IT is almost incredible to think that in the space of a few weeks we are celebrating the tercentenary of the births of two major Scottish Enlightenment philosophers with strong connections to Kirkcaldy in Fife.

The first was Adam Smith, born in Kirkcaldy on June 5, 1723, and the second is Adam Ferguson, born on June 20, 1723, who is often known as Ferguson of Raith due to his ancestors having once been the lairds of the Kirkcaldy suburb, though back then Raith was a separate settlement. I paid an appropriate tribute to Smith earlier in the month, so today I am going to do the same for Adam Ferguson.

I wrote about Ferguson two years ago during my series on the Scottish Enlightenment in which he was a central figure – quite literally so as his home at Sciennes in Edinburgh was the location for many gatherings of Enlightenment figures. Indeed it was at Ferguson’s house that the only recorded meeting between Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott took place.

Born in Logierait in Perthshire 300 years ago on Tuesday, Ferguson was the son of a Church of Scotland minister, also Adam, who wanted his son to follow in his clerical footsteps.

Educated at Perth Grammar School and Edinburgh University, Ferguson went on to graduate from the University of St Andrews. Chosen partly because he could speak Gaelic, his first ministry was as deputy chaplain of the 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot, The Black Watch, with whom he may have fought at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745.

Ferguson left both the clergy and military service in 1754 with the aim of becoming a writer, and he succeeded David Hume as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates. He then became the tutor to the family of the Earl of Bute which gave him a much bigger salary and the chance to travel. In 1759, he was appointed professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University and five years later, he transferred to the professorship of pneumatics (mental philosophy) and moral philosophy.

By this time the Scottish Enlightenment was in full swing and Ferguson soon came to know all the major figures of the Enlightenment, thanks partly to his membership of Edinburgh’s debating clubs – drinking groups, usually – such as the Poker Club and the Select Society, both of which he helped to found.

He became personal friends with the likes of Hume, Smith and Joseph Black, and indeed in 1766 he married Black’s niece Katherine (Katie) Burnett with whom he would have seven children.

The year after his marriage saw Ferguson publish his first major work An Essay On The History Of Civil Society, which was translated into several languages and influenced many thinkers on the Continent.

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The History Of Civil Society was Ferguson’s best-known work and traces humanity’s progression from barbarism to social and political refinement. states: “In his philosophy, Ferguson emphasised society as the wellspring of human morals and actions and, indeed, of the human condition itself.”

There’s an interesting connection there – in 1780, Ferguson wrote the 40-page entry, complete with an unprecedented timeline, on history for the second edition of the Edinburgh-published Encyclopaedia Britannica, the forerunner of

Prior to that, Ferguson had published a pamphlet on how peace could be negotiated with the American revolutionaries, and as a result, in 1778, Ferguson was appointed official secretary to the Carlisle Commission and was sent to Philadelphia to negotiate an end to the American War of Independence. He did not succeed and returned to academia.

With a series of writings on how “society” develops, Ferguson virtually invented a science and to this day, he is known to some people as the father of sociology.

He wrote other major works on differing topics – his 1783 History Of The Progress And Termination Of The Roman Republic was hugely popular and very influential internationally, and its success enabled him to leave his professorship in 1785.

In 1792, he published an edited version of his lectures under the title Principles Of Moral And Political Science which again was translated into several languages. In his seventies, Ferguson toured the Continent and was lauded by the intellectual elite.

It was his influence on his fellow Scottish Enlightenment figures that was perhaps his greatest legacy, as his thoughts on society and morals were developed by those philosophers who created the Scottish common sense philosophy that was so influential in the USA in particular.

He was well-liked by his peers. Hume described Ferguson as a “man of sense, knowledge, taste, elegance and morals.”

Ferguson suffered a bout of paralysis in his sixties and became a vegetarian and a teetotaller, living to the age of 92 when he died at his last home in St Andrews on February 22, 1816.

His monument in St Andrews Cathedral graveyard states that Ferguson was “unseduced by the temptations of pleasure, power, or ambition. He employed the interval betwixt his childhood and his grave with unostentatious and steady perseverance in acquiring and in diffusing knowledge, and in the practice of public and domestic virtue.

“To his venerated memory, this monument is erected by his children, that they may record his piety to God and benevolence to man, and commemorate the eloquence and energy with which he inculcated the precepts of morality and prepared the youthful mind for virtuous actions.

“But a more imperishable memorial to his genius exists in his philosophical and historical works, where classic elegance, strength of reasoning, and clearness of detail secured the applause of the age in which he lived, and will long continue to deserve the gratitude and command the admiration of posterity.”

His bairns were biased, obviously, but they were not wrong about a remarkable Scotsman.