The Edinburgh Geologist Issue no 43

An Edinburgh Walk

by Peter Dryburgh

On the evening of the 16th June 2004, about thirty intrepid members of the Society walked around Edinburgh for two hours, during much of which the rain fell with malicious vigour. The purpose of the excursion was to visit houses associated with some famous geologists and other important figures in science and the arts.

Several people who attended the excursion suggested that Peter should write something about it for The Edinburgh Geologist and here is the result. Perhaps readers can now follow the route at their leisure and in finer weather.


My recognition of houses associated with some famous geologists and other important figures in science and the arts began years ago but changed abruptly from a casual interest into a sort of collector's enthusiasm when I first saw the plaque outside number 15 London Street, which informed me that the musician, Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson, and the poet, Matthias Jochumsson, had composed the Icelandic national anthem in the house in 1874. I started to compile a list of little-known houses of historical significance. Some years later, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) produced an excellent map indicating the houses of important scientists and engineers, and my collection of slides and literature started to expand rapidly.

The route

The walk started at the Royal Museum on Chambers Street and proceeded along George IV Bridge to the High Street and then across Princes Street to Hanover Street. From Hanover Street we walked along George Street to Charlotte Square and then back along Queen Street to St. Andrew Square. From there we took the road along the Bridges to Drummond Street, down past the Flodden Wall to the Hutton Memorial Garden at St. John's Hill, along the Pleasance to West Richmond Street and back to Lothian Street and the Museum, via Potter Row.

No excursion could possibly offer a comprehensive coverage of Edinburgh's historically important houses and, on this walk, we had to bypass a large number of them. However, many of the stopping places were sufficiently close to places which, even though they lay off the main route, were important enough to make them worth mentioning in passing.

We met in Chambers Street outside the Royal Museum.

The Royal Museum of Scotland

The geological collection of the Museum contains the huge collection of minerals amassed by M.F. Heddle (1828-1897) as well as that of Patrick Dudgeon (1817-1895), who was a close friend of Heddle and who left 3574 specimens to the Museum between 1873 & 1894. Heddle and Dudgeon were founders of the Mineralogical Society in 1876.

The route took us west along Chambers Street, at the end of which we could see over to Greyfriars Churchyard. In this small churchyard are buried (amongst others) James Hutton, Joseph Black, Alexander Munro, George Dunbar, Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Allan Ramsay, Colin Maclaurin and James Craig.

North along George IV Bridge is the Central Public Library. The land on the Cowgate, now occupied by the library, formerly belonged to the Little family. Clement Little bequeathed his personal library to the City in 1580 but, because nobody knew what to do with it, it was transferred to the custody of the 'Maister of the College' in 1584 and formed the nucleus of the library of the University of Edinburgh. Sir Thomas Hope (1580-1646), the Lord Advocate, later built his house on the site where the Central Library now stands. The library is one of the 2811 paid for by Andrew Carnegie.

Over the Royal Mile is Deacon Brodie's Tavern. The exploits of Deacon Brodie are well known, but what is less well known is that, in the 18th century, the site of the present tavern was occupied by Paterson's Court, where lived James Lind (1716-1794), who first recognised that scurvy could be prevented by the eating of citrus fruit and arranged the world's first controlled clinical trial to verify his view. It took some years for the Admiralty to act on his findings but the general issue of lemon juice to the sailors of the Royal Navy started in 1795. It has been said that lemons did as much as Nelson to defeat Napoleon. The later use of limes gave rise to the nickname 'limeys' applied to British sailors. From Deacon Brodie's Tavern, we walked a short distance up the Royal Mile to:

297 High Street

Hugh Miller (1802-1856) became editor of the Evangelical newspaper, The Witness in 1839 and edited it from 297 High Street. He started to receive international recognition of his geological work at the British Association Meeting of 1840.

As we walked down the Mound from the Royal Mile, we could see the elegant buildings of Ramsay Garden to the left. Sir Archibald Geikie, Director of the Geological Survey in Scotland from 1867 to 1882, lived in a house here for some years. The walk continued down the Mound and across Princes Street.

21 Hanover Street

Alexander Bain (1810-1877), originally from Caithness, invented the chemical telegraphic recorder and the forerunner of the fax machine. He devised electric fire-alarms and master-slave electric clock systems. His workshop was at 21 Hanover Street.

We walked up Hanover Street and into George Street. Several addresses along here were of particular interest.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh, George Street

The Royal Society of Edinburgh was founded in 1773. The first volume of its Transactions was published in 1788 and included Hutton's Theory of the Earth. The Society moved to George Street from its original home on the Mound, the Royal Institution, in 1909.

60 George Street

The poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, lived here after his ill-judged elopement.

