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Capturing Scottish visions and visages

When I think of Scotland, where I've never set foot, I think of whisky to some extent, and oatmeal, shortbread, marmalade, kippers -- the good things in life. And I also think of Mr. McFarland, a shopkeeper in County Wicklow, Ireland, where we lived, who was in fact an Ulsterman. But, we, being Americans and, as such, obsessed with ethnic origins, considered him a Scot and all his ways as representing the essence of Presbyterian Scottishness. There was about his shop an air of high moral purpose and strict conformity to propriety -- so much so that toilet paper, though sold, was not displayed to public gaze. It had to be asked for or, better yet, simply required by handing over one's basket with a look. McFarland, his face dour and craggy with rectitude, two patches of whiskers high on his cheeks, would disappear into the back and return with the basket, the incontrovertible testimony to man's fallen state shrouded in tan paper at its bottom.

It was such painful moments -- and my prejudice against what I took to be the Scottish character -- that made the Scottish Enlightenment seem such an oxymoron when I first heard of it. Where, or rather from whom, did it come? Plenty has been written about it, that's for sure, but little so engagingly and with such graceful erudition as James Buchan's "Crowded With Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment -- Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind" (HarperCollins, $29.95). Indeed, Buchan is ideally suited to bringing this great explosion of thought alive for he is a fine novelist with the ability to summon up character with deft economy and is, moreover, the author of "Frozen Desire," a splendid meditation on money.

The first and proper response to this period in Edinburgh is amazement. Somehow, between 1746 and 1789, a city that had been "inconvenient, dirty, old-fashioned, alcoholic, quarrelsome and poor" transformed itself not only physically, but spiritually and intellectually, to become the pivot upon which the change to a modern sensibility in Western civilization turned. The towering intellect was perhaps David Hume's, which demolished reason through reason, showing that what we think to be the most necessary of categories, cause and effect, is simply an expectation based in habit. This is to say that our judgments are based in nothing more substantive than feeling. If this sort of thoroughgoing skepticism doesn't shock us -- or most of us -- today, it did then; and Hume retreated from its implications into history and political economy, polite letters, culinary pursuits, and "the company of 'modest women.' "

While, as Buchan writes, Hume "founded no school and left no successor," his friend Adam Smith did and is probably the most famous of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. He has left a phalanx of disciples, trailing through history down to our own day -- though, as Buchan shows, most of them are entirely mistaken about the social and economic tenets of the master.

What accounts for the intellectual and literary efflorescence that was the Scottish Enlightenment? According to Buchan, the political union of Scotland and England in 1707 and the failure of the rebellion of 1745 had left Edinburgh in need of social explanation and with an appetite for a mythological history. The first was supplied by Hume, Smith, and others who discovered society's connecting forces to be sensibility and trade. The second, the creation of a suitable history and cultural heritage, was cooked up by James MacPherson in the Ossianic poems. These supposed translations of the work of a blind Celtic bard were, as Buchan explains with characteristic sweep, "an attempt to repopulate those wild spaces [the Highlands] with something other than disaffected Jacobites and Roman Catholics. Before there could be . . . factory lairds in new tartan, there must be pale phantoms of boundless chivalry and sensitivity."

In other words, the Scottish past that took shape in the last half of the 18th century was a fantasy and one that soon enough captured the imagination of the world outside and provided a good deal of the impetus toward the Romantic movement. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone "was mad for savagery, the primitive, historical conjecture, the sublime, obscurity, vastness, the infinite, sad and fuscous colors, clamour, suddenness, and the Joy of Grief." All this was later apotheosized in the novels of Walter Scott, which, in turn, lent further universality to things Scottish, catapulting the country "and its ancient capital into the romantic centre of the world, where they have stayed more or less ever since."

"The Scots: A Photohistory," by Murray MacKinnon and Richard Oram (Thames and Hudson, $40), contains scarcely an unstaged photograph and shows as much about a consumer's image of Scotland as anything else. The pictures range in date from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, and in subject matter from John Brown, Queen Victoria's personal servant and particular friend, to ragged children -- one wearing what appears to be half of a man's pair of trousers, his grubby, little legs occupying one pants leg. The settings range from the Disneyesque pile, Balmoral Castle, to Walter Scott's Gothic library, down to the back streets of Glasgow. There are scenes of the hunt, of fishermen at their work, of bridge building, factories, and the shipyards of Clydeside. There are two Gordon Highlanders -- one bearing a remarkable resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt -- pretending to drink whisky out of enameled pails.

Though there is nothing candid about these photographs, one could easily spend a day poring over them, looking at the long Scottish visages -- surely some McFarlands among them -- and all the evidence for a vanished frugality, as in two little buildings whose roofs are made of two halves of the worn hull of boat. One is also struck by how much a part of life portage was, with great baskets of fish and peat and God knows what else, stones as like as not, being hauled about by women as if there were no such thing as the weaker sex. I call it a tonic reminder of our easeful existence. For that alone the book is worth its freight.

Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. Her column appears on alternate Sundays. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@earthlink.net.

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