The Edinburgh Geologist
Issue no 20

Robert Dunlop

by Margaret Ford

A little known but enterprising Scot, Robert Dunlop was born on 27 February 1848 - a raw time of year. Cholera was sweeping through the Kilmarnock district, so his mother, Elizabeth (McKinnon) Dunlop journeyed to her father's house in Clins Vennel, Ayr, to ensure that her son would survive the first few months of his life. His father, Walter, toiled as an engineman for 17 shillings a week at Caprington colliery near Kilmarnock. Given the humble circumstances of his childhood, Robert's achievements were out of the ordinary, and speak for his character.

Robert's schooling (ruled by belt and bible?) lasted only four years, and he often missed a day running errands or doing the housework for his mother so that she could earn money as a "floorer" or flowerer doing embroidery for the local lace industry. By the age of eleven he too was helping to support his brothers and sisters by working on farms, for 8 farthings (about l p) a day.

Boys were expected to enter the mine when they reached the age of 14, but his mother, and Robert himself, did not want this. Through a relative, Elizabeth saw to it that Robert was indentured as an apprentice iron moulder for seven years, at 12 shillings a week. She had shown him that his life was not predestined.

Walter meanwhile had fired his son's interest in geology. One day the boy found a fossil shell in a nearby limestone quarry. His father explained that it was "put there by the Deluge". This must have impressed him for he remembered it and was puzzled some years later when he found fossils which had come out of a coal pit 600 or 700 feet deep. His curiosity and wonder of nature had well and truly taken hold of him, and his interest did not wane, but strengthened to a passion (which is testified to by the massive collection he accrued).

Five and a half years into the apprenticeship (late 1867) Robert and the other apprentices had learned the trade well; so well that James Blackwood the master had the moulders locked out and took on more apprentices. Robert saw that the new boys couldn't work as well as he, yet they were being paid 4 shillings a week more, so he and his friend persuaded the clerk to show them their indentures and while his friend held down the clerk, Robert set fire to them. This was an offence they could probably have been imprisoned for, so when about two months later, his new foreman in Glasgow told him that "a lame man with a tall hat and a policeman" were waiting to see him, Robert, knowing it was Blackwood, dropped over the wall and fled.

In the space of a week or two he was settling down to work at "The Standard" foundry, newly started up by Adamson in Airdrie. Two years later, on 1 March 1870 he married Ann Hunter. They had five sons and two daughters, and were together for 38 years. He described her as his "helpmate", and although not of a "scientific turn of mind" she "sympathised" with every hobby he took up.

The small collection he had made while living with his parents near Kilmarnock was lost, but once settled in Airdrie he started his collection in earnest. He also became a keen photographer, but came up against problems that could only be solved with a knowledge of chemistry, so he started going to chemistry evening classes at Gartsherrie Science School in Coatbridge. After his first year he passed his exam with flying colours, winning the Queens Prize for Scotland. He went on to be a demonstrator at the school and achieved a first class pass at the advanced stage. Then he taught classes of 40-60 students for 10 years; three times the pass rate was 100%.

His tenacity and hard work were rewarded when in 1882, word of his expertise as an analyst reached Mr Jeffrey, a partner of Wm Black and Sons, who arranged his employment at the Stanrigg Oil Works.

A year later he joined the Geological Society of Glasgow. It seems he had waited until he was a recognised scientist, as he had been collecting fossils for 14 years, seven of those in the company of James Thomson for whom he had been photographing coral sections. He was by now a keen photographer and ~ collector for leisure and interest. He would report anything of interest to the 7: societies in central Scotland, believing that it was his duty to have it put on record. He seldom expressed personal feelings in his unfinished autobiography, but his attitude to science may be gleaned from the following lines:

"with the true Scientific Man 
every new born fact in nature
by his love and care through time
becomes useful to humanity"

At Stanrigg Oil Works he was initially employed to conduct experiments on a process for extracting tar and sulphate of ammonia from coal dross. After doing some reading he had an idea, and persuaded the partners to alter the existing works and run a full scale experiment in order to extract benzol - a newly found constituent of coal gas which was fetching a good price. Good yields of benzol, and many other valuable products, such as toluol, solvent naphtha, sulphate of ammonia, carbolic acid, etc were retrieved by this method, and the partners were so pleased that they permanently adopted Robert's new idea and twice expanded the works according to his specifications.

The Scottish oil-shale industry was facing fierce competition from newly discovered oil wells in America, so he was constantly improving the design of the plant to make it ever more efficient. He became manager of the works in 1884.

An English company put up a plant at Shettleston to extract benzol, but was unsuccessful. On his own initiative Robert negotiated a good price to buy the disused plant, and became a partner when the resulting Shettleston Oil and Chemical Co Ltd was formed in December 1890. The number of oil companies in Scotland was dwindling, and most of them were making losses in real terms, yet the revitalised works at Shettleston lasted right through until 1958.

