The Enlightenment Idea of Improvement and its Discontents: The Case of Orkney in Eighteenth-Century Scotland*

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to offer a view of improvement emerged in the age of Enlightenment in Scotland. This paper examines an economic debate that took place in the context of a bitterly-fought legal battle referred to as the Pundlar Process (1733–1759). It was contested between the Earl of Morton, who was a feudal superior of Orkney and Shetland, and local lairds. This paper focuses on two contemporary documents concerning the lairds as plaintiffs and Morton as defendant respectively: James Mackenzie's The General Grievances and Oppression of the Isles of Orkney and Shetland (1750), and Thomas Hepburn's A Letter to a Gentleman from his Friend in Orkney, Containing the True Causes of the Poverty of that Country (1760). This paper seeks to illuminate the contrasts revealed during the age of Enlightenment in Scotland by focusing on the conflict between those who tried to promote ‘improvement' in order to adapt the economy to increased competition brought about by trade expansion after the Acts of Union of 1707, and those in the traditional, local communities who sought out alternative ways to accommodate themselves to this change.