128 George Street

Sir James Hall lived here from 1817 to 1832. He was the father of experimental geology, showed that crystals could grow from a melt and first used the word crystallite. He was well known in his day for his theories of architecture and was the author of Origin, Principles, and History of Gothic Architecture. After his death, his mansion at 128 George Street was occupied by the Mercantile Bank of India, London and China.

In walking along George Street, we crossed Castle Street, with two literary connections. Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Wind in the Willows, was born in 30 Castle Street in 1859. He claimed to be a descendant of Robert I. On the other side of George Street is North Castle Street, in which Sir Walter Scott lived at number 39 from 1820 to 1826.

Reaching the west end of George Street, we turned to descend North Charlotte Street. There are a number of houses worthy of note that lie near here. 16 South Charlotte Street was the birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. He was also the inventor of the iron lung and became a professor of chemistry. In Charlotte Square itself, John Scott Haldane (1860-1936) was born at number 17. He studied respiration, introduced mice into mines to check for poisonous gases and discovered how divers could avoid the 'bends' by a progressive decrease in air pressure. Lord Lister, the pioneer of aseptic surgery lived at 9 Charlotte Square between 1870 and 1877. Incidentally, because of Lord Lister's well-deserved fame, the reputation of his father, Joseph Jackson Lister, is often overlooked. Lister senior designed the ealiest achromatic microscope objective, which revolutionised microscopy. He was made FRS in 1832 and was a founding member of the Royal Microscopical Society.

Nearby, between Charlotte Square and Haymarket are a number of other interesting houses. 8 Stafford Street was the home of John Scott Russell (1808-1882), who discovered the solitary wave or 'soliton' in the Union Canal at Hermiston. The soliton has proved to be an important element in the modern theory of dynamical wave systems in such diverse areas as non-linear optics, optical fibre communication, hydrodynamics and tornadoes. He revolutionised naval architecture, started a steam carriage service between Glasgow and Paisley, made the first experimental observation of the Doppler Effect in the sound of a passing train and built Brunel's iron ship, the 'Great Eastern', to whose design he made a major contribution, helped to build Britain's first armoured warship and attempted to negotiate a peace treaty during the American Civil War. He reorganised the Royal Society of Arts, founded the institution of Naval Architects and was made FRS in 1849.

Sir David Brewster (1781- 1868) lived in the house at 10 Coates Crescent. He was a pioneer of crystal optics, photography and lighthouse lenses, wrote 300 scientific papers and a biography of Isaac Newton, invented the kaleidoscope, studied polarized light and was the Principal of St. Andrews and Edinburgh Universities in succession. He played a major part in the setting up of the British Association.

11 Rutland Street is another of the houses in which Lord Lister lived. At 3 Moray Place lived one of Edinburgh's many forgotten citizens, Robert William Thomson, who invented the pneumatic tyre in 1845 (40 years before Dunlop) and also the fountain pen. He patented the first mechanical road haulage vehicle, the steam traction engine. 'Thomson Steamers', fitted with padded rubber tyres, were used all over the world.

James Clerk Maxwell, one of the world's greatest physicists, was born at 14 India Street. The house is now the headquarters of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. Nearby, in Royal Circus was the house of Robert Jameson (1774-1854), who was the Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University for 50 years. He established the Wernerian Natural History Society in 1808 and was extremely influential in geological circles. Having walked down North Charlotte Street, our route then took us along Queen Street:

9 Albyn Place (Queen Street)

Allan Campbell Swinton (1863-1930) proposed the idea of 'distant electric vision' using cathode rays. J.L.Baird's later system of television was never widely adopted but modern television follows some of the principles suggested by Swinton.

75 Queen Street

Sir Walter Scott's mother lived here. Her maiden name was Rutherford and she was the aunt of Daniel Rutherford, the discoverer of nitrogen and inventor of an early maximum-minimum thermometer.

62 Queen Street

This was the house of John Leslie, Professor of Natural Philosophy, who studied heat transfer and invented the wet & dry bulb hygrometer.

52 Queen Street (Simpson House)

James Young Simpson, Professor of Midwifery and pioneer of anaesthesia, was born in Bathgate but lived for much of his professional career at 52 Queen Street and died here.

32 Queen Street

Charles Wyville Thomson ran the offices of the 'Challenger' Expedition in this house. The modern science of oceanography was essentially founded by Edward Forbes, John Murray and Thomson.

28 Queen Street

Francis Maitland Balfour recognised that the notochord was found in primitive organisms and in the embryos of vertebrates and helped to trace the evolutionary links between them.

At the eastern end of Queen Street, we made our way up to Princes Street and on to the Bridges – North Bridge and South Bridge. Near the route are three significant houses. Although he lived there for only the first few years of his life, 34 Dublin Street was the birthplace of Sir Nigel Gresley, the locomotive designer who designed the A4 'Mallard', which established the international speed record of 126 m.p.h. for steam locomotives in 1938. That record still stands.

