Three hundred years ago, Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, the only child of a widowed mother.
Growing up in the High Street, he was to become the town's most famous son, author of two radical works that revolutionised international thinking about free trade, free exchange and free movement.
Smith left Kirkcaldy young - he was off to University in Glasgow at just at 14 - but after an academic career that produced his first great published work, he extended his intellectual odyssey at the height of the Enlightenment, before returning to his birthplace to compose a second masterpiece.
His origins seem humble enough, his personal life outwardly unostentatious. But his work was a towering achievement.
As much an authority on ethics as economics, Adam Smith was truly one of the founders of the modern world - and he is one of our own.
Adam Smith - The Early Years
What the weather in Kirkcaldy was like on the 5th June 1723 has long been lost in the mists of time but what has not been lost is the significance of an event which took place on that very day.
In front of a gathered congregation of the good folk of the burgh of Kirkcaldy along with his mother and guardians took place the sacrament of baptism of a tiny baby. That baby was named Adam Smith and he was to become a towering global giant in the fields of moral philosophy and political economics.
Kirkcaldy itself had become a royal burgh in the previous century, in 1644, by royal charter conferred by Charles I, it having been moving toward that status since the Reformation, Kirkcaldy previously having been the control of the Abbey Church of Dunfermline. The parish had a population of some 2300 people, most of whom would have been resident in the town itself. Its two main institutions were the burgh council, consisting of merchants, shipowners and tradespeople drawn from the town’s burgesses, and the kirk session of the protestant parish church and its minister. It had been a prosperous burgh, founded on the privileges of being allowed to trade with foreign ports in continental Europe. The chief exports from the town’s harbour had varied over time but were primarily coal, salt, hides and linen. A downturn had existed in the early 18th century after the Act of Union between Scotland and England in 1707 as Scotland had to come to terms with increases in various taxes and customer in this period as well as competition from English merchant more experienced in their own trading domain. The town’s own local market still continued to thrive with the sale of the manufactures of the burgh’s tradesfolk as well as those from villages in the locality and the produce from Kirkcaldy’s agricultural hinterland.
A new purpose-built burgh school, replacing the old, inadequate school in the church manse, was built in 1725 in Hill Street, near the parish church and the main thoroughfare which is now the town’s High Street. Adjoining villages and settlements also had increasing manufacturing facilities as well as home spinning and handloom weaving of textiles, mainly linen.
All these manufacturing facilities, its busy population and its shipping would have been in subsequent years observed and analysed by the young Adam Smith.
With respect to his family circumstances, Smith ‘s father, from a laird family near Aberdeen, also Adam Smith, the Comptroller of Customs based in Kirkcaldy, died nearly 5 months before he was born and his widowed mother brought him up in a loving, dedicated environment, alongside the assistance of his appointed legal guardians. She, Margaret Douglas was from landed gentry, her father then brother, were prosperous proprietors of the Strathenry estate, near Leslie, in Fife, about twelve miles to the north of Kirkcaldy.
The young Adam Smith went to the local burgh school which was a short walk up the brae of Kirk Wynd from the family home at what is now 220 High Street. Unfortunately that actual house was demolished in the early 1830s and was replaced by the current building. Fortunately for Kirkcaldy, and indeed Smith, was that the school had an excellent schoolmaster, David Miller, who recognised Smith’s studiousness and his intellectual qualities and encouraged him. So by the age of 14, he was ready for his next progression into higher education.
For the next 3 years, 1737-40 he moved through and studied it Glasgow University. This took place under the tutorship of Professor Francis Hutcheson, whose thinking in the field of moral philosophy was highly influential on the young Smith. Glasgow, as a city, itself, being on Scotland’s west coast, was beginning to develop a strong commercial base with the increase in business and trade across the Atlantic.
He then obtained a Snell Exhibition scholarship for study at Oxford University, where he continued his studies at Baliol College, lasting six years. He was not impressed by the lectures and lecturers at Baliol and did not particularly enjoy his stay there. However there was the compensation of the high quality and volume of important books and manuscripts, of the great writers both from antiquity and contemporary, available to him in the university’s libraries. His studies were therefore largely industrious and self-driven. This gave him the opportunity to think deeply about topics within the sphere of moral philosophy and gain an understanding of human nature, this building on the substantial base from Hutcheson and others.
He returned to Kirkcaldy in 1746 and spent a period of time with is mother, somewhat recuperating from his Oxford experiences, before he embarked on his career and his life’s work. He spent two years in Edinburgh, the city which was becoming the focus on the developing Scottish Enlightenment, delivering a series of well developed, well received and attended lectures, before he was appointed to the Professorship of Logic back at Glasgow University, then one year later he moved into the professorial seat of Moral Philosophy, in the seat of his old mentor Hutcheson.
There was no turning back now for him. His pathway forward was clear. He was about to embark on major authorship in moral philosophy (natural theology, ethics and jurisprudence) with his “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, then onto an extension to that in political economics with “The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, both profoundly influential works which reverberate up to the present day.