Gibson History 1 - Introduction

Sketch of the History of Mathematics in Scotland to the end of the 18th Century: Part I

By Professor G A Gibson.

(Read 6th August 1926. Received 4th January 1927.)

Foundation of the Universities.
(1450, St Salvator's; 1512, St Leonard's; 1637, St Mary's).

1450. GLASGOW.

(1593, Marischal College).


1550-1617. JOHN NAPIER.
1638-1675. JAMES GREGORY.
1661-1708. DAVID GREGORY.
1666-1742. JAMES GREGORY, Secundus.
1687-1768. ROBERT SIMSON.
1692-1720. JAMES STIRLING.
-1766. JOHN STEWART ("Triangles").
1746-1831. WILLIAM TRAIL.

1748-1819. JOHN PLAYFAIR.
1766-1832. Sir JOHN LESLIE.


In the short sketch which I propose to give of the History of Mathematics in Scotland up to the end of the 18th century I must limit myself mainly to the work of the Universities. An adequate treatment of the subject would involve considerations of a general educational character that would range over the relations of the school to the University, the distribution of the various subjects of study and the place of mathematics in the educational system; but it is, of course, impossible to undertake such an extensive investigation at present, though it seems to me that an investigation, with special reference to mathematics, is greatly needed and might form the subject of a research that would be of real value as a contribution to the development of educational ideas. It would be improper, however, to omit all reference to school mathematics, since the school conditions determine, to a considerable extent, those of the University, as current discussions in Scotland clearly show, even though a sound appreciation of the relations between school and University may at times be lacking.

St Andrews, the oldest of our Universities, was founded in 1411 and it seems not inappropriate to quote the opinion of a distinguished historian on the general conditions of Scotland about that time. "The period of the first Stewarts," says Hume Brown (History of Scotland, I., 185), "has usually been regarded as one of chronic misery and arrested national development; and if we look only to the record of events it is difficult to avoid this conclusion. ... Yet compared with the history of England and France throughout the same period that of Scotland has no special pre-eminence in misfortune. ... Apart from the sensational record of events there are many indications that the nation did not spend its life in misery and that after the danger from England had ceased there was a steady expansion of the people along every line of social progress. In the fifteenth century three of the four Scottish Universities were founded; a succession of poets testify to the existence of an educated opinion; numerous Acts of Parliament, as well as other records, prove that there was a prosperous burgher class, both north and south of the Forth; and we have the testimony of foreigners to the fact that the country was largely under cultivation and that the peasant class of Scotland lived on better terms than their fellows elsewhere. It is only with such facts before us that we can attach their due significance to the wild deeds of king and noble which are apt to determine our judgement regarding every past age." It is well, I think, to bear this opinion in mind when we see the Universities suffering from lack of funds; the difficulty of carrying out any thoroughgoing educational policy is not necessarily due to straightened economic conditions.

Last Updated April 2007