I planned and wrote part of this essay some time ago, in 2007 to be exact. I intended it to accompany an exhibition I had hoped to set up in Princeton’s Firestone Library in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707. It turned out that the library’s exhibition space was fully booked for the year, and so the plan fell through. At a time of growing uncertainty about the future of the Union, however, I believe the matter of the little essay remains of interest, even though the formal occasion for it has passed, and so I took it up again in December of 2017. The pages devoted to Scottish achievement in fields other than publishing reflect the original intention of the planned exhibition: namely, to draw viewers’ attention to the benefits brought about by the integration of Scotland into the modern world, in large measure as a result of the Union. They also reflect, admittedly, my own patriotic feelings for the country in which I was born, raised, educated, and – during WWII – protected from harm.

Literacy and Libraries

Decorated initial S

With a population, in the mid-eighteenth century, of about a million and a quarter (Webster, Census of 1755) Scotland was a small and in many respects backward country on the outer rim of Europe, remote from the main centers of European power and influence, and endowed with few natural resources. Poor as it was, however, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scotland had one of the highest literacy rates in Europe (Graff, pp. 169, 375). This generally held view has lately been subjected to close scrutiny, and R.A. Houston observes that there is in fact not much hard evidence for the traditional and often repeated claim about high Scottish literacy. He implies that the claim has much to do with Scottish self-perception and sense of national identity. The Reformation, which had been carried out in the spirit of Calvin and his Scottish disciple John Knox, encouraged all Christians to read Holy Scripture for themselves. Knox called for a national education system as early as 1560 and eighty years later the Scottish Parliament passed a statute that purported to institute one. This statute was reinforced in 1696 by an “Act for Setting Schools” which required every parish in the country to supply a “commodious house for a school” and a salary for a schoolmaster or “dominie.” As a result, most Scottish children (except perhaps in the sparsely populated, Gaelic-speaking Highlands) received at least a basic education. “In Scotland,” according to Adam Smith, “the establishment of parish schools has taught almost the whole common people to read, and a very great proportion of them to write and account.” (The Wealth of Nations, Book V, ch. 1, art. 2)

There is evidence of keen interest in books and reading. The records of Innerpeffray library (a public library founded about 1690 near the small town of Crieff in Perthshire and still standing today) between 1747 and 1800 indicate that its chief borrowers were the local baker, blacksmith, cooper, dyer, and dyer’s apprentice, along with farmers, stonemasons, quarriers, tailors, and household servants, and that the books most heavily borrowed, besides collections of sermons and church histories, included the writings of Locke and Buffon, and – most popular of all – Robertson’s History of Charles V (Kaufman, pp. 154-55).

Libraries sprang up everywhere. It took many years before the Rev. James Kirkwood’s Overture for founding and maintaining of bibliothecks in every paroch throughout this Kingdom of 1699 was fully realized, but by the mid-eighteenth century there were publicly accessible libraries of various kinds all over Scotland, from the earliest fully public library – the Bibliotheck of Kirkwall, in the remote Orkney islands, founded in 1680 -- to countless circulating libraries (the first such library in Britain was established in Edinburgh in 1725 by the poet Allan Ramsay), subscription libraries, parochial libraries, mechanics institutes’ libraries, and even, by 1817, so-called “itinerating libraries,” designed to meet the needs of the smallest villages by moving from one to another (Kaufman, pp. 140-141; Aitken, 6-8). In 1828 the “gratuitous librarians” of these travelling libraries included “a shoemaker, a draper, a labourer, a coalier, a baker, a tailor, a weaver, two saddlers, two smiths, three wrights and six teachers,” according to the report of a Parliamentary Select Committee on public libraries in 1849 (quoted in Aitken, p. 31 n107). Often libraries were set up by the working people themselves. In 1749 the miners of Leadhills in Lanarkshire created the “large library of long standing” mentioned by Dorothy Wordsworth in her “Recollections” of a journey to Scotland with her brother William in 1803. The example of the Leadhill miners was followed seven years later by the miners in the neighboring village of Wanlockhead. Long before Andrew Carnegie began promoting and endowing libraries on a world-wide scale, other successful Scots were generous supporters of public libraries. The engineer Thomas Telford, for example, was “so much impressed with the advantages arising from libraries” that in 1834 he donated a substantial sum of money to those in the small Dumfriesshire town of Langholm and in the nearby village of Westerkirk, his birthplace, where a library had been instituted in 1792 by the miners at a local antimony mine. Telford stipulated that the interest on his two gifts was to be “annually laid out in the purchase of books.” According to one rather romantic account from the middle of the nineteenth century, “readers of all ages and conditions – farmers, shepherds, ploughmen, labourers and their children – resort to [the Westerkirk library] from far and near, taking away with them as many volumes as they desire for the month’s reading. Thus there is scarcely a cottage in the valley in which good books are not to be found under perusal; and we are told that it is a common thing for the Eskdale shepherd to take a book in his plaid to the hillside – a volume of Shakespeare, Prescott, or Macaulay – and read it there, under the blue sky, with his sheep and the green hills before him” (Smiles quoted in Kelly, p. 210).

