Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Scottish Values, Ideas and Ambitions: from Witherspoon to Today


Jack McConnell, First Minister of Scotland

Tartan Day – April 6, 2006

Princeton University, New Jersey


Ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to have this opportunity to address you today.

It is a great pleasure to be in New Jersey and in Princeton University on Tartan Day.

And it is an honour to be giving this lecture today.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like for John Witherspoon when he first arrived in Princeton, in August 1768. After 9 weeks on a boat, arriving in the middle of the night, the students had, famously, put candles and lanterns in all the windows to welcome their new President.

While we don’t need candles these days, the warmth of your welcome does more than justice to that tradition.

As you may know, the primary reason for my visit to the United States at this time of year is to lead the celebrations in this Tartan week.

It is a recognition of the ties of kinship, heritage and history which bind together the United States and Scotland. It is a celebration that has become an established feature of the calendar on both sides of the Atlantic.

We Scots are proud of the genuine warmth and goodwill we receive wherever we go in the world – but, in this country in particular, many people have very special emotional links to Scotland.

This week we celebrate the strong affinity between our two countries and resolve to use it for our mutual benefit for generations to come.

I want to use the opportunity that I have today to talk about three things:

Firstly, I’d like to talk to you about Scotland’s most influential period – the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century. Those enlightened values; philosophies and sciences were used by John Witherspoon and others to lay down the foundations of the new America. And they helped create the modern world too.

Secondly, I want to talk about the way in which enlightened Scottish ideas and values have provided the basis for Scotland’s democratic renaissance over the last seven years.

Finally, I want to talk about modern Scotland – to describe the dreams and ambitions we have for our country in the 21st century. And to make the case, that it is not out with the bounds of possibility that Scotland can be home to a new, second enlightenment.


John Witherspoon wasn’t the only Enlightened Scot to use his own learning to influence America’s higher education system – but, he did set down a model here in Princeton that was followed by many others.

For many, Witherspoon is the real founder of the broad liberal arts education that is so recognisably American today.

As many of you will know, Witherspoon came to Princeton in 1768, with his wife, his family and 300 books. But of course he also had with him the Enlightenment ideas developed at home in Scotland.

He was born in 1723 in East Lothian and graduated from Edinburgh University. He moved west though to preach in the small town of Beith, Ayrshire in the parish where my father and his family worshipped, and where my grandfather was buried just a few years ago.

Witherspoon was attracted to Princeton from Paisley – headhunted would be our 21st century term – because his intellect, his values and teaching had been noticed far from west central Scotland.

During his time in Princeton, he was college president, main preacher, main fundraiser and the main teacher in moral philosophy, divinity, rhetoric, chronology and French.

Witherspoon’s achievements here were incredible.

Among his own students were future President Madison, a future Vice-President, 21 senators, 39 congressmen and 12 state governors.

He believed passionately in the power of reason and rigour in argument.

During his time here, he insisted that his students apply the common sense test to any proposition, and test out any idea by looking to their own experiences.

On top of his academic achievements, Witherspoon is perhaps best known today as a founding father of the American republic, and a signatory of your Declaration of Independence.

But, his wasn’t the only Scots name to appear on this Declaration. In fact, half of the signatories were of Scottish descent.

And, the influence of individual Scots on America did not stop with Witherspoon.

To paraphrase Andrew Carnegie ‘America would have been a poor show if it had not been for the Scots’.

A giant of the industrial age Carnegie invented philanthropy. The products of that commitment still enrich the lives of people across Scotland, the USA and countries all over the world today.

John Muir, a Scot from Dunbar outside Edinburgh, who founded your great national parks, is regarded by many as the founder of the environmental movement.

Another Scot – John Paul Jones – is regarded as the Father of the US Navy. The son of a gardener from south west Scotland, John Paul Jones became your greatest Captain in the wars of independence.

They and other Scots who came to the United States punched above their weight in impact.

In their time they were the shock troops of modernisation – ordinary people who helped make America what it is today.

These Scots were determined to succeed. They were decent hard-working people who came to America with high hopes for themselves and their families.

Together, they helped create a new American civic community. It was a community that respected the right of all people to pursue their own ambitions but also to contribute to the common good of society.

