A Comparison of Scientific Advancement in Scottish Universities and the Royal Society

The seventeenth century was a period of exciting scientific growth in Scotland and England. However, the platforms for this progress were different for each kingdom: in Scotland, it was within its universities that new science first took hold, whereas in England, scientific advancement was largely occurring within the Royal Society founded in 1660. The fact that one of these platforms were universities, and the other a private club, led to key differences in the transition and outcomes of scientific growth in the two kingdoms. The universities being a center of scientific inquiry was both a hindrance, due to the ability of church and state to exert control, as well as a benefit to Scotland because it enabled new knowledge to spread to students. While science in the Scottish universities seems to have lagged behind the Royal Society in taking on the new science at first, it accounted for Scotland’s uniquely prominent Enlightenment in the proceeding century, marking a different experience than in England.

While the Royal Society had to appease the public at times when its values were in question, it did not have to experience direct control via visitations and purging of members as the Scottish universities dealt with, which may have been detrimental to scientific progress. The first half of the seventeenth century was an era of political and religious upheaval, and its effects were continuously felt – the realm of science being no exception. It was important to the government following the rebellion against King Charles I to feel that loyalty was never an issue, and it was significant to various religious factions that came in and out of power that the general public adhered to their beliefs and proper instruction. Visitations were used to maintain church and state power within the Scottish universities, which affected staff appointments and dismissals, as well as the content of lectures and theses.[1] These visitations tended to coincide with contemporary events, such as the beginning of the civil wars in 1638, the Restoration in 1660, and the 1689 Revolutionary Settlement, all of which saw university regents lose their posts. This could have been on the grounds of the regent being either Episcopalian or Presbyterian, taking a specific side in the Civil War, or opposing the Kirk.[2] Some significant minds were affected by the controlling of staff, and perhaps if these individuals did not lose or leave their positions, advancement could have occurred at a more rapid pace. Thus, political and religious upheaval in the first half of the seventeenth century stunted scientific advancement in the universities. On the other hand, the Royal Society did not lose fellows, nor were they held back in what subjects they wanted to research, due to control by commissioners.

Another difference between universities being the root of scientific advance, as opposed to a group of individual scientists organized in a society, was that regents could exert direct control over the pace of new knowledge being taught. This is especially significant under the regent system because one man was teaching the same class for all four years of their education. For example, one regent, William Campbell of St. Andrews, refused to teach Descartes in 1657, accusing his theories of “paving the downward path to atheism and skepticism.”[3] In some cases, regents based their decision of whether or not to teach a specific scientific hypothesis, not on whether it was true or false, but rather if it was suitable for students to learn. In the case of Newtonian ideas, a regent thinking it was too difficult for the students, or even themselves, to grasp, may have swayed this decision.[4] This demonstrates that scientific knowledge advance in the universities could be thwarted by individual regents, whereas in the Royal Society each fellow could choose what hypothesis they wanted to study or experiment with, without being held back by any figure or fellow member.

Though various aspects of the universities may have slowed the pace of scientific advancement, and the science itself was different in the universities than it was to the Royal Society at the time, the seventeenth century was nonetheless a significant transition for Scotland. One important distinction was that science to the universities was more theoretical and meant “comparing the statements of different authorities and arriving at the truth by means of argument” while teaching lectures, whereas the Royal Society was actually involved in hands on experimentation and discovery.[5] One regent, Andrew Massie, stated admiringly of the Royal Society in one of his lectures in 1682: “they do not go by any authority, but follow the school of nature […]; they observe, and prove the truth of what they have observed by further experiments.”[6] Although this distinction shows that the Royal Society may have been more advanced in what they were doing within the world of science, the universities did begin to expand their scientific curriculum at the time. Though each university advanced at a different pace a general timeline of changes to curriculum can be traced. Up until the 1660s, the curriculum was based on Aristotelian theories, then Cartesian physics became gradually accepted and the majority by the 1670s, and finally Newtonian ideas were taught from the 1680s on, becoming commonplace by the 1700s.[7] Though this transition was gradual, it succeeded in bringing the Scottish universities up to date in scientific teaching, and to the same level as anywhere else in Europe.[8] On the other hand, the English universities were not yet concerned with teaching the sciences.

In addition to the changes in curriculum, other important factors involved in the advancement of science included the creation of new chairs and professorships, the influence of several key individuals, and the attainment of new equipment. James Gregory embodies many of these factors. Gregory became the first chair of mathematics created in St. Andrews in 1668, his lectures marked the first introduction in Scottish universities of Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes, he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1673, he received approval for the construction of an observatory – the earliest in Britain – at the college, as well as installation of astronomical instruments.[9]

Though in the seventeenth century there were times that it seemed the Royal Society surpassed the Scottish universities, the universities made much progress by the eighteenth century that led to great advances of the Enlightenment in Scotland, which was not experienced in English universities. The Scottish universities made this transition at a time when the universities in England were “still suffering from intellectual torpor,” and not yet involved in the advancement of scientific knowledge.[10] Thus, even though England had the Royal Society, scientific knowledge was not being taught to students as it was in Scotland. So, the public nature of the universities compared to the Royal Society became a great benefit to Scotland in the long run. Following the seventeenth century, science in Scotland would rapidly advance, and Edinburgh would become the leading medical school in all of Europe. As stated by Paul Wood, “science and medicine were central to, and in some cases, the driving forces behind the intellectual changes encompassed by the term ‘Scottish Enlightenment.’” Therefore it was the transition that took place in seventeenth century Scotland that paved the way for Enlightenment in the Scottish universities in the eighteenth century, a markedly different phenomenon than England.[11]

-Marisa Vomvos


[1] Christine Shepherd, “Philosophy and Science in the Arts Curriculum of the Scottish Universities in the 17th Century” (PhD diss., University of Edinburgh, 1974), 299.

[2] Shepherd, “Philosophy and Science in the Arts Curriculum,” 299.

[3] Ibid., 211.

[4] Ibid., 213.

[5] Ibid., 210.

[6] Christine Shepherd, “Newtonianism in Scottish Universities in the Seventeenth Century,” in The Origins and Nature of the Scottish Enlightenment, ed. R.H. Campbell and Andrew S. Skinner (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1982), 72.

[7] Shepherd, “Newtonianism in Scottish Universities,” 66.

[8] Roger Emerson, “Scottish Cultural Change 1660-1710 and the Union of 1707,” in A Union For Empire: Political Thought and the British Union of 1707, ed. John Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 123.

[9] Ronald Cant, “Origins of the Enlightenment in Scotland: The Universities,” in The Origins and Nature of the Scottish Enlightenment, ed. R.H. Campbell and Andrew S. Skinner (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1982), 45.

[10] Alexander Gray, “The Old Schools and Universities in Scotland,” Scottish Historical Review 9, no. 34 (1912): 122.

[11] Paul Wood, “Science in the Scottish Enlightenment,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment, ed. Alexander Broadie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 95.


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