Geological Pioneers

The city of Edinburgh has seen many important geologists over the years, people who have drawn inspiration from the landscape and geology of the city and contributed to the development of geological knowledge. They have often been associated with the great geological institutions based in Edinburgh, including the British Geological Survey, the University of Edinburgh, and the National Museum of Scotland.

This section of our website introduces key figures who have lived and worked in Edinburgh, and made significant contributions to geology and to the Society. Further geological pioneers will be added, please get in touch if you have a suggestion.

James Hutton 1726-1797

Alexander Rose 1781-1860

Charles Thomas Clough 1852-1916

Alexander Rose, FRSA (1781-1860). Founding member of the Edinburgh Geological Society

Alexander Rose (1781 – 1860)

Alexander Rose is celebrated by the EGS every year with a special meeting known as Fellows’ Night. Why? Because he was the inspiration for the Society’s formation and one of its founding members.

There is no record of Rose’s place of birth. However we do know he grew up in Edinburgh and followed in his father’s footsteps as a wood- and ivory-turner. He also made scientific instruments for the University of Edinburgh and is credited with inventing a seismometer. He went on to become a mineral-collector and -dealer and later a lecturer in geology and mineralogy in the former educational establishment known as the Queen’s College, Edinburgh.

A series of lectures that Rose gave on mineralogy in the early 1830s inspired eleven of his students to found, in 1834, the Geological Society, which became the Edinburgh Geological Society. One of them, John Castle, was its first president. He was succeeded in 1835 by Rose himself, in whose house, at 2 Drummond Street, the Society’s members met every Monday evening. Fellows’ Night is held on the Wednesday closest to the founding date of 4 December 1834.

Rose was EGS President for 12 years (six times the current presidential term!). He was held in such esteem that EGS members presented him with a silver cup and his students gave him a silver snuff-box. These items are still in the Society’s possession, as are the specimen cabinet and Windsor chair that he made for himself. He retired from active work in 1856 and died in 1860. After his death, interest in the Society faded, but fortunately not to the extent that EGS ceased to exist. It recovered and became the thriving Society we enjoy today.

For more information see The Edinburgh Geologist – issue 10 for an account of Rose’s life; and The Edinburgh Geologist – issue 32 for an article on the Rose silverware and furniture held by EGS.

Alexander Rose, FRSA: a portrait published in Transactions of the Edinburgh Geological Society Vol. XIII, 1934 for EGS’s centenary celebrations

Charles Lapworth plaque unveiled in the Borders

Charles Lapworth plaque unveiled in Galashiels

A plaque has been unveiled to commemorate the life and works of the eminent geologist Charles Lapworth LL.D., F.R.S. (1842-1920) at the old Episcopal School in Galashiels. The listed building now housing Border Council’s offices was originally the school where Lapworth was headmaster between 1864-75. He moved to the Borders to teach from his original home in Berkshire. He married Janet Sanderson in 1869 and had four children, three of whom were born in the school house.

The unveiling on 20th May 2019 was done by children of the local St Peter’s Primary school in Galashiels. The efforts to erect the plaque were made by retired local residents and geology enthusiasts, Malcolm Lindsay and David Adamson.

Lapworth is a name which is long associated with Southern Uplands of Scotland. He did his initial research while living locally, but it was not until he moved to Madras College, in St Andrews in 1875 to continue his teaching career that he began to publish his defining work on the distribution of extinct organisms called graptolites. In 1879, he suggested the name “Ordovician” to describe the period between the Cambrian and Silurian ages, a name which was duly accepted across the world. Sir Edward Bailey, the Director of the British Geological Society and Professor of Geology at Glasgow University, later described Lapworth’s interpretation as “one of the miracles of science” and later said that “Lapworth grew up to be, perhaps, the greatest geologist who ever lived”. This plaque is therefore a fitting commemoration to the important time spent by Lapworth both teaching and researching in the Borders.

 

Charles Thomas Clough (1852-1916)

Charles Thomas Clough (1852-1916) is an important Edinburgh geologist, whose name lives on in the current activities of EGS through the Clough Medal.  This is presented annually to a geologist whose original work has materially increased the knowledge of the geology of Scotland and/or the north of England, or who is Scottish by birth or by adoption and residence and has significantly advanced the knowledge of any aspect of geology.

C T Clough was born at Huddersfield in 1853. He was educated at Rugby, 1867-1871, and at St John’s College, Cambridge, 1871-1875 (see Family & Education and Marriage below).