If Scotland was surprisingly slow to take advantage of the 1850 Act of Parliament that allowed local authorities to levy a tax for the purpose of establishing and maintaining public libraries, this was probably due, as one historian has put it, “to the way Scotland is used to the private endowment of public foundations. The Scots are frugal and saving; but no people are more generous in works for the common weal. Hence it is not difficult to understand the reluctance of Glasgow to saddle itself with a library rate, when it already had its Baillie’s Institution and Stirling’s Library, and the Mitchell Library was coming – it actually came in 1877 — and is today “one of the largest public reference libraries in Europe” (Baker, p. 23). As will be seen below, in the descriptions of the individual publishing houses founded by Scots, the Scots passion for diffusing knowledge and culture among the common people, along with a Presbyterian-based commitment to religion and morality (and a no less keen business sense) was a major inspiration of several of these houses – Constable, Murray, Macmillan, and most notably Blackie, Collins, and Nelson.

An additional, suggestive consideration has been put forward by Stephen W. Brown and Warren McDougall, who argue that Scotland

was a literate nation in ways that went far beyond any measurable achievement of its educational system. Literacy provided Scotland with economic opportunities of a sophisticated kind in which the English language itself became a product. What Scotland mostly read in the eighteenth century was not printed in the language of daily life. Scots was spoken, English read and something of what it meant to be British in Scotland was expressed by that duality. Thus, although Scotland’s courts were unlike England’s in their requirement that pleas, charges, defences and decisions be not only written down but printed and published, those texts were in English, not the Scots of actual courtroom discourse. A respect for the bureaucratic importance of literacy among Scotland’s legal community consequently became the bedrock of Edinburgh’s printers. [. . .] Scottish literacy after 1707 increasingly meant being at ease with spoken and written English. To this end belles-lettres became something of an industry and the reprinters gave their countrymen cheaper editions of Milton, Addison, Swift, Pope, Johnson and, of course, Shakespeare. [20]

Plays, in particular, being both shorter and cheaper to print than novels, and directly contributing to language fluency were “the single greatest source of material for Scottish literary reprints throughout the period” (pp. 20-21).

In addition to promoting literacy, it was one of the tenets of Calvinism that everyone should labor in the vineyard of the Lord – i.e. do everything possible to maintain and embellish the world that the Lord had created. For Calvinists, one might say, work was a form of worship. With the Act of Union, which united the parliaments of Scotland and England in 1707 (until then the two countries had been not only independent but frequently at war with one another) a vast field of new opportunities was opened up to the ambitious “lad o’pairts,” the talented youngster nurtured by the relatively democratic Scottish education system. Of these the inhabitants of what was now often referred to as “North Britain” took full advantage. That is the reality behind Dr. Johnson’s celebrated and meanly intended quip (in July, 1763) that “the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England.”

Philosophy and Literature

In nearly every field of human endeavor, Scots began to spread their wings. In philosophy, Hutcheson, Hume, and the later “Scottish Common Sense School” (Reid, Beattie, Dugald Stewart) exercised enormous influence on philosophers and educators throughout Europe and North America. In literature, Boswell created one of the greatest biographies of all time and Burns a modern poetry in the vernacular that won devotees all over the world. Sir Walter Scott invented and launched the vogue of the historical novel, achieving unprecedented international popularity. In economics, it is unnecessary to emphasize the founding contribution of Adam Smith, a graduate of Glasgow University and subsequently Professor of Moral Philosophy there. In the social sciences, Hume and William Robertson, the Principal of Edinburgh University, were regarded by contemporaries, as the leading British historians, on a par with Gibbon, while Edinburgh University’s Adam Ferguson (The History of Civil Society, 1768) and Glasgow University’s John Millar (Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, 1779; A Historical View of the English Government, 1787), both quickly translated into French and German, are generally viewed as having laid the foundations of modern historical sociology. Karl Marx, among others, was an admirer and assiduous reader of both.

Science and Medicine

In chemistry, the experiments of Joseph Black at Glasgow in 1755 led to the concept of latent heat, helped to undermine the then prevalent “phlogiston” theory, and directed other British scientists toward the chemical nature of gases. Unlike his English contemporaries Priestley and Cavendish, Black immediately accepted the work of Lavoisier and incorporated it into his teaching. In the following century James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) made contributions to theoretical physics that Einstein was to describe as "the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton." William Thomson (1824-1907), later Lord Kelvin, laid the foundations of modern thermodynamics, besides being a significant inventor on the side. (He helped to design the first transatlantic submarine cable). In 1795 James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth gave a new impetus to geology by initiating systematic empirical study of the history of the planet. Among the many celebrated Scottish physicians in the eighteenth century the two Hunter brothers from Glasgow were among the most influential in the development of medical practice. Along with another Scot, William Smellie, William Hunter helped to turn obstetrics into a scientifically precise discipline; his brother John did the same for dentistry and surgery.

