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Enlightenment's Frontier

Enlightenment's Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Enlightenment's Frontier
    Book Description:

    Enlightenment's Frontieris the first book to investigate the environmental roots of the Scottish Enlightenment. What was the place of the natural world in Adam Smith's famous defense of free trade? Fredrik Albritton Jonsson recovers the forgotten networks of improvers and natural historians that sought to transform the soil, plants, and climate of Scotland in the eighteenth century. The Highlands offered a vast outdoor laboratory for rival liberal and conservative views of nature and society. But when the improvement schemes foundered toward the end of the century, northern Scotland instead became a crucible for anxieties about overpopulation, resource exhaustion, and the physical limits to economic growth. In this way, the rise and fall of the Enlightenment in the Highlands sheds new light on the origins of environmentalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16374-2
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Enlightenment in the Peat Moss
    (pp. 1-8)

    Sometime in the late summer of 1753, six gentlemen ventured into the watery maze of Flanders Moss on the banks of the river Forth, west of Stirling. In the peat below them, Bronze Age artifacts rested with stumps of long gone forests on a bed of glacial deposits of gravel and clay. But the small company was not hunting archaeological treasure or clues to the geological past. The men had come to observe an experiment in improvement conducted by their kinsman and neighbor Mr. Hugh Graeme of Ardgomery. For a few years, Graeme had carried out a trial in “moss...


    • 1 The Moral Geography of Scotland
      (pp. 11-42)

      When Henry Home, Lord Kames, inherited his brother-in-law’s property of Blair Drummond near Stirling in 1766, he was faced with a monumental problem of soil husbandry. At the center of the estate was a bog covering 2,000 acres, with three-fourths belonging to Kames. It had formed on top of the deep alluvial clay soils of the carse lands stretching from the Firth of Forth to the hills above Stirling. Scattered evidence of this submerged soil raised hopes that the removal of the moss would uncover the lost arable beneath it. After some abortive trials, Kames determined that the best way...

    • 2 Natural History and Civil Cameralism
      (pp. 43-68)

      On clear days, the herring shoals appeared “near the surface” with a brilliant display of “coruscations that dart[ed] from the diamond, sapphire and emerald.” But at night, the loch shimmered like phosphorous where the shoals broke the surface to play. A nocturnal traveler moving across the water might think the sea was on fire.¹

      The Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant witnessed the dazzling spectacle on Loch Broom during the summer of 1772. To Pennant, the circulation of the shoals seemed to obey the laws of a providential economy. He reported that the herring made a regular migration from the depths of...

    • 3 Improving the Scottish Climate
      (pp. 69-90)

      A sulfurous, dry fog enveloped Europe in the summer of 1783. Bemused observers could stare straight into a noonday sun that the poet William Cowper called nature’s “dim and sickly eye.” Moving quickly east and south, the strange haze covered the skies of Copenhagen, Paris, London, and Rome. British observers spotted it over England and Scotland after June 19. The Sun, Moon, planets, and stars were all obscured by the haze. To the natural historian Gilbert White, “the sun at noon looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rustcolored … light.” A stifling heat accompanied the haze....


    • 4 Alternate Highlands
      (pp. 93-120)

      On his first journey through the Hebrides in 1764, John Walker spent seven months looking for God in boggy pastures and windswept uplands. The clergyman naturalist believed that every island contained hidden riches planted there by providence. In the mountains of the Isle of Rum, south of Skye, Walker discovered a “great abundance” of Linnaeus’sAira coerulea(Molinia caerulea, purple moor grass). This species was far better “suited to [the] climate and soil” of the Scottish uplands than southern kinds of forage plants. It grew wild in large stands almost at the very peak of the hills. If these high...