Career

In 1875, he joined the Geological Survey of England, and in 1884 was transferred to Scotland. He was promoted District Geologist in 1902, and served as such until his death in 1916. In the Transactions of the Edinburgh Geological Society, v. 11 p.236-238, 1923, his obituary was compiled by Edward Bailie. Bailie wrote “His work, both with hammer and pen, was strongly characterised. He was a man of small stature, and could only travel at a moderate pace. His plan was to go slowly, and collect his information fully, with a view to subsequent selection of the more essential elements. In addition to his detailed mapping, which for accuracy and completeness stands unrivalled, Clough’s geological achievements in Scotland are many and important. They may conveniently be summarised under the headings of various districts in which he worked.

The various districts include;

(1) Comal – he originated the theory of re-folded recumbent folds, which some of us think explains much that is otherwise inexplicable in the Highland schists.

(2) North-West Highlands – he came t o the conclusion that the sedimentary schists of the Lewisian Complex, as exposed at Loch Maree and Glenelg, post-date their igneous associates.

(3) East Highlands – he played an important part in the investigation of the aureole of contact-altered undistorted sediment which surrounds the augen-gneiss of Inchbae.

(4) Mull – he demonstrated the complex time-relations of the cone-sheets to the Ben Buie and Corra-bheinn Gabbros.

(5) Lowlands. He disproved the supposed unconformity at the base of the Barren  Red Coal Measures of Ayrshire.”

Family and education

Charles Clough was born on 23rd December 1852 in Huddersfield, where his father, Thomas William Clough (1817-1872) was a junior solicitor and town clerk (chief executive), born in Pontefract in 1817, son of William Clough and his wife Mary. His mother was Amelia Jane Ibeson (1821-1894), daughter of James Ibeson, surgeon in Hemsworth, and his wife Jane. Charles was the fifth child in his family, with four brothers, the youngest of whom died in very early infancy, and two sisters. We know nothing of his family life, except that his father was wealthy enough to send his third son Charles to Rugby School (1867-1871). From there he went to St. John’s College, Cambridge where, according to his close friend Edward Greenly (1938) he was ‘intended for the church’, but for some reason instead he turned to geology. Maybe his professor influenced him. Maybe Huddersfield’s Coal Measures, with their coal and iron mines and sandstone and shale quarries, aroused his youthful curiosity. He was awarded an exhibition in natural sciences from 1872-1874, and graduated with a first in the Natural History in 1874, gaining his MA in 1878.

Marriage

In 1881 Clough married Anna Mary Usher (1850-1935), the youngest daughter of Thomas Durham Usher (1807-1869) who was a ship owner of South Shields, and his wife Williamina Margaretta Train (1814-1881). They had three children, Florence Mary Clough (1883-1967), Charles Durham Clough (1886-1962) and Edith Williamina Clough (1888-1930). Neither of the daughters married. Charles Durham Clough emigrated to British Columbia, Canada, where, after serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War, he became a rancher. He was married twice, his first wife being Amy Luvetta Foxall (1880-1936), widow of James Walter Guy (1886-1917). By his second wife Violet Georgina Wheeler (1903-1981), he had one daughter who is C T Clough’s only grandchild.

Based on an article in Vol 28 of The Edinburgh Geologist  (Autumn/Winter 1995). Further details on Clough’s life and works can be found at the BGS website – Pioneers of Geology.

Clough, C T from BGS Geoscenic website




Clough’s microscope (courtesy of C Thompson)

This microscope was given to former EGS member, Sinclair Ross (now deceased), in 1975 by the ecologist, naturalist, farmer and author, Sir Frank Fraser Darling. In a covering letter, Fraser Darling said that the microscope had been given to him forty years before by Clough’s daughter. The small pieces of paper stuck inside the lid of the microscope’s carrying case are in Clough’s own handwriting and are notes to himself concerning the magnification obtained with the different objective lenses.

Further information provided by Sinclair identifies the microscope as a Swift Dick model of about 1890. In contrast with modern microscopes the barrel, cross-hairs, polariser and crossed nicols all rotate, with the slide itself staying still.

