An English visitor to Edinburgh during the heyday of the "Scottish Enlightenment" remarked: "Here I stand at what is called the Cross of Edinburgh, and can, in a few minutes, take 50 men of genius and learning by the hand." It is a striking summation of the outburst of pioneering intellectual activity that occurred in Scotland in the second half of the 18th century.
In his vivid chronicle of this period, James Buchan aims to show not only what happened but also how it came about that a small country at the northern edge of Europe should have produced, in a period of about 50 years, the founders of so much of modern thought.
The names of many of these "men of genius and learning" form a roll of honour: Robert Adam, the architect of Edinburgh's New Town; Joseph Black, the great scientist who discovered carbon dioxide; William Cullen, the influential teacher of clinical medicine; Adam Ferguson, the founder of sociology; David Hume, one of the most influential philosophers of the modern world; James Hutton, who first calculated the immense age of the earth and was the founder of modern geology; Henry Raeburn, the painter; William Robertson, the founder of modern historiography; Sir John Sinclair, the editor of the First Statistical Account of Scotland; William Smellie, the founder of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; Adam Smith, the father of the modern science of economics.
It is not too much to claim that the world of today has been largely shaped by these thinkers and experimenters. The Scottish Enlightenment was nothing less than an attempt to understand the nature of humans and society by studying the laws of human behaviour and the historical processes of change. They hoped to gain a fuller understanding of the present, and so to build a better future, by freeing mankind from ignorance and poverty.
They were a closely knit group: most knew one another; many were close friends; some were related by marriage. All were politically conservative but intellectually radical (Unionists and progressives to a man), courteous, friendly and accessible. They were stimulated by enormous curiosity, optimism about human progress and a dissatisfaction with age- old theological disputes. Together they created a cultural golden age (not only in Edinburgh, but in all the cities of Scotland) of intellectual, literary, scientific and artistic energy, fuelled by what David Hume called "the science of man".
The Scottish Enlightenment has been a subject of intense interest in Scotland in recent years. David Daiches, Peter Jones and Jean Jones published A Hotbed of Genius in 1986, the year in which the Enlightenment was a main theme of the Edinburgh Festival. Now Buchan gives us a novelist's evocative account of the men involved and the squalid, violent, bigoted streets of the Edinburgh in which they lived and worked. He brings us the look and smell and feel of Scotland after the hotly controversial Union of the Parliaments in 1707 and the crushing disaster of the 1745 Jacobite Rising. The book is a triumph of fact-based, imaginatively expressed writing.
So why did it all come to an end? The outbreak of even more revolutionary views in America in the 1780s, and the French revolution of 1789 in particular, killed off hopes of calm, steady, rational "improvement" in civilisation. The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment could not cope with the violence of real revolution. The old philosopher-heroes went to their graves, graceful and courteous all the way. (The dying Adam Smith, in 1790, murmured to James Hutton and others in the room: "I believe we must adjourn this meeting to another place.")
But at least the Enlightenment gave rise to a new movement - Romanticism. Sir Walter Scott, born in 1771, was bequeathed the genius to invigorate the 19th century in a new and equally pioneering way.
Magnus Magnusson is the author of Scotland: the story of a nation (HarperCollins)