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James Geikie
Chapter II. First Years on the Geological Survey, 1862-64


James Geikie was connected with the Geological Survey for a period of twenty years, for he only gave up the work, with great reluctance, on his appointment to the Murchison Chair of Geology in the University of Edinburgh in the year 1881. It seems only fitting, therefore, that some general account of his life while a member of its staff should precede any detailed description of the occupations of the successive years. The Survey years were singularly happy ones, were perhaps the most fruitful in original work, and definitely determined the whole future course of his life.

From the official standpoint the tale of events is soon told. In 1861 he was appointed Assistant Geologist. Six years later, when for the first time the Scottish Survey was organised as a branch separate from the English one, he was made one of the two geologists of the staff. Two years later, that is in 1869, he was promoted to be District Surveyor, which made him second in position after the Director, who was then his brother Archibald. The post of District Surveyor he held till 1881, when the posts of Director and the Professorship at Edinburgh became simultaneously vacant by the promotion of his brother. It was intimated that the two appointments would not again be combined, and, though as stated with great reluctance, James gave up the Survey to take the Chair.

Of great interest in its effect upon his future work was a change in the policy of the Survey which practically synchronised with his appointment. Previous to this time, the loose superficial deposits in Scotland had been ignored by the surveyors, who confined themselves to mapping the solid geology, i.e., the actual rocks, which in many parts of Scotland are mantled by a thick covering of drift or peat. It was decided, chiefly on economic grounds, especially in connection with agriculture, that not only should these superficial deposits be in future mapped along with the solid geology, but that the areas already surveyed should be re-mapped, with the object of adding the omitted beds. As already stated, Dr Young and James Geikie joined the Survey in 1861, and Mr Peach at the beginning of 1862. All three soon after their appointment were entrusted with this work in Fife and the Lothians, which had already had their solid geology mapped. It was a kind of mapping which could be done with considerable rapidity, and therefore involved frequent changes of quarters. Thus, as Prof. Geikie says in the account already mentioned, which he contributed to the Memoir attached to Prof. Young's Essays and Addresses, "in a year or so we [Young and himself] had tramped carefully over the major portion of Fife and the Lothians."

For all three novices this introductory period seems to have left delightful recollections. In the Memoir already quoted, Prof. Geikie says:—"Those were halcyon days, and I am sure Young enjoyed them to the full. Often in subsequent years, after he had finally settled in Glasgow, he would recur to them, recalling with delight old scenes and old faces which he and I had known together. The life of a field-geologist is, from many points of view, an enviable one, and could youth and strength endure, one might well be content to follow it to the end."

Though spoken but of one member of the trio, one may suspect that the statements had a wider application. In the case of James Geikie, but recently liberated from distasteful drudgery, having changed a life of close confinement for the open air which he loved, with reasonable prospects for the future opening out before him, it would have been strange if the "premature grave" of the letters of a few years' earlier date had not disappeared into the background, and life become suddenly a great good, for youth and strength were both there, as yet untouched by time.

Though the three new members of the Survey were all engaged on the same kind of work, it must not be supposed that their work was done in common. Each had his particular task assigned to him, and though they often met, sometimes indeed lodged together, as was the case, for example, with Young and Geikie at Peebles in the early part of 1863, and Peach and Geikie in the spring of 1864, it was only their leisure hours which were spent in each other's company. One may, without incurring the reproach of cynicism, suspect that this greatly increased the joys of companionship. If they had worked together, or even in couples, the inevitable rubs and difficulties of daily work, however congenial, might have checked exuberant intercourse. But meeting as they did when the day's work was over, or only at intervals, with the tie of common interests, with many experiences to hear and to tell, the companionship became one of the great joys of life.

