Hail The Town! The Scottish Town in the Age of the Enlightenment

One of the perks of running this blog is that I can occasionally hand it over to others for contributions and get to learn something about their interests and viewpoints. Readers of previous guest blogs will thus have seen Anne Findlay’s review of the book “Painting the Town: Scottish Urban History in Art”.

And it is to another Stirling colleague, Carol McKenzie, and to another recent book about the Scottish Town in History that this post turns. Whilst individually of interest, these two books together provide a fascinating insight into aspects of the distinctive Scottish townscape we have today and help us in thinking about the place of Scotland’s Towns in the modern era.

The Scottish Town0001So, over to Carol:

“At a time when interest in the fate of the Scottish town has become a central concern of the Scottish government, this timely book serves as a timely and informative account into how Scottish towns developed in Scotland under the auspices of ‘improvement’. ‘The Scottish Town in the Age of the Enlightenment 1740-1820, by Bob Harris and Charles McKean, draws from a wealth of local and regional resources in detailing and reconstructing the communities within the towns covered. The end result is a beautifully illustrated treatise on towns, with maps and coloured plates, producing a compelling insight into how improvement can be viewed through the lens of the ‘town’ at a time when Scotland’s contribution to European ‘Enlightenment’ of the early 18th century was to radically alter medieval constructs of society, culture, religion, jurisprudence and importantly, moral and political philosophy. The profound nature of Scottish Enlightenment thought and ideas were arguably the necessary precursor to society taking advantage of new developments in science and intellectual thought which were exploited in the mid-19th century.

The narrative of the book is organised into two main sections which guide the introduction of more detailed analysis. The first section addresses ‘towns and improvement’ with the second section ‘society and culture’ reflecting the core mentalities of those enlightened thinkers that occupy Scotland’s Enlightenment. It setting out the context for what is to follow, it provides a useful comparative review of the scale and development of Scottish towns. As a book about towns, and thankfully not cities, it comes as a welcome invitation to look at the cross section of towns, thirty in total, that as the author’s argue, ‘almost never feature in modern discussions of urbanisation’.

While the wide range of towns selected for treatise by the authors are arbitrary, the authors were careful to include and reflect different types and sizes in ensuring as broad geographical coverage as possible. While the biggest cities are mentioned, the book mainly focuses on two particular regions for ‘special examination’: Angus and Perthshire in the east and Ayrshire in the west. Both regions saw rapid industrialisation during this time, although less dramatic as in the cases of Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire: the rise, respectively, of Paisley and Greenock are described as ‘nothing short of astonishing’. Given this, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen are largely excluded, and rightly so.

Divided into seven chapters, the first looks at patterns of urban growth across Scotland in this period and also how towns differed from one another, and, from other towns in the British Isles. This is accurately entitled ‘Scottish towns in context’. Indeed, this is important as the authors themselves attest Scots at this time were casting their eyes south to English improvement and modernity. Here the authors set out a basic framework for understanding the Scottish burgh between the periods c.1745-1820. To that end, four main areas are examined: chronology and principal patterns of urban growth in Scotland; the main distinctive features of the Scottish urban order; the extent of specialisation within the urban structure and maturation; and finally the nature of the Scottish urban inheritance – particularly looking at the built environment on the eve of dramatic urban expansion. As the authors confirm, what needs to be identified is how specifically and in what ways and to what degree, urban growth differed from elsewhere in Britain, rather than saying that most British historians agree that it did.

The next four chapters consider urban improvement and beginning with chapter two, the readers are introduced to the first of the remaining five chapters that form the heart of the book’s focus: towns and improvement. Improvement in the Scottish context is described as a process and a feature of a growing number of towns. The authors argue that improvement is to be viewed largely in respect of the built environment and the footprint of towns. Drawing upon the observations of Thomas Murie, a military sergeant, the authors describe the urban landscape via the lens of achievement and how urban achievement in Georgian Scotland receives little notice in general histories in Scotland and Britain. What this offers interested readers is that the perspective was one of fundamental change which occurred in Scottish society in the years and decades that followed the Jacobite risings 1745-1746.

Chapter three then addresses ‘urban embellishment and public buildings’ looking at the range of buildings for which burghs were responsible, renewal and change and then, whether there was a sequence to the governance of their erection. Chapter four develops on the theme of renewal by examining five towns in relation to renewal and refashioning of townscapes: Selkirk, Irvine, Dunfermline, Kirkcudbright and Perth, with the author’s reasoning that the extant sources for each are, ‘to different degrees, ‘reasonably abundant’. Chapter five focuses on houses as the sites of a different kind of improvement, where the key body of evidence is drawn from inventories taken of personal estates of urban dwellers at death – providing ‘unexampled insight into the advancing frontier of new social manners urban society’. Chapter six returns to public sphere and traces patterns of change within urban culture by examining the new cultural institutions and practices within towns. However, the chapter also deals with the spread of enlightenment within ‘provincial urban Scotland’ as reflected in the opening of libraries marking a new cultural engagement in the heartlands. The book’s final chapter explores the nature of civic order and identity in this period whilst also examining the ways in which different urban authorities and the urban wealthy sought to maintain public order in towns.

‘The Scottish Town in the Age of Enlightenment’ covers all the aspects of its subject in an exemplary and detailed fashion. What the authors have achieved is a remarkable treatise on towns developed from years of detailed research and investigation. The end result is a major pioneering work that provides a wonderful insight and illumination into towns as they improved during the 18th-century. It that regard, it is a wonderful contribution to an often neglected aspect of urban history. It will make a useful companion to any history student and urban scholar’s library as well as those with a current interest in our towns beyond the mundane lens of bricks and mortar of the built environment, in which towns are often viewed. Hail the town!

Bob Harris and Charles McKean (2014): ‘The Scottish Town in the Age of the Enlightenment 1740-1820’ (Edinburgh University Press, £30).”

A considerably longer version of this review is available here.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Books, Enlightenment, Heritage, History, Improvement, Public Realm, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Towns, Urban History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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