The Edinburgh Geologist
Issue no 34

David Milne-Home

a biographical sketch by Marjory Roy
with notes on his geological work by David Land

David Milne-Home (1805 - 1890), Scottish advocate, landowner geologist and meteorologist, was President of the Edinburgh Geological Society from 1874 to 1889, the longest tenure in the history of the Society. He published pioneer work on the geology of Berwickshire, Mid and East Lothian and Roxburghshire between 1834 and 1844, after which his chief geological interests were in boulder clay and particularly in erratics. He was born as David Milne on 22nd January 1805 at Inveresk, near Musselburgh. His father was Admiral Sir David Milne, GCB and his mother was Grace (baptised Grissel) Purves, a daughter of Sir Alexander Purves of Purves Hall, Berwickshire. In 1814, when the young David was only 9, Grace Milne died of consumption in Bordeaux, and in 1817, Sir David took up an appointment of Commander-in-chief of the North American station, taking his two sons David and Alexander with him, and living in Bermuda and Halifax. The family returned to Britain in 1819 and Sir David married Agnes Stephen, who had been a friend of his first wife.

The young David Milne was educated at home, at Musselburgh Grammar School and at the High School in Edinburgh. He showed high intellectual capacity from an early age and, when he was still a schoolboy, developed an interest in science, most notably in geology. However, he decided to follow a legal career and, after graduating MA at Edinburgh University in 1825, he studied law and was called to the Scottish Bar in 1826. Among his university friends were John Forbes, later Sir John Forbes of Fettercairn, and his brother James, later professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University and Principal of St Andrews University. In 1827, Sir David bought a house at 10 York Place in Edinburgh's New Town and this became the normal place of residence in Edinburgh for his two sons. David Milne quickly became established as a leading advocate and in December 1828 he was much disturbed by his involvement in the notorious case of Burke and Hare, who committed murder in order to provide subjects for anatomy dissection in Edinburgh. He was junior counsel for Burke, whom he had to interview in prison.

David Milne-Home in a picture provided by Marjory Roy

From early in his life, religion was of great importance to him and he was an active member of the Established Church of Scotland. He was ordained an elder at the parish church of Inveresk in 1828 and was also a member of the kirk-session of St Andrew's in Edinburgh and at Hutton and Coldstream in Berwickshire. From 1829 to 1879 he was to speak each year in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He was concerned at the abuse of patronage but he did not join the seceeders in 1843. However, in 1874, he voted for the abolition of patronage in the Established Church. He also attended episcopal church services, mainly when he was in England. He considered that the Scottish system of provision for the poor lacked Christian generosity and genuine charity and was looked upon purely as a tax by those who had to pay. He deplored the establishment of large poorhouses.

The large part that religion played in his life had an impact on his acceptance of new geological theories. During the time that he was becoming interested in geology, glacial deposits were ascribed to the action of Noah's flood (the Diluvial Theory). In 1840, Agassiz put forward the ice-sheet hypothesis which at first was widely rejected, but gradually gained acceptance until by 1865 very few geologists still held to the diluvial theory, but among them was David Milne-Home, who never accepted the ice-sheet theory, and used every opportunity to combat it. He believed that the facts (erratics, striae, boulder-clay) could be explained by a 2,500-feet deep flood, which, however improbable, at least had scriptural warrant. The very idea of an immense ice sheet was to him a non-starter. Regardless of theories though, he never ceased to urge the collection of facts, of unbiased accurate description, as a necessity to advancing geological knowledge. This makes his papers valuable even today.

In 1829 he became engaged to Jean Forman Home of Paxton in Berwickshire and by July 1832, his income as an advocate was sufficient for him to marry her. There had been a long-term friendship between the two families, with frequent visits being paid by the Milnes to Paxton. He was appointed Advocate-Depute for a few months in 1835 and again from 1841 to 1845. Despite his heavy workload as an advocate, he maintained an interest in science and he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh as early as 1828.