    • 5 Rival Ecologies of Global Commerce
      (pp. 121-146)

      When the French naturalist and industrial spy Bartélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond came to Edinburgh in the fall of 1782, Adam Smith took him to a piping contest. Apparently, Smith wished to conduct an impromptu experiment in sensibility. The moral philosopher was curious to see how his French visitor would react to a form of music he had never heard before. He must have been pleased with the results. In his travel account, Faujas de Saint-Fond described with considerable surprise and revulsion the effects of the bagpipe on his nerves. “I confess that at first I could not distinguish either air...

    • 6 Larch Autarky
      (pp. 147-164)

      On the edge of the Perthshire Highlands, a new forest sprouted during the French and Napoleonic Wars. The servants of the Duke of Atholl planted several million seedlings of larch in a scheme intended to secure the naval timber supply of the nation into the distant future.¹ This obsession with the virtue of larch timber was a family patrimony—larch had been planted by several generations of Murrays—and also a persistent dream of the Scottish savant James Anderson. The story of the fourth duke John Murray’s larch scheme underscores the centrality of forestry to the politics of the natural...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)

    • 7 Coal Exhaustion in 1789
      (pp. 167-187)

      The prosperity of modern economies rests in no small part on fossil fuel stock. For a long time, pessimists have worried that high rates of fuel consumption will deplete the stock and jeopardize the gains of industrialization. This quintessentially modern anxiety first surfaced at the end of the Scottish Enlightenment. The Welsh mining engineer and naturalist John Williams announced the beginning of peak coal in his 1789 bookThe Natural History of the Mineral Kingdom. Shortly thereafter, the Scottish mining entrepreneur Henry Gray Macnab sought to refute Williams by presenting a precise estimate of extant coal fields in 1793, but...

    • 8 Overpopulation and Extirpation
      (pp. 188-212)

      In the early phase of Spanish expansion, a “colony of goats”—one male and one female—was introduced to the small island of Juan Fernandez in the eastern Pacific, according to the Reverend Joseph Townsend. The story of this miniature empire appeared in a curious tract on political economy entitled ADissertation on the Poor Laws(1786). In the absence of predators and with lush island grasses to graze, the couple found it easy to obey the first commandment, “till … they had replenished their little island.” When the population reached the limits of pasture capacity, “the weakest first gave...

    • 9 Wasteland Island
      (pp. 213-231)

      The limits to the British food supply became a pressing political question at the end of the eighteenth century. In the face of widespread dearth in 1795, the House of Commons appointed a Select Committee led by John Sinclair to ascertain how much of the nation’s marginal soil could be converted to arable land. Sinclair’s report called attention to the rapid growth of London’s population and the danger of relying on foreign supplies in wartime. “The lands now in cultivation,” Sinclair noted, “have been found, on the average of several years past, inadequate to the consumption of the Kingdom.” But...

    • 10 “A Stationary Condition for Ever”
      (pp. 232-261)

      The long campaign to colonize the Highlands reached a final crisis point just after the turn of the century. An immediate cause was the Treaty of Amiens between Britain and France from 1801 to 1803. This brief interlude of peace acted as a vent for discontent and ambition in Highland society, encouraging the first great wave of emigration since 1793. Much of it seems to have been voluntary. The old tacksman class within Gaelic society, once the managerial linchpin of the agrarian system, was gradually made obsolete by commercial pressures. These tacksman families now took flight and went west by...

  8. Conclusion: The Ghosts of the Enlightenment
    (pp. 262-264)

    The hopes for a “New World” in the Highlands were dashed by a cascade of failures. Natural historians were too sanguine about the extent of northern resources and the efficacy of acclimatization. Agriculture failed to ameliorate the Highland climate. The campaign to build towns and villages faltered. Windfall profits from kelp and wool collapsed after the Napoleonic Wars. The Caledonian Canal proved a monumental miscalculation. Already in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, naturalists and political economists had begun to unmake the New World of the north. By running the engine of natural history in reverse, their inventories now...

  9. Maps
    (pp. 265-266)
  10. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 267-268)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 269-330)
  12. Index
    (pp. 331-344)