THE Scottish 18th century is a crowded place nowadays, not only with the traditional figures of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Robert Burns and all their hangers-on but also with that array of enlightened thinkers who, as a vast volume of writings over the last half-century has set out, created the mental world that the whole of humanity lives in today.
An Enlightened Duke: The life of Archibald Campbell (1682-1761), Earl of Ilay, 3rd Duke of Argyll by Roger Emerson
Humming Earth, 551pp, £40
So thoroughly worked over is this scene that it is a something of a rare event for a major addition to be made to its pantheon of Great Scots. But that is what Roger Emerson, a Canadian academic, has achieved with this biography of the third Duke of Argyll, who emerges as a pervasive influence on the cultural as well as the political scene in Scotland during several crucial decades.
If he is that important, why have we known so little of him before? Despite his wisdom, Argyll made one basic mistake for those who wish to be well thought of by posterity, in not leaving a large cache of personal papers in good order where the scholars of the future could burrow.
Such a cache might have existed at one time, but if so it was scattered after his death. So his activities have to be traced through many miscellaneous sources and there are obvious gaps. Yet Emerson has admirably succeeded in tracing most things that matter, and the resulting story is hardly less detailed and nuanced than in any other standard biography of the era.
A second reason for Argyll’s relative obscurity up to now has been the neglect in modern academic studies of the Scottish politics of the 18th century.
Of course, in comparison with the philosophy or the sociology or the economics, where developments of global significance took place, the political scene may seem a bare one, and a depressing one too in its obsession with the contents of the pork-barrel and their distribution in the form of jobs for the boys.
The great merit of Emerson’s biography is to show the intimate connection with that sort of grubby day-to-day politicking and the glorious intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment.
Argyll was himself a high intellectual, not a creative one in the sense of working out and writing up new ideas, but certainly as a man who kept himself bang up to date with the latest thinking of his time (his library was huge).
And he did everything he could to encourage it. His homes in Scotland and London were the scenes of the intimate social life, with good drink and good talk, that made the Scottish Enlightenment much the nicest of them all.
At the same time, the third Duke of Argyll was an active politician, who more or less ruled Scotland from the death in 1743 of his elder brother, the second Duke of Argyll, till his own death 18 years later.
This period covered the second great Jacobite rebellion and the immense changes that started to come over Scotland in the wake of the Battle of Culloden.
It was a stormy period, in other words, and nobody but the most astute sort of leader could have weathered the storm.
Before and afterwards the duke represented a force for moderation, whether it was a matter of cooling the Presbyterian ferocity of the Lowlands or taming the tribal savagery of the Highlands.
It would be no exaggeration to say that under him the old, wild Scotland passed away and a new, peaceful and progressive Scotland was born.
Nor would it be going too far to say that the existence of such a novel type of nation, intellectually ambitious while socially and politically stable, was a conscious aim of Argyll’s.
Too much writing on the Scotland of this period implicitly assumes that the higher sphere of its earth-shattering ideas was disembodied from the actual life of the country and the human beings who lived it.
Emerson shows us how, at least in one major instance, they were linked. In particular, he exhibits here the continuing centrality of politics through the previously blank period in between the Union of 1707 and the later construction by Henry Dundas of a more elaborate system.
So now we have a complete political history of Scotland from the beginning to the end of the century. Emerson altogether makes of Scotland in that time a more real kind of place: a great achievement.