In York Place, Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), the leading portrait painter of the age had his studio at number 32. Geologists should visit the National Portrait Gallery and admire his portrait of James Hutton. At 47 York Place, two generations of Nasmyths are associated with this house. Alexander, the artist, was on board one of the earliest steam-powered boats (built by Symington in 1788) and was accompanied by Robert Burns. His son, James, moved to Manchester, invented the steam hammer and built over 100 locomotives.

North Bridge

The former premises of the pharmaceutical firm Duncan & Flockhart are marked by a plaque on the wall of the Balmoral Hotel. This firm provided the chloroform used by Simpson in his historic work on anaesthesia.

We crossed the High Street again. Close to John Knox's House lived the botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858), who discovered the cell nucleus and the Brownian Motion. Also close to John Knox's House lay Trunk Close, now disappeared. A shop on the right-hand corner was the first business of Archibald Constable, bookseller and publisher. South Bridge took us high over The Cowgate, off which William Cullen (1710-1790) lived in South Gray's Close. He was Professor of Chemistry and Medicine and discovered the cooling effect of evaporation. Just past the Old College of the University, we turned left.

2 Drummond Street

This was the house of Alexander Rose (1781-1868), who was the founder of the Edinburgh Geological Society in 1834. He was an ivory turner and mineral dealer and gave classes in mineralogy and geology.

15 Nicolson Street

Alexander Adie (1808-1879) was an instrument maker who supplied Brewster with lenses and made a polarizing microscope, which became obsolete when Nicol invented his polarizing prism. Adie's house at 15 Nicolson Street was demolished, probably in 1880, during the building of the Empire Palace, now replaced by the Festival Theatre.

St. John's Hill

The James Hutton Memorial Garden was opened in 2002 and is situated close to the site of Hutton's house at St. John's Hill.

Also in St. John's Hill, John James Waterston (1811-1883) lived close to the house of James Hutton. He wrote a paper on kinetic theory in 1845 which was so far ahead of its time that it was rejected by the Royal Society and not appreciated till after his death. The family stationery business was famous for the manufacture of sealing wax. We turned right into West Richmond Street, passing Davie Street on the left.

Davie Street

In 1760, Hutton and his friend John Davie, commemorated in the name of the street, established a factory here to manufacture ammonium chloride (sal ammoniac) from soot. The works covered half an acre and were very profitable. Hutton became a partner in 1765 and derived considerable income from the company until he died.

We crossed Nicolson Street into West Nicolson Street.

Pear Tree House

Pear Tree House was built in 1747 and was the birthplace of Andrew Usher (1826), who is often credited with being the first producer of blended whisky. (His elder brother started the Usher brewing business in1831). In 1896, Andrew gave £100,000 to build the Usher Hall, the dome of which is said to have been modelled on the smaller dome of Pear Tree House. After years of being used as a store for whisky casks, it became a pub in 1982.

We turned north up Potter Row, and from there we could see the Medical School. This stands on the site of Park Place, the home of James David Forbes (1809-1868). Forbes was a geologist best known for his work on the movement of glaciers and the geomorphological effects of ice. From here, it was back to the Royal Museum, albeit the rear entrance. Nevertheless, this was also a memorable site.

11 Lothian Street

Charles Darwin lodged here while a medical student from 1825 to 1827. A commemorative panel was installed over the rear entrance to the Museum in November 2002, a much more visible monument than the obscure little plaque on one of the museum's galleries, which had previously been the only indication of the Darwin connection.

Also in Lothian Street, number 42 was one of the houses occupied by Thomas De Quincy, author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, published in 1821.

Further reading

For those interested in locating other historic houses in Edinburgh, there is a wealth of literature and the following small selection may provide some helpful starting points.

Harrison, W., 1898. Memorable Edinburgh Houses, Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, Edinburgh.

Hamilton, A., 1978. Essential Edinburgh, André Deutsch, London.

Pennycook, A., 1973. Literary & Artistic Landmarks of Edinburgh, Albyn Press, Edinburgh

Mitchell, A., 1993. The People of Calton Hill, The Mercat Press, Edinburgh.

Dick, D., 1997. Who Was Who in the Royal Mile, Clerkington Publishing Co., Haddington.

Scotland, A.W., Taylor A.J. & Park, W.G., Eds., 1984. The Streets of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Impressions.

McKee, A. et al. (COPUS), 1993. The Edinburgh Science Map, Fisk Productions, Edinburgh.

Butcher, N., 2002. SP2 Scientific History of Edinburgh Excursion Map, 18th I.M.A. Conference, Edinburgh.

Keay, J. & Keay, J., Eds., 1994. The Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, Harper Collins, London.

Peter Dryburgh is a physical chemist by profession but has always had an interest in earth science and in its history. He retired from the University of Edinburgh, where he was a lecturer in the Electrical Engineering Department a couple of years ago and was President of the Edinburgh Geological Society from 2001 to 2003.

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