This week’s blog comes from one of our MLitt British Studies students, John Macdonald, and was written as an assessment on our module ‘British Identities’. John MacdonaldJohn runs a tour company in the Highlands and Islands – The Hebridean Explorer

With its totemic protruding toe, the statue on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile of the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume has become a superstitious fixture for modern day philosophy students hoping that touching the toe will help gain knowledge, wisdom or even just a little bit of luck.

David Hume by Bandan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

However, as a renowned figure of the Scottish Enlightenment – that great intellectual and scientific renaissance in eighteenth-century Scotland – David Hume would have had considerable distaste of such practices.


After all, Hume (one of history’s great philosophers) famously advanced the notion of critical thinking – the development of new ideas and approaches within philosophy and the sciences based around the principles of reason and human nature, using scientific processes and reasoned observations.[1]


Another modern day practice that may not have been agreeable to Hume and many other eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment figures was their subtle, but nonetheless noticeable, appropriation in support of modern Scottish nationalism during the 2014 Independence Referendum.[2]


The great paradox of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was that whilst it was undoubtedly a tremendous Scottish endeavour, most of its influential thinkers were Unionist in their sympathies. Indeed, during this period many even advocated a further strengthening of the relationship with England, in essence a ‘completing of the Union’.[3]


Why – in the view of many Enlightened Scots  – would the Union require further completion? As the Act of Union in 1707 was, for the most part, driven by an anti-Jacobite and pro-Hanoverian agenda (chiefly, with the aim of securing a Protestant succession in Scotland and England) it did not necessarily fulfil the constitutional ideals of a new state.


Although 1707 brought a political union, Scotland continued to retain its own distinctive judicial, religious and educational structures. However, those were widely deemed as secure, identifiably Scottish institutions not warranting change or integration into a wider British state.


What then was missing from Scotland within the Union? Many Enlightenment figures believed it was the need for an Anglo-Scottish identity, one that would support and facilitate an emerging sense of Britishness in Scotland – a North British identity.


However, North Britishness was not a new, clearly defined, and structured identity, rather, it was a general response of the Scottish intelligentsia to the Union from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. This Anglo-Scottish response was – by its very nature – a fluid, layered, dual identity where, for example, Scotland’s access to the economic benefits of being part of Britain could sit alongside emotional attachments and loyalties to elements of Scottishness and Scottish identity.[4]


North Britishness manifested itself in many aspects of the social and cultural life of Enlightened Scots, for example, the deliberate process of adopting English vocabulary and pronunciation in a conscious effort to remove ‘Scotticisms’ (Scots words and phrases) from contemporary language – a clear trait particularly found in the works of David Hume.[5]


Importantly, a core factor driving this developing identity was the perception that the adoption of Britishness – through the notion ‘North British’ – would allow fuller access for Scotland to appropriate well-established and entrenched English constitutional values and ideals.


Essentially, they considered England to have already done the historical ‘groundwork’ for mapping out the route towards, not only a prosperous economy, but also a successful constitutional and liberal landscape, and by adopting these English liberties they could improve Scotland within the Union.


Three centuries later, it is hard to argue that the core thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment would have viewed their appropriation (however subtle) by nationalists during the 2014 Independence campaign favourably.


However, it is worth noting that these Enlightened Scots did not restrict their admiration to elements of English liberties. They aspired to be part of wider a European cultural community.


Maybe, given the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (but with Scotland in favour of remaining), eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment figures would have found the notion of their appropriation in support of a Scottish state within Europe more acceptable – the Northern Europeans!


[1] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (London, 1739-40).


[3] See lecture by Tom Devine, ‘The “Death” and Reinvention of Scotland’, 11th June 2013,

[4] Colin Kidd, ‘North Britishness and the Nature of Eighteenth-Century British Patriotisms’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 39:2, (1996), pp. 361-82.

[5] Craig Smith, ‘The Scottish Enlightenment and Scottish Independence’, Economic Affairs, Vol. 33:3, (2013), pp. 334-47.