Margaret Dobie, social worker, nominated
David Hume (1711-76)
John Reith: Lord Reith (1889-1971)
David Hume is the greatest Scot in history because more than any other he personifies the best in the Scottish character. He was intellectual, virtuous, industrious, sceptical, humorous, ambitious and very sociable. He represents the dignity of Scots and hence of Scotland. He was a thinker who thought himself out of the narrow perspective of Calvinism, suggesting that morality existed independently of religion, 'godless morality.' It was in Professor John Macmurray's moral philosophy class at Edinburgh University in the middle of this century that I first heard of him. I was pleased to find a Scotsman up there with the great philosophers of western civilisation.
We Scots have an unenviable heritage of Calvinism, poverty, and a cold climate, a combination not suffered by any other nation that I can think of. David Hume was fortunate; he was born into a comfortable affectionate middle-class home, threatened by neither starvation nor hell-fire. He must have been blessed with a good circulation too because it is recorded that:
'Hume experienced no serious discomfort in the cold of an Edinburgh winter and spring. He could even write to a friend who was to occupy his house, that one of the rooms in it was so comfortable that there was no need for a fire there, even on a cold night.'
Hume's philosophy was based in human nature, not in metaphysics or theology. He believed our understanding of the world should come from ourselves, our own natures, especially that quality unique to us, our imagination. His ideas laid down the foundations of modern psychology, sociology and economics. He was considered by many to be an atheist, a brave thing to be in 18th-century Scotland. But he was a virtuous, popular man whom the French affectionately named 'le bon George.' They also called him ‘le gros George’: he was inclined to be stout.
He loved France and lived there for three years, mainly in Rheims. He adored French food and did his best to introduce it to Edinburgh society when he returned there, complaining that his house in St James' Court was too small,
'to display my great talent for cookery, the science to which I intend to addict the remaining years of my life – for beef and cabbage (a charming dish) and old mutton and old claret nobody excels me.'
He was a very sociable man, was loved by many friends, and always enjoyed a joke at his own expense. The only flaw in this admirable man seems to have been a dislike of the English especially Londoners. But I think we can forgive this weakness in one who seems to have been a splendid Scot in every other way, an intellectual giant and a good party man.
Hugh MacDiarmid, in a lecture at Edinburgh University in 1961, referred to David Hume as '…the greatest Scotsman who ever lived.' In the same lecture, he referred to Lord Reith as a 'notorious Scottish bigot.'
Nevertheless, my choice for the greatest Scot of the century is John Reith and my reason for choosing him is simple. He made the BBC. He made the corporation in his own image and put on it the stamp of his own integrity. It is impossible to speak of Reith without using that word. He created a broadcasting service which was independent of government or commerce and which worked to the highest standards, standards by which other systems are judged.
Reith believed in authority but he wanted his creation to be, like himself, responsible to a higher authority than earthly government. Its trustworthy news provision is recognised in trouble spots all over the world, and the ethos which was the expression of this man's pragmatic Calvinism still exists, even if modern pressures put a strain on it at times. His brooding portrait, flanked by the lesser DGs who have followed him, scowls down at assemblies in the dining room at Broadcasting House. I hope that when the BBC move to their new quarters, they will remember to take him with them. Broadcasting is a mercurial substance; perhaps it needed a Scots Presbyterian to lay the foundations of its House.