The Edinburgh Geologist
Issue no 42

Archie remembered

by Eric Robinson

Nicolaus All older members of the Edinburgh Geological Society will remember Archie Lamont, thorn in the flesh of the English, although content to teach them Geology at Birmingham University for many years. A staunch Scots patriot, he coordinated the activities of what he called The Scottish Secretariat from his turbulent home, Jess Cottage in Carlops, publishing pamphlets against the Union and the twisted skein of History.

For one reason or another, Archie always bore a grudge against the Survey, or, as he termed it, 'the English Geological Survey'. At a BA meeting in Edinburgh in 1951, he stood up and made a public complaint about the undervaluing of Scotland's wealth by the English Survey. He seemed blissfully forgetful of those in charge at the time, including E B Bailey, A G Macgregor and J G E Anderson. Our DG in North-east England was Tom Robertson. Maybe he thought that they had 'sold the pass'.

A visit to Jess Cottage was an experience. Surrounded by collections of fossils, rocks and the all manner of things which he accumulated, strong tea with condensed milk from the tin was just one of the memorable courtesies extended to the visitor seeking assistance with due deference.

Archie collected assiduously from all parts of the Palaeozoic of the Southern Uplands, especially from the Pentlands, and recovered specimens out-of-the-ordinary from the most unlikely of localities, as Ian Rolfe can testify. Often, quite exasperatingly, Archie would tuck his new species, sometimes even genera, into the pages of The Quarry Manager's Journal, a publication not taken by many of the academic libraries. As much was true for his reading of Siluro-Devonian successions in the Borders, bringing us lithological markers such as the Shepherd's Tartan and Haggis Rocks, not to mention the Pentlandian Stage. Often known for his outbursts, fired by some sense of injustice personal or national, he had a warm and friendly side to a novice ostracod worker in the early 1950s which the following letter might reveal.

After moving to University College London, I kept up a hobby interest in Carboniferous rugose corals, stemming from Arthur Raistrick and a Palaeotographical Society Monograph on Scottish Rugose Corals by Dorothy Hill. Above all, the corals were so direct a means of teaching palaeontology through serial sectioning and peeling. In the midst of this, I came upon a poem entitled Palaeosmilia by Archie, one of a collection in his Selected Poems of 1946. It was inspired by a coral, Palaeosmilia, standing out on the weathered surface of a limestone grave slab, or so it seemed. I had to write and ask 'where?' out of curiosity. It took a year to get the reply, but the outcome was quite disarming. It went as follows:

Dear Eric Robinson,

I'm afraid it was my father who used to study tombstones (and genealogies). He was very good at making Wills in Bute as he knew all the relationships. His partner, on the other hand, made very bad Wills which were always being disputed. Now the truth is I imagined that Tombstone, and used Palaeosmilia because it sounds like some smiling ancient Mona Lisa. There is of course, a similar tombstone in Hugh Miller's žFirst Impression of England and the English PeopleÓ. I'm sure you could trace and photograph it, but I expect its Dibunophyllum or Cystiphyllum on it.

About forty years after writing the poem I did find Palaeosmilia on stone in a Durham graveyard and even, I think in the Cathedral. So that made it OK for factuality. The family gravestone at Cnoc-an-raer, Port Bannatyne, adjacent to megalithic remains, was a dark Ayreshire limestone with a Communion Cup carved above it, but it had no corals. When it crumbled a little on the surface (pyrites?) some idiot gave it a coat of paint and in due course it became quite scabby looking. It was then replaced by a Creetown grey granite stone, but that was after I wrote the sonnet.

I've been in very few kirkyards except when looking for platforms & terraces. My favourite is Highgate because of the juxtaposition in death of Herbert Spencer & Karl Marx; that's better than John Henry Newman & his pal Ambrose St John at Rednal, Birmingham to which I used sometimes to take field mapping classes, so as to surprise them that žLead Kindly LightÓ was written in the Mediterranean about the flames of Etna and Doubt, as far as is known. My own žMediterranean SpringÓ was written in bed, out of Marion Newbiggin's geography book! I didn't get to the Mediterranean until I was 53 years of age.

As Descartes said; 'Thought is perhaps even more important than fact at least in some stages of development'. Maybe.

Yours ever,

Archie Lamont

PS If you see Michael Abercrombie give him my regards.

Archie was right about Hugh Miller, and what he himself saw at Durham Cathedral were slabs of Frosterly Marble, a Namurian limestone from Weardale, famous for its crowds of contorted dibunophyllids. We can give him licence to have seen Palaeosmilia amongst them although it isn't too likely that it is part of the assemblage. What is important, however, is that whoever the grave slabs commemorate is completely erased from the record, so profound has been the surface loss over time. So, the vanity of human life is put into perspective, and fossil Nature reasserts itself, a fitting message for many a sermon as I have worked it. As for Highgate, well, Archie did often visit London from Birmingham staying in nearby Hampstead and that coupling of Marx and Spencer is also a story worth retelling. Nearby, the Scot, Dr Grant, the first teacher of palaeontology in London University, is buried for good company to those more famous thinkers. Newman? Well, that must have been pure Lamont mischief along with those frank admissions.

I can still taste that tea.

Palaeosmilia murchisonii

Eric Robinson's drawing of a section through the Carboniferous coral Palaeosmilia murchisoni

Eric Robinson taught at University College London for 48 years, retired in 2001, but was retained as a supernumery. He was through much of that time involved with the GA (1961-2001) as Librarian, Circular Editor and President. He says that he gets his greatest pleasure in teaching geology through buildings and building stones.

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