The Geographies of Enlightenment Edinburgh

The Geographies of Enlightenment Edinburgh explores how the making of Edinburgh as an influential Enlightenment capital depended on a series of spatial processes that extended across urban, regional, national and global scales.

In 2014, I was part of a project called Mapping Edinburgh’s Social History (MESH) which focused on the spatial representation of historical data. Part of my role was to find some kind of “mappable” information about Edinburgh in the eighteenth century. A couple of historians had recommended I look at some understudied booksellers’ business archives. They thought these archives might contain address data that could tell us something useful about the city’s reading public during its Enlightenment period. From a quick look at the booksellers’ archives, however, I could see that the address information for the bookshop’s customers was too patchy and too vague. Sometimes the bookshop clerk named a street or a square in Edinburgh next to a book-buyer’s name, but many customers didn’t have addresses listed at all. It wasn’t going to be helpful for what I was looking for.

But as I spent an afternoon in Edinburgh City Archives leafing through one of the booksellers’ ledgers I became engrossed in the extraordinarily rich and suggestive detail the source contained. Here, on 12 May 1791, was a “Commissioner Edgar” buying maps of India. Why was this guy interested in India, I wondered? I did some Googling and discovered this was probably a man called James Edgar (d. 1799) who had worked as a commissioner in Edinburgh’s tax and customs office and been friends with the likes of Adam Smith, William Robertson and Henry Dundas. Robertson’s Historical Disquisition on India was published in 1791. Dundas was President of the Board of Control for Indian Affairs between 1793 and 1801, during which time he over­saw the East India Company and an expansionist British imperial policy in South Asia. I suppose it was then that I considered the idea of focusing on the role of maps and mapping in Edinburgh’s social history. It seemed to me that this would be an interesting question: what kinds of geographical information did the city’s inhabitants have access to, and how did they use it?

I was back in the archive the next morning, still just looking at the same day in the bookshop’s records: 12 May 1791. A “Mr Ramsay, New Street” paid for a “Guide to the City of Edinburgh” but the purchase was signed for by a “Miss Ramsay”. Was this Miss Ramsay new in the city, staying with a relative perhaps? And on the same day, a London bookseller was charged £25 for 150 copies of “Scotland Delineated”. What kind of book was that? Who was the author? Why was there a market for it in London? I skipped forward a few days, to 17 May, and found a “Mrs Cumings” buying her own copy of “Scotland Delineated”. Who was this Mrs Cumings and how did she plan to use this book? Also on 17 May, a couple of Edinburgh-based printers bought 26 volumes of the “Encyclopedie Methodique”. What did they want all those French volumes for? And then two days later, on 19 May 1791, “Miss Ramsay” was back again, this time buying a “Map of Edinburgh”. She must still have been getting to know the city, I guessed. I spent that evening searching for and reading about some of the names and books I had seen.

I was still researching the names and books I saw in the booksellers’ ledgers eight years later, when I was finally finishing the book that this project became. Over time, I had become familiar with the bookshop’s customer base. I recognised the names of repeat buyers, and I knew their shopping habits and preferences. I could also spot one-off customers who were perhaps tourists or temporary visitors to the city. It was a style of historical research that I enjoyed, as I could take famous Edinburgh Enlightenment works like the Encyclopædia Britannica or James Craig’s plan of the New Town and connect them to specific individuals who bought them. I tried to follow individual book- and map-buyers to see if I could find out how they used the publications they bought. Sometimes I could (often thanks to incredible archivists and archival catalogues). It was this process that led me to the remarkable diary of the hack writer Robert Heron, for example, which features frequently in the book. Several provincial lending libraries were buying lots of books, and in cases where these libraries had archived records of their own, I was able to find out who subsequently borrowed these books. A few people who bought books about travels in Scotland went on their own journeys through the country, and recorded their impressions. The Horner family, who were very frequent customers, had left various diaries and correspondence collections, and they became the subject of one of my chapters.

And besides getting to know the customers, I also came to recognise clear themes and patterns in the kinds of geographical materials they were buying. I identified four major geographical processes that characterised the most popular publications – Planning, Surveying, Travelling and Compiling – and these formed the basis of the structure and central arguments of The Geographies of Enlightenment Edinburgh. I just hope the book does justice to the richness of the records it is based on.


This guest post was written by Phil Dodds, researcher in the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences at Lund University, Sweden.

The Geographies of Enlightenment Edinburgh
Phil Dodds
9781783277032, Hardcover, £48.75 or $74.75

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