Chapter 1

Early Days at Kirkcaldy

by Rae


Adam Smith was born at Kirkcaldy, in the county of Fife, Scotland, on June 5, 1723. His father was also named Adam Smith who was=

  • a native of Aberdeen,
  • a Writer to the Signet,
  • a Judge Advocate for Scotland, and
  • a Comptroller of the Customs in the Kirkcaldy district.

His mother was Margaret, daughter of John Douglas of Strathendry, a considerable landed proprietor in Fife.

Little is known of his father.

Smith’s Father

His father’s family must have been influential, because=

  • he was immediately appointed to the newly-established office of Judge Advocate for Scotland after his admission to the Society of Writers to the Signet in 1707
  • in 1708, he was appointed as Private Secretary to the Scotch Minister, the Earl of Loudon
    • When he lost this post in consequence of Lord Loudon’s retirement in 1713, he was made the Comptroller of Customs at Kirkcaldy.
    • He held it, along with the Judge Advocateship, until his premature death in 1723.

The Earl of Loudon was a zealous Whig and Presbyterian. We can infer that Adam Smith’s father was=

  • a zealous Whig and Presbyterian, from being his secretary, and
  • a man of parts, from the public appointments he held.

He was the first to fill this position of considerable responsibility. It was occupied after him by men, some of them of great distinction.

For example, Alexander Fraser Tytler, the historian, was Judge Advocate until he went to the bench as Lord Woodhouselee.

The Judge Advocate was clerk and legal adviser to the Courts Martial. But military trials were not frequent in Scotland.

The duties of this office took up but a minor share of the elder Smith’s time. His chief business, at least for the last 10 years of his life, was his work in the Custom-house.

He was=

  • bred as a Writer to the Signet.
  • a solicitor privileged to practise before the Supreme Court.

But he never seems to have actually practised that profession. A local collectorship or controllership of the Customs was in itself a more important administrative office then.

Duties were levied on 1,200 articles. Now, duties are levied on 12 articles only.

The position was much sought after for the younger, or even the elder, sons of the gentry. The job held by Smith’s father at Kirkcaldy was held for many years by Sir Michael Balfour, a Scotch baronet. The salary was not high.

Adam Smith began in 1713 with £30 a year. He only had £40 when he died in 1723. But then the perquisites of those offices in the Customs were usually twice or thrice the salary, as we know from the Wealth of Nationsitself (Book 5, Chap. 2).

Smith had a cousin, a third Adam Smith.

He was in 1754 Collector of Customs at Alloa with a salary of £60 a year. He writes his cousin, in connection with a negotiation the latter was conducting on behalf of a friend for the purchase of the office.

The place was worth £200 a year He would not sell it for less than 10 years’ purchase. Smith’s father died in the spring of 1723, a few months before he was born.

President M’Cosh, in his Scottish Philosophy, from the Scots Magazine of 1740, doubts this. He quotes an announcement of the promotion of Adam Smith, Comptroller of the Customs, Kirkcaldy, to be Inspector-General of the Outports.

But there is evidence of the date of the death of Smith’s father in a receipt for his funeral expenses, which Professor Cunningham has and is below.[2] The promotion of 1740 is not the promotion of Smith’s father but of his cousin. He was the Comptroller of the Customs at Kirkcaldyfrom around 1734 to before 1741 (Chamberlayne’s Notitia Angliæ). In the Notitia Angliæ for 1741, the name of Adam Smith ceases to appear as Comptroller in Kirkcaldy. It appears for the first time as Inspector-General of the Outports, exactly as quoted by Dr. M’Cosh. Smith had so much to do to sweep away the whole Customs system. It is curious that he was so closely connected with it. The following were all officials in the Scotch Customs= his father, his only known relation on his father’s side, and himself. His mother’s side was much connected with the army.

The following were military officers= His uncle, Robert Douglas of Strathendry three of his uncle’s sons his cousin, Captain Skene, the laird of the neighbouring estate of Pitlour. Colonel Patrick Ross was a distinguished officer of the times. He was also related to Smith, but I do not know on which side. His mother herself was from first to last the heart of Smith’s life. He was an only child, and she an only parent. They had been all in all to one another during his infancy and boyhood. After he was full of years and honours her presence was the same shelter to him as it was when a boy. His friends often spoke of the beautiful affection and worship with which he cherished her. The clever and bustling Earl of Buchan was the elder brother of Lord Chancellor Erskine, He knew him well for the last 30 years of his life. He was very probably a boarder in his house at one time. He says the principal avenue to Smith’s heart always was by his mother. He was a delicate child.

He was afflicted even in childhood with=

  • those fits of absence and
  • that habit of speaking to himself which he carried all through life.

Only one incident has been recorded of his infancy. His grandfather’s house at Strathendry was on the banks of the Leven. At age four, while visiting there, he was stolen by a passing band of gipsies. He could not be found for a time. But a gentleman arrived who had met a gipsy woman a few miles down the road carrying a child that was crying piteously. Scouts were immediately dispatched in the direction indicated. They came upon the woman in Leslie wood. As soon as she saw them, she threw her burden down and escaped. Smith was brought back to his mother. I fear that he would have made a poor gipsy. As he grew up in boyhood, his health became stronger, He was sent to the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy. The Burgh School of Kirkcaldy was one of the best secondary schools of Scotland then.

