A hundred scholars from fifteen countries of the world descended last Friday 22nd July, on Chirnside, to see where David Hume, Chirnside’s great philosopher, historian, essayist and towering genius of the Scottish Enlightenment, grew up.
The scholars were delegates at the International Hume Society Conference at the University of Edinburgh, and they came to Chirnside to discover and experience for themselves something of the influences here which stimulated in him such deep, free and brilliant thought.
Here in the Borders of Scotland, the sheer impact and influence of this son of Chirnside, brought up on the family’s Ninewells estate, can take your breath away.
He helped to bring about fundamental changes in the way we think about the very foundational elements of life.
Hume’s observation of nature shed light on how the world works; he created a new ‘science of man’ and theory of human nature looking at the impact of human behaviour and morality; he questioned and turned upside down the place of religion in the world and believed that scepticism was the best tool to eke out or measure any kind of truth; he developed new ideas regarding economics which he shared with another influential Enlightenment figure, Adam Smith who is also still quoted by economists today … and much, much more.
Hume’s ideas inevitably influenced other great innovative thinkers such as Charles Darwin who was reading Hume’s essay on the reason of animals when he worked out his theory of evolution and Albert Einstein credited Hume with the crucial insight that led to his theory of relativity.
Hume’s writings continue to be studied by academics of every discipline world-wide.
In acknowledgement and wanting to learn more of him, scholars have travelled here from Japan, China, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Italy, France, Germany, Brazil, Puerto Rico, USA, Canada, Israel and Australia.
The formative influences on the development of Hume’s mind are likely to have come, not only from his family and his student days in Edinburgh, but also from his observation of Chirnside life, local society, and his solitary walks around Ninewells and along the Whiteadder, which he may well have been thinking of when he wrote: “At the time, therefore, that I am tired with amusement and company, and have indulged a reverie in my chamber, or in a solitary walk by a river side, I feel my mind all collected within itself, and am naturally inclined to carry my view into all those subjects, about which I have met with so many disputes in the course of my reading and conversation” [Treatise, 1.4.7, para 12
Now, 300 years on, the scholars came to follow in his footsteps, along the now public, Ninewells Walk, through the wood, along the Whiteadder and up to Chirnside Bridge for which Hume left instructions and money for repair, in his will.
Like David Hume, at the turn of their head, the scholars were able to experience the dominance of the kirk, (perhaps more of a physical presence these days) sitting on higher ground than the Ninewells Estate and then looking forward to the south, to the free, open vista across the softly rolling countryside of the Merse with the Whiteadder running below and the great backdrop of the Cheviot hills.
If anything symbolises the development of Hume’s thought from religious influence to scepticism and the significance he placed on the natural world, this does.
It was here that Hume finalised the most famous of all his works, his Treatise on Human Nature as well as the second part of his Essays entitled Political Discourses and his Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals.
Professor Don Garrett from New York University (currently Carnegie Centenary Professor at the University of Edinburgh) seemed to express the excitement and experience which so moved the whole group. ‘I have thought about and studied Hume all my life,’ he said, ‘and now I can hardly believe that I am standing on the ground where he lived and walked. It’s just wonderful!’
In honour of the scholars’ visit, the Chirnside David Hume Group re-staged their exhibition about the life and times of David Hume. Many of the visitors commented on it being a fascinating eye-opener for them since they have spent years studying particular aspects of Hume’s work but not necessarily the details about his life – how and where he lived.
The visit was arranged by Edinburgh University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities which is campaigning to raise funds for a dedicated Hume Professorship and a Hume Fellowship – a significant new development in Hume’s home country.
The Institute and Chirnside’s David Hume Group are now forging collaborative ventures to keep the name of Hume alive in both Edinburgh and Chirnside and hope to establish a permanent focus for the man, his work and for future enlightenment.