The Scottish Enlightenment

Scotland may be a small country – but, our influence has stretched far beyond our borders and the Scottish Enlightenment is, to my mind, the most compelling example of that.

Within a relatively short space of time, enlightened thought flowed thick and fast from the think tank that Scotland was becoming.

In 1751, David Hume argued that human actions are best explained as functions of human passions rather than as functions of reason.

Frances Hutcheson, on the other hand, argued the opposite of Hume that self-interest did not rule. He contended that every human had an innate moral sense that guided their behaviour. Hutcheson – although not uncritically – was one of Witherspoon’s greatest influences.

Adam Smith, the son of a customs controller from Kirkcaldy, published his Wealth of Nations in 1776. Of course, Smith was not only a political economist – although that is how he is best remembered – he was also a moral philosopher too.

Robert Burns lived and died too quickly in the Scotland of the late 18th century. His work is celebrated across the world now. His expression of our shared humanity resonates down through centuries and his influence on the great poets of the English language that followed – Wordsworth and Coleridge to name only two – was profound.

Sir Walter Scott born in Edinburgh in 1771 was both a part and a product of the Enlightenment. Unfairly scorned by some of his time, Scott gave us the historical novel as a new medium of literature. But, he also gave Scots in the pre-industrial age an important sense of identity in a rapidly changing world.

And, James Watt, born in Greenock in 1736 perfected the rotary steam engine. That engine became the work horse of the industrial revolution and transformed our world forever.

It’s no exaggeration to say that these men – and others – taught the world how to think scientifically; set out the laws of modern market economics; and helped create the modern, civilised values that the United States and the rest of the democratic world now upholds.

The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment were, above all, rational. They advocated reason as the best way to understand the world and our place in it.

Enlightenment thinkers also made a strong case for the importance of experience and evidence over ideas.

It is only by looking to rationalism that we can begin to get at the truth – or, at least, the truth in so far as it can be analysed and agreed between reasonable people.

For me, this remains one of the Scottish Enlightenment’s most powerful tools for understanding the world we live in today. That essential point – that we must make our arguments, be prepared to defend them and to change them if we cannot do so – underpins the broad, liberal education that Witherspoon enshrined at Princeton when he was its President.

The enlightenment made a case too for the tolerance of others. For them – and for us now – people were and are of equal worth.

As Robert Burns – Abraham Lincoln’s favourite poet – famously put it “Man to man the world over shall brothers be”.

I believe – passionately, as well as because reason tells me it is so – that the values of the Scottish democratic intellect can help us address the issues behind the various conflicts and of politics that confront us today.

Those Enlightenment values – reason, scepticism, empiricism, tolerance – are not weak or wishy-washy.

Resting on theory alone, in a world as complex as ours, is dangerous. Reason, scepticism, proceeding from what experience can teach us; these are the essential foundations of the Enlightenment view of how to understand human existence. For me, they remain the most reliable and sensible means of doing so.

The Scottish Enlightenment re-ordered human learning and made it more useful.

It is because of this ordering of knowledge that Princeton and the world’s other great universities have been able to specialise and advance human knowledge in the way that they have over the years.

So, the Scottish Enlightenment was ultimately about learning – about ordering knowledge, about making it useful and about putting it within reach of all.

The key figures gave education the very highest respect. They knew what it could achieve. They knew that it could empower people and that it could improve their understanding and their opportunities. And, they knew that it could enrich a culture and drive a society forward.

We Scots have long known how to use our learning productively. Over the years, Scots have created many of the breakthrough inventions in modern life – from the telephone, to television; from penicillin to tarmac roads; from the pneumatic tyre to the electric light.

And we are proud that Scots continue to invent and push the bounds of the possible. In more recent years, Scotland has given the world the MRI scanner, the automated bank teller and the first cloned animal – Dolly the Sheep.


There are a lot of remarkable things about the 18th century Scottish enlightenment. But perhaps the most remarkable thing was that it happened at all.

David Hume himself questioned it.

“Is it not strange that at a time when we (Scots) have lost our princes, our parliaments, our independent government…are unhappy in our accent and pronunciation, speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue… it not strange in these Circumstances, we should really be the people most distinguished in Europe for literature?”

