When the Union of 1707 merged Scotland with England through a joint Parliament, London quipped that the whale had swallowed Jonah; when Bute (1762 f.) brought a score of Scots into the British government the wits grumbled that Jonah was swallowing the whale.6 Politically the whale won: the sixteen Scottish peers and forty-five commoners were engulfed by 108 English peers and 513 commoners. Scotland submitted its foreign policy, and in large measure its economy, to legislation dominated by English money and minds. The two countries did not forget their former enmity: the Scots complained of commercial inequalities between Jonah and the whale, and Samuel Johnson spoke for the whale in biting at Jonah with chauvinistic iteration.
Scotland in 1760 had a population of some 1,250,000 souls. The birth rate was high, but the death rate followed close. Said Adam Smith, toward 1770: “It is not uncommon, I have been told, in the Highlands of Scotland, for a mother who has borne twenty children not to have two alive.”7 The Highland chieftains owned nearly all the land outside the towns, and kept the tenant farmers primitively poor on a rocky soil harassed by summer downpours, and by winter snow from September to May. Rents were repeatedly raised—on one farm from five pounds to £ 20 in twenty-five years.8 Many peasants, seeing no escape from poverty at home, emigrated to America; so, said Johnson, “a rapacious chief could make a wilderness of his estate.”9 The landlords pleaded depreciation of the currency as their excuse for raising rents. Conditions were even worse in the coal mines and salt pits, where, until 1775, workers were bound to their jobs as long as they lived.10
In the Lowland towns the Industrial Revolution brought prosperity to an expanding and enterprising middle class. Southwest Scotland was dotted with textile factories. Glasgow, through industries and foreign trade, grew from a population of 12,500 in 1707 to eighty thousand in 1800; it had rich suburbs, slum tenements, and a university. In 1768-90 a canal was dug connecting the Rivers Clyde and Forth, so establishing an all-water commercial route between the industrial southwest and the political southeast. Edinburgh—which had some fifty thousand inhabitants in 1740—was the focus of Scotland’s government, intellect, and fashion; every well-to-do Scottish family aspired to spend at least a part of the year there; here came Boswell and Burns, here lived Hume and Robertson and Raeburn; here were renowned lawyers like the Erskines, and a prestigious university, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And here were the headquarters of Scottish Christianity.
Roman Catholics were few, but enough, as we have seen, to cause trepidation in a land still reverberating with echoes of John Knox. The Episcopal Church had many adherents among the affluent, who liked the bishops and ritual of the Anglican communion. But the allegiance of the great majority went to the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Kirk, which rejected bishops, minimized ritual, and accepted in religion and morals no other rule than that of its parish sessions, its district presbyteries, its provincial synods, and its General Assembly. Probably nowhere else in Europe except Spain was a people so thoroughly imbued with theology. The kirk session, composed of elders and minister, could levy fines and inflict penalties for misconduct and heresy; it could sentence fornicators to stand up and be publicly rebuked during the service; Robert Burns and Jean Armour were thus chastened in a kirk session on August 6, 1786. The Calvinist eschatology dominated the common mind, making free thought a danger to life and limb; but a group of “Moderate” clergymen—led by Robert Wallace, Adam Ferguson, and William Robertson—tempered the intolerance of the people sufficiently to allow David Hume a natural death.
Perhaps a hard religion was required to counter the revels of a people so cold that they drank to intoxication, and so poor that their only pleasure lay in sexual pursuit. The career of Burns indicates that the men drank and fornicated despite the Devil and the dominies, and that willing girls were not rare. In the final quarter of the eighteenth century there was a marked decline in religious belief and in adherence to the traditional morality. William Creech, an Edinburgh painter, noted that in 1763 Sunday had been a day of religious devotion; in 1783 “attendance on church was greatly neglected, and particularly by the men”; and at night the streets were noisy with loose and riotous youth. “In 1763 there were five or six brothels; … in 1783 the number of brothels had increased twenty-fold, and the women of the town more than a hundred-fold. Every quarter of the city and the suburbs was infected with multitudes of females abandoned to vice.”11 Golf was luring men from church to the links on Sundays, and on weekdays men and women danced (formerly a sin), went to theaters (still a sin), attended horse races, and gambled in taverns and clubs.
The Kirk was the chief source of democracy and education. The congregation chose the elders, and the minister (usually chosen by a “patron”) was expected to organize a school in every parish. The hunger for education was intense. Of the four universities, that of St. Andrews was in decay, but claimed to have the best library in Britain. Johnson found the University of Aberdeen flourishing in 1773. The University of Glasgow had on its faculty Joseph Black, physicist, Thomas Reid, philosopher, and Adam Smith, economist, and was sheltering James Watt. Edinburgh University was the youngest of the four, but it was alive with the excitement of the Scottish Enlightenment.