His first geological paper (1837), on the geology of Berwickshire, was followed in 1840 by one on the Midlothian and East Lothian coalfields. This is a generally accurate account of the region, illustrated by a map and cross-sections produced 20 years before the Geological Survey started work in Scotland. These papers were followed by one on Roxburghshire (1844), completed like the others when not only was he a busy advocate in Edinburgh, but travelling was difficult (the railway to Hawick was not opened until 1849). He recognised and mapped greywacke, Old Red Sandstone, Lower Carboniferous coal measures and igneous rocks, and described them as well as the Quaternary deposits. For some parts of Roxburghshire, this paper is still the most up-to-date description.

On 5 May 1845 his father died and he succeeded to the estate of Milne-Graden, near Coldstream, in Berwickshire, which his father had purchased in 1821. This gave him the opportunity to give up legal practice. He spent the rest of a very active life as a country gentleman, managing and improving his and his wife's estates and devoting as much time as possible to scientific pursuits. He was a prominent member of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. His investigations of the parallel roads in Glen Roy in 1847 convinced him that these had been formed by lakes at different levels and were not raised beaches proposed by Charles Darwin, with whom he had corresponded.

In 1852, when his wife inherited from her father the properties of Wedderburn, Billie and Paxton, they took the name of Milne-Home, and it was with this designation that he was to develop his reputation in the scientific world. His contribution to the development of meteorology in Scotland was primarily as a facilitator, although in 1840 he published in the Transactions of the RSE a paper on two storms which had crossed the British Isles in 1838. In 1855 his old university friend, Sir John Forbes of Fettercairn and he drew up a prospectus for a meteorological association in Scotland, which received wide support, including that of Pitt Dundas, the newly appointed Registrar-General for Scotland. Following a public meeting on 11 July 1855 a society was set up, which became the Scottish Meteorological Society. Milne-Home was a member of the Provisional Council and from 1858 to 1883 he was chairman of the Council of the Scottish Meteorological Society, before becoming the Vice-President from 1884 until his death in 1890.

He found in Alexander Buchan, who was appointed as Meteorological Secretary in December 1860, someone who combined scientific ability with great diligence in his work and Milne-Home gave him every support. For example, when Buchan was nominated as one of the British representatives to the international meteorological congresses in Leipzig in 1872 and Vienna in 1873 the British Government refused to pay his expenses, but it was agreed that the members of the Scottish Meteorological Society Council would pay the cost out of their own pockets.

He played a leading role in the Edinburgh Geological Society, being elected as Vice-President in 1871 and President in 1874, which office he held until 1889. He was Vice-President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh more than once and in 1870 he was awarded the honorary degree of LLD by the University of Edinburgh for his services to science.

While he was almost the last geologist in Scotland to cling to the diluvial theory, he published, in 1869, his paper on boulder clay of Europe. This contains a masterly defence of the old theory, which it would take a whole article to summarise. Two years later (1871) he published a small book on the Forth estuary, describing in fair detail the Quaternary deposits. In the same year, he put forward his proposal for recording notable erratic boulders in Scotland. Thus he found himself Convenor of the Boulder Committee, which over the next twelve years issued ten reports from all over Scotland, totalling 555 pages with a final 18-page summary and conclusions. Despite his opinion that the observations supported the diluvial theory, the reports remain a body of factual data as relevant today as when it was published. Incidentally the largest boulder noted was one at Loch Killesport, estimated to weigh 2770 tons.

In 1877, Milne-Home proposed the setting up of a meteorological observatory on the summit of Ben Nevis. In 1878, at the age of 73, he climbed the mountain himself and reported to the Council that the project was feasible. An attempt was made to obtain Government support, but none was forthcoming and a successful public appeal was launched early in 1883. At the dinner in Fort William to celebrate the opening on 17th October 1883, Milne-Home said that he was glad that they had not received help from the Government, because it was most probable that the Government would have imposed conditions that might have interfered with the Scottish management of the institution and he for one was in favour of local Scottish management of local affairs.

In politics, Milne-Home was a Conservative, but if he had stood for Parliament it would have been as an Independent, since he would have felt unable to vote according to party policy if that were contrary to his conscience. He was much involved in matters affecting Berwickshire, serving as Convenor of the County Council from 1876 to 1889 and as Convenor he was the chief promoter of a fund that raised £26,000 to provide help for the widows and orphans of the Eyemouth fishermen who were lost in the terrible gale of 14th October 1881.