The brief account in the Memoir of Young is impregnated through and through with the recollection of this gladness of comradeship, and a few more phrases may be quoted to emphasise the point still further:—"Seated by a cosy peat fire, enveloped in clouds of tobacco smoke, confabulating, discussing, speculating, laughing over quaint scenes and droll experiences, life (if we had only known it!) had not much better to give." We read also of the wine of life, and can feel that the writer of the account, who was then a man of sixty-five, could, despite the forty odd years which lay between, still feel its flavour upon his palate as he wrote. Some of the jokes and quips and tales of those old days have become Survey property, transmitted by word of mouth from generation to generation, forming part of that invisible strand which binds together the members of an organised body, so that while the individuals come and go, are separated by the seven seas, by life and by death, the spirit remains. For each individual in turn youth goes and strength decays, but something remains; and if in their dumb northern fashion the individuals in this case generally passed away without leaving enshrined either in art or in the written word a direct record of all they felt and did, it may yet not be amiss to indicate the enthusiasm, the devotion, and the joy that went to the making and colouring of those maps, and were embodied in those formal records.

But the immediate purpose here is only to suggest that those early days were for James Geikie a conscious escape from prison, a conscious means of self-realisation, and that it was probably the accident that his first official field - work was given to the drifts which determined the trend of his future scientific work. He states, it is true, in a short account of his career which appears in the Geological Magazine for June 1913, that his interest in the superficial formations, especially boulder-clay and the associated gravels and sands, dated from his schooldays. One may well believe that, like many another born in a region where the till is abundant, he early succumbed to the fascination of that untidy but delightful occupation of digging stones out of the tenacious clay with nature's weapons, washing them in the nearest stream, and then following with loving finger-tip those scratches and striations which bear so romantic a message. Like many others he doubtless pressed the cherished pebbles against his cheek, and verified practically, long years before he wrote it down in a printed book, the statement that they are smoothed and polished. Like many another also he probably early got into trouble for transferring in the course of his investigations more of the sticky tenacious deposit to his garments than was good for them, and was often under the sad necessity of discarding a proportion of the much-loved and much-fingered witnesses of an earlier age, because their abundance made the collection grow with unreasonable rapidity. But there is reason to believe that his early interest in the rocks was not confined to glacial phenomena, but was disseminated among a variety of geological subjects ; and it seems probable that the concentration of attention, throughout long years, on the Ice Age was largely due to the effect of his first work on the Survey, and to the flood of pleasurable emotion with which that work was accompanied.

But it must not be supposed that his work, even in the early years, was confined to the mapping of the superficial deposits. So early as 1863 he was already doing solid geology, and thereafter went on with the mapping of solid and superficial deposits at the same time. But while he did much good work quite apart from glacial questions, and was interested in many kinds of geological problems, it was the history of the Ice Cap of Europe which especially appealed to him. His holidays—brief in early days.—were devoted to the study of glacial phenomena outside his own region. His leisure hours, spent by some of his colleagues in fishing or other forms of sport, or in visiting, were largely devoted to keeping himself abreast of the literature of the subject; and this was also one of the motives which led him to study languages so assiduously, with the result that he was able to make first-hand acquaintance with the papers of all the continental geologists who wrote on his own subject.

If, however, throughout his long life his geological first love commanded his unswerving devotion, it was not because the charms of other paths did not appeal to him. Some of the letters speak of an ardent desire, apparently never gratified, to deal thoroughly with Carboniferous problems, to which his attention was drawn during his prolonged and toilsome mapping of the Lanarkshire coalfield; and in an interesting letter to the writer, which dates from the early part of 1909, he speaks of other questions which had also always attracted him. Some passages from this letter may be quoted :—

Curious how the revision of old charts of the Mediterranean have re-awakened my interest in the structure of that basin or series of basins ! At one time I had a notion of writing a detailed memoir on the subject, but I found it would be necessary to visit many parts of the Mediterranean coast-lands which I had not seen and to revisit other parts which I had looked at. I still think there is. much interesting work awaiting investigation there—the Italian geologists seem to me to have missed the meaning of some of the evidence which their own maps supply! If I were only twenty years younger I believe I should start off at once—that bothering glacial work quite drew me away from the Mediterranean problems. Now there is no hope for me, unless on the other side of time I may be permitted to resume investigations. In that case I shall be independent of railways, steamboats, and even motor cars, while I presume no hotel accommodation will be required. Perhaps by means of telepathy I may be able to communicate results to you as Editor of the Magazine. Unfortunately, however, it would seem from the records of the Psychical Society, that when one becomes disembodied and is interviewed by his bereaved and sorrowing friends he is invariably found to have become little better than a drivelling idiot, having lost any sense he may at one time have possessed. Instead of enlightening you on the origin of the Mediterranean, I may be anxious rather to get you to inform my wife where she will find the discharged account of some nefarious tradesman who is dunning her for a sum of 2s. 6d. which I had already paid.

