Volume 3(2014)

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

Hiroyuki Furuya

Associate Professor of the History of Economic Thought, Tokushima Bunri University, Japan


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 cmpetition 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.

Keywords: Scottish Enlightenment, Improvement, Orkney, Pundlar Process, Thomas Hepburn

1. Introduction

The age of Enlightenment in Scotland is usually associated with promising prospects such as innovations in the fields of philosophy, literature and economic thought, improvements to agricultural methods, and the dawn of the industrial revolution (Smout, 1983).  However, a certain amount of resistance to the celebrated Enlightenment could be seen in traditional local communities and those groups that were left behind, giving rise to conflict and confrontation.

* This paper is part of research funded by a Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), part of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and is based on my presentations, ‘The Pundlar Process and Eighteenth-Century Orkney’, given at the Early Modern Studies Conference (University of Reading, July 2010), ‘The Enlightenment Idea of Improvement and its Discontents: The Case of Orkney in the Eighteenth Century’, given at the Conference of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought (Kingston University, London, May 2013), and ‘Barbarism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Orkney’, given at the International Conference on New Thinking in Economic Theory and Policy (Academy Common, Meiji University, September 2014).