Thomas Aikenhead- the last person hanged for blasphemy in the United Kingdom

On 8th January 1697 a 20-year old student at the University of Edinburgh, Thomas Aikenhead, was hanged for blasphemy. Aikenhead had been heard to state, while walking past the Tron Kirk in Edinburgh’s High Street, that theology was ‘a rapsidie of faigned and ill-invented nonsense’ (Graham p.81). A little over forty years later, David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1738) was published.

Hume includes a quotation from the ancient Roman historian Tacitus as a frontispiece to his text: Rara temporum felicitas, ubi sentire, quæ velis; & quæ sentias, dicere licet (‘The rare good fortune of an age in which we may feel what we wish and say what we feel’ (Tacitus 1.1)). Clearly Scotland had changed significantly in the forty one years between the execution of Aikenhead and the 27 year-old Hume’s completion of the first volume of his philosophical magnum opus. The all-encompassing authority of the Scottish kirk was weakening, and, as Hume’s quotation suggests, individual freedom was increasingly valorized. Hume’s Treatise is one of the early works of what has come to be known as the Scottish Enlightenment.  

Sir Walter Scott captured this transformation when he later observed, in ‘A Postcript Which Should Have Been a Preface’ to his novel Waverley, that ‘there is no European nation which, within the course of half a century, or little more, has undergone so complex a change as this kingdom of Scotland’ (Scott p.363).

The transformation to which Scott alludes is social and technological as well as intellectual, and it extends across philosophy, ethics, social theory, political thought, historiography, medicine, science, aesthetics, literature, and religious thought, as well as technology. The Scottish Enlightenment is exported – most conspicuously to the United States of America, where the education system and the constitution to this day exhibit the influence of major Scottish thinkers of the period.

Just as the Scottish Enlightenment was preceded by one notorious criminal trial – that of Thomas Aikenhead – it has been suggested that it comes to an end with another: ‘the last of the victims of Burke and Hare was the Scottish Enlightenment’ (Edwards p.147). Burke and Hare were murderers, who sold the corpses of their victims to Dr Robert Knox, who used them for his Edinburgh anatomy lectures. Burke was hanged on 28th January 1829; Knox’s reputation never recovered – and the critics of Enlightenment were quick to exploit this sordid case.

From Hume’s Treatise to the anatomical studies of Knox, the ‘Science of Man’ was central to the Scottish Enlightenment. The new understanding of what it is to be a human being was to ramify across numerous areas of intellectual interest; these ramifications are still being studied in the twenty first century.

 

Edwards, O.D., 2014. Burke and Hare. Edinburgh: Birlinn.

Graham, M.F., 2008. The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead - Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the Enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Scott, W., 1814. Waverley. Edited by P.D. Garside, 2011. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tacitus., 109 AD. The Histories. Edited by D.S. Levene, 2008. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dr John Gordon Course Leader of the summer programme The Scottish Enlightenment in Context