By the mid-eighteenth century medical education at Edinburgh, thoroughly grounded in empirical study and hands-on practice, was considered far superior to anything available in England, and it was to Edinburgh that, on Benjamin Franklin’s advice, Benjamin Rush, a graduate of the College of New Jersey, traveled to study for his M.D. On his return to Philadelphia, as is well known, Rush laid the foundations of medical education in the thirteen colonies. The first black American to earn a medical degree, James McCune Smith, obtained it at Glasgow in 1837 (Avenue, June 2002 and May 2017). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Scottish physicians continued to make significant contributions to medicine. In 1847 James Young Simpson, professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh, published the groundbreaking account of his use of chloroform in surgical anaesthesia; in the early 1860s surgeons from all over the world came to Joseph Lister’s ward at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, where the English-born Lister had been appointed Professor of Surgery, to observe his pioneering, life-saving use of antiseptic in surgical operations; in 1923 John Richard Macleod received the Nobel prize in medicine for his contribution to the discovery of insulin; in 1928 Alexander Fleming first observed the effects of penicillin; in the 1950s Ian Donald, Regius Professor of Midwifery at Glasgow, pioneered the use of diagnostic ultrasound; in 1988 James W. Black was awarded a Nobel prize for his discovery of beta-blockers. All in all, Scots have won more than 10% of Nobel prizes in the sciences – no mean achievement for a nation of only a million and a half in 1801 and five million in 2001.


Scottish engineers and inventors did not lag behind their academic fellow-countrymen. With help and encouragement from Joseph Black and using space provided by Glasgow University, James Watt vastly improved on early versions of the steam engine and founded a company to build and market his machines. John Loudon Macadam revolutionized roadbuilding. Thomas Telford also made major improvements to road building techniques and designed the first modern suspension bridge, the beautiful Menai bridge (1819-26) linking Wales and the island of Anglesey. John Broadwood, founder of the great piano making company, patented the piano pedal (1783). In the early nineteenth century Charles Mackintosh invented the waterproof, making life easier for millions -- not least in his native country, where rain water is the one plentiful natural resource. Around 1834 James Chalmers devised the adhesive postage stamp and proposed a uniform, nationwide postal rate. A few years later Robert Thomson patented the fountain pen. In 1875 Scots-born and Edinburgh-educated Alexander Graham Bell invented and patented the telephone. A decade later, John Boyd Dunlop devised the first practical pneumatic tire (further improved the following year by the American-born director of the North British Rubber Company of Edinburgh, William Erskine Bartlett) and began commercial production in 1890. Also in the 1890s James Dewar invented the thermos flask. In 1926 John Logie Baird of Helensburgh, a commuter town on the Firth of Clyde near Glasgow, gave the first public demonstration of television in the world, with transmission of color images and transatlantic transmission coming just two years later. In 1935 Robert Watson-Watt invented the first workable radar system.

Very early in the nineteenth century, Henry Bell, developing earlier designs by fellow-Scot William Symington, built the first commercially viable steamboat in Europe and by 1812 had it running regular passenger service between Glasgow and Greenock. Not long afterwards William Fairbairn pioneered the construction of iron-hulled ships. By the end of the century Glasgow and Clydeside had become the greatest center of shipbuilding and naval engineering in the world. Meanwhile, Scottish entrepreneurs were active everywhere from North America, where Andrew Carnegie dominated the steel industry, to East Asia, where William Jardine and James Matheson had the more dubious distinction of cornering the immensely profitable opium trade. Scots were also leading explorers (James Bruce, David Livingstone, Mungo Park, Alexander Mackenzie, and John Rae, discoverer of the magnetic pole), as well as administrators and governors–general of the territories of the expanding British Empire (Lachlan Macquarie and Thomas Brisbane in Australia; Arthur Gordon in New Zealand; James and Victor Bruce and James Ramsay in India; James Bruce, George Ramsay, Gilbert Elliott and an almost continuous line of Scots down to the novelist John Buchan in Canada).

Spreading the Word: Scottish Publishers and English Literature 1750-1900


Aitken, W.R. A History of the Public Library Movement in Scotland. Glasgow: The Scottish Library Association, 1971).

Avenue (the magazine of the Glasgow University Alumni association), June 2002 and May 2017.

Baker, Ernest A. The Public Library. London: Grafton, 1924.

. The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland. Vol. 2. Ed. Stephen W. Brown and Warren McDougall. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Graff, Harvey J. The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western European Culture and Society. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana U. Press, 1987.

Houston, R.A. Scottish Literacy and the Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland and Northern England 1600-1800. Cambridge, 1985.

Kaufman, Paul. “Innerpeffray: Reading for all the People,” in his Libraries and their Users. Collected Papers in Library History . London: The Library Association, 1969.

Kelly, Thomas. Public Libraries in Great Britain before 1850. London: The Library Association, 1966.

Smiles, Samuel. Lives of the Engineers. Vol 2. [John Smeaton, John Rennie, Thomas Telford]. London: John Murray, 1862.

Lives of the Engineers, Vol. 2

Last modified 4 January 2019