During these years with William Black & Sons, he searched avidly for fossils and discovered several species new to science. The one he was certainly most proud of was Eoscorpius dunlopi (Wright), a scorpion he found while searching through shales of the Upper Coal Measures, near Airdrie. He recognised it as darkness fell at 9 o'clock and with horror saw the wind move some loosened fragments, so he quickly protected it with his handkerchief and wrapped it in paper. The untrimmed block was so weighty that it was two in the morning when he arrived home with it. He also collected insects and birds, so the Airdrie 'a people must have often seen him on the moors with a butterfly net and jam jar, or a shotgun, in the fashion of the day. He was undoubtedly a well known member of the local community as he was the first President of the Clydesdale Photographic Society (which is extant), a founder member of the Clydesdale Naturalists Society, and he became the honorary curator of the Airdrie Museum in 1894 where "his special knowledge and enthusiasm made the Museum popular and educative from the beginning".

He remained with Black & Sons until 1899 when on 9 February, he sailed away to New Zealand. While setting up a new oil-shale plant in Orepuki, on behalf of the Pumpherston Oil Co he came across many unusual problems. For example the proposed site was riddled with ruts and gullies made by miners in pursuit of gold. Some of the trenches were 20-30 feet deep, and even when filled in did not provide sufficiently firm foundations. Robert had to arrange for the works to be built on solid ground which could only be found here and there.

By 1903 he was back in central Scotland again, exhibiting the interesting specimens he had found, and lecturing about that exotic far-away land, with numerous lantern slides, to the enthralled audiences of many societies.

His wife Ann died suddenly on 13 February 1908 and he was alone again for the first time since his brief spell in Glasgow.

Three years later he married a widowed cousin, Annabella Reid, and it was possibly the squeezing of the contents of two houses into one that made him start looking for a safe place for his collection, which by then was vast. He offered it all to the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock. It was his home-town, and they potentially had the space, as the fire of 1909 had destroyed the fine collections of Thomson and Hunter-Selkirk, two of his closest friends. He asked £300 for it, I think as proof of its value to them. The Public Library committee had several lively discussions deciding whether to buy it or not. They did not offer to buy it because of lack of money, and other offers of gifts which would take up an unknown quantity of space. Also the chairman seemed to doubt his motives, not believing that he was primarily concerned that the collection was to be appreciated.

He had given several lectures for the Dunfermline Naturalists since his ~ return from New Zealand. Through them the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust t; learned that the collection was available, and came to an agreement with Robert. In 1911 they employed him as curator of Pittencrieff House Museum to which he gave his collection gratis. He was pleased to talk about the collection to interested members of the public who came from near and far to see it, and he was actively involved with the Dunfermline Naturalists, giving numerous talks, conducting excursions and teaching the junior section on Saturdays. He expanded his collection with Silurian fossils from Gotland, and Old Red Sandstone fish from Caithness and from Dura Den in Fife - a site he was appointed to investigate in 1912 by the Association for the Advancement of Science.

After giving a talk in Kirkcaldy one day in April 1921 he caught pneumonia, and died on the 21st of that month. This loss came as a shock to his friends and family, as illustrated in the following lines of a poem which appeared in his honour in the Dunfermline Press, mysteriously signed "T.D.":

"Oft have I thought - here's one of those folk
To whom the tyrant years are strangely kind,
And leave but little impress of their yoke
On shoulders for resistance well designed..."

Robert had succeeded in earning a comfortable living for his sizeable family and he was deservedly respected by naturalists and geologists in central Scotland from coast to coast, in his pursuit to satisfy his curiosity. He had taught himself chemistry and successfully applied his intelligence to efficiently extracting useful products from oil shale and coal dross, and then after work, he liked to involve the community in the excitement of science. He left the Scottish people not books or theories but new fossil species to be studied by scientists whom he respected; and he left his huge collection, through which he wanted to make ordinary people wonder at nature.


Robert Dunlop - four generations of his family

Robert Dunlop (left); with his grandson, Robert;
son, Walter; and father, Walter. Taken about 1890.

Robert Dunlop and his family

Robert Dunlop (seated left); with his daughter, Elizabeth and wife Ann;
his sons David and Walter (right); Walter's wife Janet and their children
Robert, Agnes and Annie (on mother's lap). Taken about 1899.

Robert Dunlop and his family

Robert Dunlop's son Walter with his wife Janet and children
Annie (left), Robert and Agnes. Taken about 1903.

Robert Dunlop taken about 1890

Robert Dunlop. Taken about 1920.


The family photgraphs are reproduced by kind permission of Robert Dunlop's great granddaughter Anne Dunlop and the portrait taken about 1920 by kind permission of the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland.


Author: Margaret Ford, Morningside, Edinburgh.

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