Adam Smiths Glasgow, Glasgow

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Adam Smiths Glasgow, Glasgow


Adam Smith remains one of the most influential figures in economic and philosophical thinking thanks to his most famous work, The Wealth of Nations and his earlier book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith was born in Kirkaldy , and spent some of his student days in Oxford ; after a period travelling in Europe he settled in Edinburgh . But his most productive years were passed in Glasgow.
Adam Smith was both student and teacher in Glasgow, the city where by his own judgement he spent “by far the most useful, and therefore by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life.” He entered Glasgow University to study moral philosophy among other subjects in 1737 at the age of 14 – in an age when some scholars went to university at 12 he was not unusually young. Three years later, having obtained a lucrative exhibition, he went to Balliol College in Oxford, but it was Glasgow that gave him his first formal post in academia when in 1751 he became Professor of Logic there, moving to fill the chair of Moral Philosophy the next year when it fell vacant. He left the university in 1764 when a very well paid position was offered him, tutoring the young Duke of Buccleuch, but his contribution to the institution was recognized in his later life, when Smith was elected Rector, serving in the post from 1787 to 1789. Today that recognition extends to having The Adam Smith Building of the university in Bute Gardens named for him; likewise The Adam Smith Research Foundation in Oakfield Avenue.
Sadly much of the Glasgow Smith would have known was replaced in the Victorian period, including the Old College buildings around the Cathedral where he lectured, and where he had his house in Professors’ Court off High Street. But there are sections of the city and significant buildings that remain from his time, and that he would have known. Even the ancient university buildings demolished in an act of folly to be replaced with a railway yard can be studied – at least in model form – at the university’s Hunterian Museum .
The original university sprang up around the 15th century Cathedral , which does still stand. Here when Rector Smith would have attended certain ceremonial occasions, though he was by that time in his life agnostic or a deist. Parts of the old High Street nearby remain, and repay the time needed to stroll along it and observe the older structures, the best route perhaps the downhill direction towards Glasgow Cross.
Smith, rather unusually for an academic of his era, was fascinated by trade – he is indeed often referred to as ‘the father of modern economics.’ He mixed as much with merchants and traders as with professors and students, so one particular area of Glasgow is a must for those wishing to walk in his footsteps: the Merchant City (a modern name – in Smith’s time it would have been called simply ‘the toun’ or ‘the cross’). Here you can visit the last remaining tobacco merchant’s house, built in the 1770s; Ingram Square, warehouses now refurbished and gentrified, but needing little imagination to put you back in time; and much changed places like Virginia Street. St Andrew’s in the Square is no longer a church, but the outside is a building he would have seen being constructed between 1739 and 1756. A century before Smith arrived in the city the Tollbooth was erected at the edge of the district, its steeple still standing today.
Though The Wealth of Nations was published after he left Glasgow, the lectures on which it was based were given there, and we can only think that his meetings with merchants and his observation of the benefit to a city of external trade with limited governmental interference informed his conclusions on the value of free trade.
Even for those not particularly interested in Adam Smith the Merchant City district is worth visiting, a rejuvenated and refurbished place with loads happening; similarly Glasgow’s West End, where the Kelvingrove Museum can be found, is a bohemian place with energy in part derived from today’s student population – the university is located nearby. The Kelvingrove in Argyll Street, like the Hunterian, has exhibits relating to Adam Smith: the latter has medallions of Smith, a statue, and even a piece of wood from his desk – not a bad way to relate to Smith the author and academic.

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