Ashley Lait talks to Caroline Howitt, programme director at Panmure House, Adam Smith’s home in Edinburgh.
AL: Can you tell us about the 18th century history of Panmure House and Smith’s time there?
Panmure House is an ancient building, right in the centre of Edinburgh. Today, it sits very near the Scottish Parliament. It was originally built in 1691 and was the town seat of the Earl of Panmure.
But the house was made famous by arguably its greatest resident, Adam Smith, who moved here in 1778 to become commissioner of customs. He lived here until his death in 1790. Across that period – at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment – Smith was already very famous. He worked on the final editions of both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations while he lived in the house.
He also used Panmure House as a convening space for many of the other finest minds of that generation. They would come here every Sunday to dine and debate the big issues of their day, and to discuss ideas that went on to have a significant influence on our modern society as it is in the West.
It is easy for us to forget just how groundbreaking and radical these people were at the cusp of the first Industrial Revolution. James Hutton, for example, was the father of modern geology. He was the first person to drill down into the radical concept of ‘deep time’ – the idea that the earth was a lot older than stated in the Bible. Joseph Black, the founder of modern chemistry and known for discovering carbon dioxide, often visited the house too. It really was a hub for incredible thinkers.
AL: What happened to the house following Smith’s death in 1790 – and how did it become the research and education centre it is today?
In the 19th century, it became a foundry. But it fell into disrepair and the north wing – the residential part of the building where Smith lived – even fell down. Luckily in the 1950s, the owner of The Scotsman newspaper, Roy Thomson, rescued and restored it. He gave it to Edinburgh City Council and it was then used as the Canongate Boys’ Club. For some time, it was used for this educational purpose but it later became dilapidated again.
Then in 2008, Edinburgh Business School and Heriot-Watt University rescued the building from dereliction and spent ten years and £5.6 million restoring it to the beautiful 18th-century standard now on display. The view was to not just restore the building physically, but also intellectually to what it was in Smith's time: a beacon for brilliant minds to come together across disciplines and solve the biggest challenges that we face today.
AL: What were the priorities for the restoration?
There were obviously a series of archaeological digs and architectural surveys that informed the process. For example, they found an industrial site from the mediaeval period in what is now the entrance in the basement. This would have been outside Edinburgh’s city walls, but it was an important find so this halted the restoration for a time.
Within the house, we wanted to marry the tradition and heritage of the 18th century with the modernity and accessibility that we need to be able to bring Smith’s ideas and methods into the 21st century. So, we have a painstakingly handcrafted pencheck stone staircase, but we also have a disabled access lift. We have stunning tulip wood panelling that's been imported from the United States and painted in pastel colours – because that's exactly what they would have had in Smith’s time – but behind it are 92-inch TVs so that we can broadcast events and meet people from around the world.
There are other more subtle details too, including translucent quotes from Smith’s works on some of the panels. They could be easily missed but they are intended to highlight that detail and nuance matter, which is central to our mission of reviving a spirit of respectful public discourse.
AL: Can you tell us about Panmure House’s mission and your role within that?
A big part of our mission today is to try to redress the balance between Smith’s works and to reconnect the now disparate sides of Smith's oeuvre. He is sometimes thought of as a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism, but he wasn’t. We are trying to recouple the financial and economic insights of The Wealth of Nations with the philosophical and more humanist insights from The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
I have been the programme director since 2019 and my team's role is to push forward that intellectual restoration work. Part of that is our Adam Smith Lecture Series, which brings the world's greatest economic practitioners, thinkers and Nobel laureates here to the birthplace of modern economics.
We also have leadership and research programmes, including the Panmure House Prize, worth $75,000, which is one of the world's biggest prizes for economics. This is specifically for research on long-term investment and its impact on innovation.
AL: How important is broadening awareness of Smith and his ideas to your work?
I personally feel that we've not been great at celebrating Adam Smith. We celebrate David Hume and some of the other key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, but Smith has had less attention. I think that can help to explain how the house was allowed to go to rack and ruin. You can't imagine that happening to Shakespeare's house.
But there has been more research in recent times, which has highlighted how central Smith was in bringing together brilliant Enlightenment thinkers who used to convene here to share ideas.
I also think that Smith would have defined himself as an educator first and foremost rather than an economist. He was a brilliant teacher and took pride in his mentoring roles. I’m currently looking at a portrait of the young Duke of Buccleuch, whom Smith took on a grand tour of Europe.
So, part of our work is also education-focused. We have the Smith Schools’ Series, which is designed to give critical thinking and debate skills to the next generation, teaching them to defend their arguments, while also respectfully engaging with others. The series has been specifically targeted at schools in underprivileged areas that might not otherwise get such opportunities.
AL: During the tercentenary, what is the legacy that Panmure House would like to celebrate?
Smith set out to create what he called a comprehensive science of man. He was interested in why people do the things they do and how we work together. Unlike how some have interpreted his work, he wasn’t a Gordon Gekko character (from the 1987 film Wall Street) who said ‘greed is good’ and that we should just be out for ourselves.
The famous quote from The Wealth of Nations about the butcher, the brewer and the baker has been taken out of context as a justification for the free market being allowed to run wild. People forget that he was the commissioner of customs. It’s said that he would have done away with taxes and diminished the role of the government, but he worked for the government and helped to define and deliver taxation in his role.
For us, it’s crucial to look holistically at Smith’s work. I wouldn't say we take a particular position on Smith, rather that we are placing an emphasis on all of his work. This includes The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was an investigation into the fact that we are social creatures and that we care about one another, which is important for building a society, a judiciary and a successful marketplace.
In terms of legacy, our focus is much more on applying Smith's methodology practically in the 21st century to try to effect positive change. We seek to spur businesses, governments and individuals to think more philosophically about how they approach what they're doing, and in particular keeping a long-term goal in sight.
Some of our biggest challenges – from climate change to inequality – need vision and solutions across long periods of time. Indeed, we have just welcomed Adam Dixon, our inaugural Adam Smith Chair in Sustainable Capitalism, who will lead a research team looking at sustainable finance, sustainable innovation and sustainable leadership.
Overall, the tercentenary offers an opportunity to reflect on the power of Smith's legacy and how central he was to the Scottish Enlightenment. We have the chance to think about what he has to teach us and how we can apply it to make our own society a better and more joined-up place to live.