He was a tall, dignified, somewhat autocratic man, who could appear severe and unbending in public, but was said to be much less so in private and throughout his life he believed that 'what was worth doing at all, is worth doing well.' (Grace Milne-Home, 1891, page 145). His wife died in April 1876 and in 1885 he suffered a blocked vein in his head from which he never fully recovered. He died on 19th September 1890 at Milne-Graden from epithelioma and pneumonia and was buried in Hutton Churchyard.

These accompanying notes on the geological aspects of Milne-Home's work cannot do justice to his indefatigable pursuit of factual observation, from which further progress may be made. With hindsight we may think he was mistaken to cling for so long to the outmoded diluvial theory, but he was ever as gracious to his opponents as they were to him, and based his position on solid facts which have perennial value, whatever their interpretation. Let his friend Ralph Richardson, who wrote his obituary, have the last word: 'He was one of the true aristocrats - not merely a possessor of position, wealth and lands, but of knowledge, public spirit, ability and intellect.'

Material used in the preparation of this biographical sketch:

1891 G.M. Home, Biographical sketch of David Milne-Home

1890 R. Richardson, Obituary notice of David Milne-Home, Esq. of Wedderburn and Milnegraden, President of the Society, Transactions of the Geological Society of Edinburgh, Vol. 6, pp. 119-127.

1859-1881 MSS Minute Books of the Council of the Scottish Meteorological Society.

1856-1890 Reports of the Council to the General Meeting of the Scottish Meteorological Society, Proceedings of the Scottish Meteorological Society (until 1863) and Journal of the Scottish Meteorological Society v. 1-9 (from 1864).

1911 A. Watt, The early days of the Society, Journal of the Scottish Meteorological Society Vol. 15, pp. 304-312.

1883 Reports of the opening of the Ben Nevis Observatory in The Scotsman and The Glasgow Herald (18 October 1883).

1890 Obituary in The Scotsman (22 September 1890).

Significant geological papers by David Milne-Home

He published mostly in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (PRSE), and the Transactions of the Edinburgh Geological Society (TEGS) and the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (TRSE).

1837 Geological survey of Berwickshire, Transactions of the Highland Society, Vol. 5, pp. 171-253.

1840 On the Mid-Lothian and East Lothian coalfields, TRSE, Vol. 14, pp. 253-358.

1844 Geological account of Roxburghshire, TRSE, Vol. 15, pp. 433-502.

1849 On the parallel roads of Lochaber, with remarks on the change on relative levels of sea and land in Scotland, and on the detrital deposits of that county, TRSE, Vol. 16, pp. 395-418.

1869 On the boulder clay of Europe, TRSE, Vol. 25, pp. 655-691.

1871 The estuary of the Forth and adjoining districts viewed geologically, Edinburgh, Edmonton and Douglas, ix and 126p.

1871 Scheme for the conservation of remarkable boulders in Scotland, and for the indication of their positions on maps, PRSE, Vol. 7, pp. 475-488.

1872-1884 Reports of the Boulder Committee, ten reports in PRSE, Vol. 7-12.

1872-1884 Presidential addresses, in TEGS, Vol. 2-5.

1876 Notice of high water marks on the banks of the River Tweed and some of its tributaries; and also of drift deposits in the valley of the Tweed, TRSE, Vol. 27, pp. 513-582.

Marjory Roy graduated B.Sc. in Physics from Edinburgh University before joining the Meteorological Office in 1961. After 20 years in a variety of Met Office posts in England she returned to Edinburgh as head of the climatological office for Scotland. She took early retirement in 1990 and then completed an M Phil degree at Edinburgh University on 'orographic rainfall in Scotland'.

David Land has been a regular contributor to The Edinburgh Geologist and an active member of the Society, having held the post of President from 1995 to 1997. He is currently Sales Secretary on Council, and looks after our stock of publications. He retired from the staff of the British Geological Survey in 1987.

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