The truth is there is no real consensus as to why the Scottish enlightenment happened. There is no single clear reason to explain it.

There are some who say it was a result of Scotland being the first place in the world to institute universal school education. We created that in 1696 and perhaps created a capacity for learning and development that was greater than elsewhere.

Others say it was an influx of information and liberal thought from abroad. And it was certainly true that prominent Scots of that time were internationalist in their outlook.

There are even some who say the Act of Union with England in 1707, and the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745 settled at the time the relationship with England, liberating men of the time to think about other things.

Whatever the reasons are, the most striking thing for me was the sheer scale and diversity of thought and creativity that took place in Scotland then.

Philosophers and church leaders – lots of them – with opposing, and sometimes contradictory theories awaking passionate and competitive debate. Mathematicians, economists, scientists combined with poets and novelists. A convergence of thought, talent and intellectual expression that truly changed the world.

And now in the 21st century, there are some who think Scotland could become home to a second enlightenment.

In 1999 Scotland re-created its Parliament. Through the overwhelming consent of the Scottish people, powers were devolved from the Westminster Government in London to a new Parliament and government in Edinburgh.

It was, without doubt, the greatest constitutional change to the United Kingdom since the Act of Union in 1707.

Unlike the US, the UK was one of the most centralised government’s in the Western world – but in July 1999 legislative and administrative powers over education, health, justice, rural affairs and economic development were devolved to Scotland’s new Parliament.

The plans were laid out by a Constitutional Convention, building consensus, reaching compromise, putting our national interest before individual political parties or sectoral interests.

The demand for change was largely political, improving our democracy and giving democratic expression of Scottish identity within the UK.

But the years of waiting had other impacts too – a culture of dependency had replaced our entrepreneurial spirit, our confidence and belief in ourselves had given way to a complex picture of uncertainty and insecurity known as the ‘Scottish cringe’.

We had become more concerned about our relationship with the UK, than the ideas that would take us forward.

Modern Scotland

In the 7 years since devolution, Scotland has changed. There are some big changes and some small ones too.

But, I believe there is momentum and we are on the way back up. And the platform for that momentum is the constitutional settlement that means Scots have powers over their own affairs.

There is a flowering of culture and enterprise and an increase in confidence. We are more at ease with ourselves, but more united and assertive in promoting Scotland too.

Our country is changing.

First of all – our population is growing.

In 2004, net in-migration to Scotland was 26,000. I am sure to Americans this does not sound like much. But if you put it in our shared historical context – I believe it is incredibly significant.

You are an immigrant nation; and proud of it too.

We have been the opposite. An emigrant nation. We have been losing our brightest and best to you – and to others too. Your gain has been our loss.

For too long our view of the world has been: you need to move somewhere else to access opportunities. For Americans – your view is that people come to your country to find opportunity.

That is a big psychological difference. Which is why, the reversal of that net -emigration is significant.

Last year, we saw the greatest number of people moving into Scotland than leaving since records began. Some argue that it was the first time since the Vikings that we attracted that number of people!

We are attracting new people with different experiences, different talents from all corners of the world. And even some from England too!

The benefit to Scotland is not just a boost to our numbers, more tax payers, more children to keep local schools open.

The biggest benefit is that a mix of people and the diversity that results creates a dynamism of its own. Immigrants are creative, motivated and entrepreneurial. And that rubs off on everyone else too.

Secondly, I believe that post-devolution Scotland is a country with increasing confidence in our shared national identity.

Just ten to fifteen years ago, there was a natural affinity to Scotland’s national flag there was sometimes a reluctance to display it. Some wrongly thought flying the saltire was an expression of politics with a large P.

But now, the saltire flies easily in all the places a national flag should. At sporting events- as it has always done, but more freely on public buildings, in government and in other places too. Sometimes alongside the Union Jack and European flag, sometimes not.

The point is that it is now rarely questioned – and has become taken for granted.

A smaller example of the ease in which Scottish identity displays itself is with our national dress. When I left school in the 1970s it was rare for a boy to wear a kilt at his final year school dance.