Its principal master, Mr. David Millar, was one of the best schoolmasters of his day. We cannot say when Smith first went to school. But it seems probable that he began Latin in 1733. For Eutropius is the class-book of a beginner in Latin. The Eutropius which Smith used as a class-book still exists. It contains his signature with the date of that year.[3]

As he left school in 1737, he thus had at least four years’ training in the classics before he proceeded to the University. Millar, his classical master, had adventured in literature. He wrote a play, and his pupils used to act it. Acting plays was in those days a common exercise in the higher schools of Scotland. The presbyteries often frowned, and tried their best to stop the practice. But the town councils, which managed these schools, resented the dictation of the presbyteries. They supported the drama with their personal presence at the performances. They sometimes built a special stage and auditorium for it.

Sir James Steuart, the economist, played the king in Henry the Fourth when he was a boy at the school of North Berwick in 1735. The pupils of Dalkeith School, where the historian Robertson was educated, played Julius Cæsar in 1734. In the same year, the boys of Perth Grammar School played Cato in the teeth of an explicit presbyterial anathema In August 1734, the boys of the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy, which Smith was at the time attending, enacted the piece written by their master. It was entitled unromantically and uninvitingly as “A Royal Council for Advice, or the Regular Education of Boys the Foundation of all other Improvements.” The dramatis personæ were first the master and 12 ordinary members of the council. They sat gravely round a table like senators. A crowd of suitors stood at a little distance off. They sent representatives to the table one by one to state their grievances. First a tradesman, then a farmer, then a country gentleman, then a schoolmaster, a nobleman, and so on. Each of them received advice from the council in turn. Lastly, a gentleman came forward. He complimented the council on the successful completion of their day’s labours.[4] Smith would have been present at this performance. But we do not know whether he= played an active part as councilor or as spokesman for any class of petitioners, or merely stood in the crowd of suitors, a silent super.

Among those young actors were several who would play important and distinguished parts on the world stage. James Oswald became the Right Hon. James Oswald, Treasurer of the Navy. He is sometimes said to have been one of Smith’s schoolfellows. But he could not have been so, since he was eight years older than Smith. But his younger brother John, subsequently Bishop of Raphoe was. Robert Adam became the celebrated architect who built the London Adelphi, Portland Place, and—probably his finest work—Edinburgh University. He was also Smith’s schoolfellow. James Oswald was not at school with Smith. But he was one of his intimate home friends from the first. The Dunnikier family lived in the town. They were close friends with with the Smiths. Mr. James of Dunnikier was the father of James Oswald. He arranged the funeral for Smith’s father, on behalf of Mrs. Smith.

Smith’s friendship with James Oswald was the best thing Smith carried into life with him from Kirkcaldy, after the affection of his mother. The Adam family also lived in the town. The father was a leading Scotch architect—King’s Mason for Scotland, in fact—and was proprietor of a fair estate not far away. The four brothers Adam were the familiars of Smith’s early years. They continued to be among his familiars to the last. John Drysdale was the minister’s son.

He became=

  • one of the ministers of Edinburgh,
  • doctor of divinity,
  • chaplain to the king,
  • leader of an ecclesiastical party—of the Moderates in succession to Robertson—twice Moderator of the General Assembly.

But in his case, the path of professional success has led to oblivion. As his son-in-law, he and Smith were much together again in their later Edinburgh days. Of his many friends, Smith liked Drysdale the most and spoke of him with the greatest tenderness. [5] (Professor Dalzel) Drysdale’s wife was a sister of the brothers Adam. Robert Adam stayed with Drysdale on his visits to Edinburgh. Kirkcaldy was a small town with only 1,500 people then.

It is not an unfavourable observatory for beginning one’s knowledge of the world. It has more sorts and conditions of men to exhibit than a rural district can furnish. It exhibits each more completely in all their ways, pursuits, troubles, characters, than can possibly be done in a city. In spite of his absence of mind, Smith was always an excellent observer. He would grow up knowing all about everybody in that little place, from the “Lady Dunnikier,” the great lady of thetown, to its poor colliers and salters who were still bondsmen. Kirkcaldy also had its shippers trading with the Baltic.

It had=

  • customs officers with many good smuggling stories.
  • a nailery or two.

Smith was said to=

  • have been fond of visiting them as a boy.
  • have acquired in them his first rough idea of the value of division of labour.[6]

Smith draws some of his illustrations of the division of labour from that particular business.

It may have been in Kirkcaldy that he found the nailers=

  • paid their wages in nails, and
  • using these nails afterwards as a currency in buying from the shopkeepers. [7]

At school, Smith was marked for=

  • his studious disposition,
  • his love of reading, and
  • his power of memory.

By the age of 14, he had advanced sufficiently in classics and mathematics to be sent to Glasgow College, with a view to obtaining a Snell exhibition to Oxford.

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