James Hutton (1726-1797)

James Hutton (1726-1797) made a considerable contribution to our understanding of Earth processes and of the immensity of ‘deep time’. Although trained as a physician, he spent a significant portion of his life as a farmer. He was an outstanding natural philosopher and was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Hutton was born in Edinburgh on 3rd June 1726. At the age of 14 he went to Edinburgh University to study humanities and medicine. Later he studied chemistry and anatomy in Paris, before obtaining his degree in medicine in 1749 from Leyden in the Netherlands. In 1750, he inherited and worked two farms in the Scottish Borders. He travelled to Norfolk and Flanders to learn new farming methods and employed them on his own lands. The James Hutton Institute (Scotland’s research institute for land, crops, water and the environment) takes Hutton’s name in recognition of his innovation in agriculture. After witnessing first-hand the processes of erosion and sediment deposition on his farms, James Hutton became interested in geology.

He returned to Edinburgh in 1767, where he developed and finally published his geological theories. He was an important contributor to the Scottish Enlightenment, a period when Edinburgh, described by Tobias Smollett as “a hotbed of genius”, saw the rise of revolutionary ideas in sciences and humanities. Hutton enjoyed the company of people like Sir James Hall of Dunglass, James Watt, Adam Smith and Joseph Black.

Hutton’s Theory of the Earth was presented in 1785 in front of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, then published in 1788 and enlarged to two volumes in 1795. Hutton realised that the processes of erosion, deposition and uplift were connected and operated continuously, driven by the Earth’s internal heat, in a way not previously understood. Field visits to his three famous unconformity sites in North Arran, Jedburgh and Siccar Point took place in 1787-88. All provided evidence in support of his theory. He died on 26th March 1797, and is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh (see page 24 of Edinburgh Geologist Issue 63, pdf 3.45Mb). James Hutton is now recognised as the Father of Modern Geology.

James Hutton by Sir Henry Raeburn, on display in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery


Leaflet - James HuttonDownload our Lothian and Borders GeoConservation leaflet about James Hutton, which guides you to some of the places associated with him in Edinburgh and the surrounding area.

James Hutton Leaflet (388 KB)

Hutton at Siccar Point

Siccar Point seen from above

Hutton realised that the processes of erosion, deposition and uplift were connected and operated continuously, driven by the earth’s internal heat,  in a way not understood at the time. At Siccar Point in 1788, he finally found the clear evidence he needed to demonstrate his understanding of the processes and cycles that shaped the Earth.

Hutton arrived at Siccar Point by boat, accompanied by Sir James Hall of Dunglass and John Playfair. Playfair wrote: “Dr Hutton was highly pleased with appearances that set in so clear a light the different formations, and where all the circumstances were combined that could render the observation satisfactory and precise … We felt necessarily carried back to a time when the schistus on which we stood was yet at the bottom of the sea, and when the sandstone before us was only beginning to be deposited, in the shape of sand or mud, from the waters of the supercontinent ocean… The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time; and whilst we listened with earnestness and admiration to the philosopher who was now unfolding to us the order and series of these wonderful events, we became sensible how much further reason may sometimes go than imagination may venture to follow.”

Hutton inferred from the sharp junction between the two sets of rocks that an enormous interval of time was required for the underlying strata to be folded and eroded before the overlying sandstones were deposited. The fundamental geological principle of deep time was thus established and Hutton famously concluded his work Theory of the Earth with: “We find no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end”. Since then different geological eras have been recognised and dated, and we now know that the Earth is around 4.5 billion years old.

Hutton’s discoveries fulfilled a tremendous mission: placing geology in a much wider time frame than the popular belief that the Earth was created in 4004 BC (as calculated by Bishop Ussher in 1650). This enabled geology to become a science in its own right with Hutton as its founding father.

The Hutton Memorial Garden, Edinburgh

Memorial Stone in Hutton’s Garden

This garden marks the exact site of Hutton’s house and garden at the original 3 St John’s Hill, the house where he lived for almost 30 years and where he died on 26th March 1797.  The garden was created in 1997. It contains examples of important rock types associated with Hutton’s life. Two boulders showing granitic veins came from Glen Tilt which John Clerk of Eldin visited with James Hutton and illustrate Hutton’s work on the origin of granite from September 1785. The other three boulders are of conglomerate carried by ice and water came from Barbush on the edge of Dunblane. These illustrate Hutton’s understanding of the cyclicity of geological processes. The garden can be accessed from Veiwcraig Gardens off Holyrood Road, take the steps up to the garden from the first bend of the road, near to the Holyrood Road NCP Car Park – Edinburgh EH8 9UL.

Find out more: The Edinburgh Geologist – Issue no 38 (pdf file)

The Tri-Centenary of Hutton’s birth in 2026. 

The Edinburgh Geological Society will be marking this occasion by holding a series of events.