Now I see school dances where nearly all the boys are rigged out in the full kilt – some traditional – and some not so traditional.

The point is not that we are going backwards, hankering over an image of the past. The point is that it has become a modern fashion statement with an industry of fashion designers to back it up.

There are other signs too that Scotland is changing and moving on.

The educational tradition that contributed to the enlightenment remains strong. Nearly all Scottish youngsters go to their local public sector school – and by the time young Scots are 15 years old – they are amongst the highest performing students in the world.

We have an enviable rate of school leavers going into Higher Education. Almost 50 per cent are in Higher Education – considerably higher that the rate in the rest of the UK.

Our universities are first class. Edinburgh and Glasgow, both of which have had a strong influence on the development of Princeton – have disciplines that are world class.

We continue to be strong in science – a major poll of scientists recently ranked Dundee and Glasgow Universities in the top five institutions in the world for scientists to work in.

And Scotland publishes more academic papers per capita than most developed countries – including America, the rest of the UK, France and Germany. With 0.1% of the world’s population we publish over 1 per cent of the world’s research.

And we have our areas of world class excellence too. Medical sciences, stem-cells, infomatics and gravitational waves. Any one of these could produce Scotland’s next Nobel prize.

Scottish culture is undergoing a renaissance too. Buoyed on with a resurgence of Scottish identity, traditional – and non traditional – forms of culture and the arts are blossoming.

From pop music to a new national theatre; ballet to literature – Scottish culture is attracting talent and audiences from all over the world.

Scottish Ballet are simply outstanding, winning international awards.

For the first time, we have a National Theatre of Scotland.

And Scottish contemporary bands and musicians like Franz Ferdinand and KT Tunstall are making their mark too.

Edinburgh has recently been named as the first UNESCO city of literature – not just in recognition of the writing and publishing of the past – but in recognising the contribution Scottish literatures continues to make today.

Edinburgh hosts the biggest – and best – arts festivals in the world every August. And in Glasgow, there is a new home for the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and new museums and galleries.

And next year – Scotland as a whole will celebrate a year long festival of Highland culture.

Three years ago Inverness and the Highlands entered a competition to become the European city of culture in 2008 – it is a hotly contested competition which they didn’t win. But rather than give up or even complain they and we decided to have our own year to celebrate Highland Culture anyway – but to do it a year earlier.

The significance of this is clear if you put it in a historical context. If Scotland was considered the poor relative of England, then highlanders were the poor relations of Scottish lowlanders.

Their culture, language and way of life had been undermined. It was unthinkable that the Highlands could be considered as an exemplar to the rest of the country.

All that has changed. Instead of unemployment being a multiple of the Scottish rate – it is now a fraction. And a year for all of Scotland to celebrate the Highlands and Islands is a significant step forward.

And finally, the single thing I admire most about your country is the positive ‘can do’ attitude of most Americans.

That entrepreneurial spirit is something we Scots had but lost along the way. We can re-ignite it and I see glimmers in young Scots of it re-awakening.

We will back them, celebrate their achievements but most of all encourage them to get back up and try again if they don’t first succeed.

In conclusion I want to return to the title of this lecture – ‘Scottish values, aims and ideas: from Witherspoon till today’.

For my generation now, 200 years on from the enlightenment, there is a vision for 21st century Scotland.

Our vision is for a Scotland with strong communities made up of confident individuals ambitious for themselves, their families and their country.

Our values are of tolerance and respect for one and other. We want to close gaps in opportunity and promote chances for those who need them.

Our ideas to meet that vision are to use the tools that have worked for us in the past.

Education to liberate individuals with the power of knowledge.

Rediscovering our enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit through increased opportunity and choice.

And the power of culture and the arts in the pursuit of human happiness.

Our work has only just started. Seven years is only a short time compared to our historical achievements.

But we Scots are starting to lift our heads again, looking beyond our borders with unity and ambition.

And if those of us in positions of leadership within Scotland stay true to Hutcheson’s principle of bringing “the greatest good to the greatest number of people” then we might just help to create the conditions in which a new stream of modern thought and invention could flourish.

I believe John Witherspoon would have approved.

Source-Scottish Executive

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