Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Walk in the Rain and Wind

This morning I went to Edinburgh Airport to meet an Australian academic, Paul Oslington, a delightful companion (such as at the Balliol commemoration of the publication in 1759 of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments conference last week).

It has been a dreadful day in Edinburgh with high winds, steady rain and squalls, and biting cold. Paul is in Edinburgh for a conference on theology and economics, but the morning was set aside for a tour of Adam Smith sites in the High Street/Royal Mile that runs from the Castle down to the Palace of Holyrood, where Scotland’s Kings and Queens lived during the Summer months (the present Queen often does), when not in Edinburgh Castle when they were threatened by usurpers and assorted enemies.

As it happened, the plane was late due to some technical problems and it came in after the plane that was due to leave Heathrow two house later!

After checking into his hotel in George Street (the 2-day conference is in the Royal Society of Edinburgh building just across the road (which Adam Smith was a founding member in 1783 - he was alreayd a member of the Royal Society in London), we made our way to the High Street, parked the car, and then walked up the hill towards the new statue of Adam Smith, which readers may remember was unveiled by Professor Vernon Smith earlier in 2008. It was paid for by private subscriptions raised by the Adam Smith Institute.

With rain beating down in the strong wind, we examined the statue by Andrew Stoddart, the Scottish sculpter, noting its iconography, before crossing the the pathetic shelter from the rain of the Custom House building, now the Edinburgh Council building. I say ‘pathetic shelter’ because the rain spread over us in obedience to manic wind currents.

It was here that Adam Smith officiated a Scottish Commissioner of Customes and Excise from 1778 to 1790, four days a week, except when on business in London. This was no sinecure. The letter books and minutes of the Commission show his diligent attendance right up a few weeks before he died in 1790.

Emerging into the full force of the windswept High Street/Royal Mile, we walked downhill, past John Knox’s house to the Canongate Kirkyard where Adam Smith's remains are buried. His grave recently was tidied up, thanks to a large donation by a wealthy, publicly-spirited Canadian citizen (though the Town Council dithered for a couple of years before implementing his generosity).

As Panmure House, Smith’s residence in Edinburgh from 1788-90, is literally ‘over the wall’ from the Kirk and because he was buried there, it may be safe to assume that this was his local Church where he escorted his mother on Sundays until she died in 1784, aged 90.

Our last stop, was next door, to Panmure House, which we viewed from the outside in the rain (still falling heavily). Smith walked from Panmure House each workday up the hill to the Custom House. From just outside Panmure Close, he could see the volcanic remains in Holyrood Park, where it is said he walked each Sunday with his close friend, James Hutton, the geologist and author of The Theory of the Earth (1795), a book as foundational for geology as Wealth Of Nations became in commercial economies.

James Hutton and another close friend, Joseph Black, the chemist and discoverer on Latent Heat, were charged by Smith on his deathbed in Panmure House, to burn his unpublished manuscripts and lecture notes a few days before he died.

For this act they received Adam Smith’s thanks but not from the scientific community who were deprived thus of their access to the rich haul of ideas in Smith’s works. Fortunately Smith instructed them to save his unpublished essays on the philosophical method, in particular the ‘juvenile essay’, ‘illustrated by the history of Astronomy’, which they published pothumously in 1795. He commenced the History of Astronomy in 1744 while at Balliol College, Oxford and which, in my view, sets out his non-religious account of the philosophical method.

I left Paul to continue down the hill to have a look at the Scottish Parliament Building – which in my view is a monstrosity of bad taste, but politically of immense significance – while I drove home to a hot shower and a change of clothes.

[Should any readers who visit Edinburgh would like my ‘guided tour’ of the ‘Adam Smith sites’, drop me an email via Lost Legacy, and if mutully convenient, I would be delighted to share the time with you. However, I cannot guarantee the weather, though I can guarantee an enthusiastic and spirited commentary.]

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Blogger Pious Labours said...


just wanted to drop you a line. It was great to meet you at what I found to be a great conference. I wish I could follow you (and others) to Smith's native land in March. Someday.

Arby T. Siraki

8:00 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Arby
Yes, it was a great conference and I enjoyed our conversations.

I have just received the seminar programme for the Glasgow Conference and it looks great too (with some familiar faces!).


11:37 am  

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