend, David Hume, was surely right in speaking of “the still Rev Adam Ferguson”. Even so, the broader judgment was surely the better one. Hume adds that he had taken an instant liking to the minister as “a man of sense, knowledge, taste, elegance, and morals”.

Ferguson had by now, about 1760, returned to Edinburgh, where he was to reside for almost 40 years. Life here was sociable as well as learned. Ferguson joined the Select Society, a debating club founded by a group of literati, moderates of the clergy and lively men of letters. Hume was instrumental in securing Ferguson’s election, in 1757, as his own successor to the keepership of the Advocates Library in Edinburgh.

In 1759, again helped by Hume, Ferguson was called at short notice to the chair of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.

He cleverly managed, as Hume noted with mildly ironic admiration, to keep just abreast of his students during the first year of course work.

Ferguson’s prized post, obtained in 1764, was the Edinburgh chair of pneumatics (philosophy of the mind) and moral philosophy.

In 1767, Ferguson published his masterpiece, An Essay On The History Of Civil Society. It sounds like a learned work, and it is.

Yet it had the knack of conveying to English readers a detailed and colourful history of a country similar to Great Britain in the midst of enormous material and moral progress.

On the one hand it sounds like a fragment of classical civilisation in full blossoming. On the other hand it sounds like a part of modern civilisation in its refinement and with all the associated liberties. In fact few names were mentioned.

For those who could see, this was the Britain of the 18th century.

What was more, it was the Scotland of the 18th century, too. If this could not impress so deeply by material purpose, at least it could do so by the political goals it set for itself.

Whatever individuals’ station in life, they could never cease to be citizens. Here was a civil creed with a distinct philosophical approach to the Scottish Enlightenment, more material than Smith, more concrete than Hume, Like Hume’s philosophical works and Smith’s Theory Of Moral Sentiments, it conveyed to a broad readership the wide-ranging insights of that Enlightenment.

The Edinburgh literati, and their readers in London and Paris appreciated, could derive universal significance from the questions of Scottish identity after the Union.