Buchan’s book promises to demonstrate how Edinburgh transformed itself from a city rife with poverty, terrible living conditions, and economic strife, to one whose political, philosophical, scientific, and artistic efforts would impact global approaches to these topics during the early eighteenth century. It covers key figures such as David Hume, Robert Burns, and Adam Smith with varying degrees of detail. Buchan’s writerly flair comes through, bringing the city to life, but this is not a book without substance, it is clearly well researched and bedded in primary source material.
To the modern lay reader, the role of Edinburgh in the development of medical sciences and the unfortunate consequence of grave robbers being prevalent is probably the most commonly known aspect of the city during the period, but as Buchan shows, there was so much more to its development than this. I was struck particularly by his arguments on the prominence of philosophers, however, this is a very Edinburgh focussed book, and although it is explained how significant work happening there was, we see very little of how it was received globally or indeed how their progress impacted on work in the field more broadly.
In an interesting twist, Buchan points out briefly how by the late eighteenth century many negative aspects of the city had actually further worsened. Drunkenness, executions, and poverty were commonplace, with the New Town having forced out many long-term residents of the city and as a consequence ghettoes formed. Nonetheless, the main focus is on the great achievements of the Scots during this time, despite the challenging background due to tensions with the English. This is an interesting read, but something about it made it very difficult for me to absorb the information.
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