The letter shows that he realised what his devotion had cost him; but when we reflect not only upon what he himself accomplished but on the extraordinary stimulus which his conclusions, some of which were at first fiercely criticised, gave to the investigation of glacial problems by others, here, on the Continent, and in America, we can hardly believe that he regretted seriously his own whole-heartedness. The period of his working life, from 1861 onwards till his death, witnessed an extraordinary change in the views of geologists upon problems connected with ice, saw an enormous output of material in the way of papers and articles and books, and the world has to be grateful to James Geikie for both directly and indirectly opening its eyes to much that was previously hidden.

His glacial work and its significance are alike discussed by Dr Flett in the second part of this volume, and need not be treated here, but a word or two is necessary to explain the intense interest which glacial problems aroused among all the Survey men during the period we are considering, and in James Geikie in particular. A quotation from a letter of thanks written by Charles Darwin, after receiving a copy of the second edition of The Great Ice Age, will throw some light upon this. The letter is dated 26th October 1876, and Darwin says:—"The subject [i.e., the Ice Age] is one which fascinates me, chiefly owing to a little incident which I will mention as showing the grand progress of geology. When I was a boy an acute old gentleman who had attended to geology and natural history showed me a boulder in Shropshire, and assured me solemnly that the world would pass away before any one could explain how this great stone came from Cumberland or Scotland. This made a deep impression on me, and you may believe how delighted I was some forty years ago when floating ice action was first broached, to be followed some years afterwards by glacier action."

We see from this letter that the thought of the mystery of the great boulder haunted Darwin for years, but the young geologists of the Survey were confronted not with one boulder, but, day after day, week after week, with an accumulation of only half-explained mysteries. When they started work the view that a large part of the British Islands had been covered by land ice, and that the boulder-clay was the record of its passage, had, after a period of neglect, again come into prominence; but it was very far from being universally accepted (see the historical discussion in Part II.). Then, and for many years to come, the view that the boulder-clay, erratics, and so forth had been dropped by floating icebergs still commanded many followers. The suggestion that there was not one Glacial Period only but a series of advances and retreats, with well-marked inter-glacial periods between, had yet to be born. Thus the subject was a burning one at the moment, and in their meetings, whether in the field or, when the field-work was done for the season, at headquarters, the members of the Survey had much to discuss and to tell, 'many fragments of evidence to piece together. They seem all to have been greatly interested in the subject; but that James Geikie made it so peculiarly his own was partly due to the constructive imagination which enabled him to visualise, in a series of brilliant flashes, not the country as he saw it, but the former conditions to which it bore testimony. This constructive imagination was aided also, as has been indicated, by constant toil and by ceaseless comparison, by means both of personal visits and through the writings of others, of local conditions with those of other regions and of other lands.

It is also not without significance to note that his own first work, and indeed generally most of his Survey work throughout his period of service, lay in what is described as the peripheral area of the old glaciation. In any area which is or has been glaciated it is possible to distinguish between a central area where erosion is at a maximum, and where the evidence of the existence of former ice-sheets is almost necessarily masked by the work of later glaciers, and a peripheral area where ice work takes the form of deposition. In this latter area it is often possible to unravel the complex evidence to an extent sufficient to determine the question whether more than one Glacial Period existed or not. It was to this problem that James Geikie devoted much of his attention, and this fact must be regarded as largely explained by the other that his geological field-work was done in Lowland rather than in Highland areas.

In so far as the details of the Survey work go, we may note that theoretically the summer was devoted to field-work and the winter to indoor work, at first either in London or at the Industrial Museum in Edinburgh, and later, after the establishment of the Survey Office in Edinburgh, at that office. But this general scheme was modified considerably by -circumstances. Summer and winter, notably, had a somewhat different sense from that which the calendar gives. For example, an entry in his official diary for 1863 states, under date 17th February:—"Pack-up in Office for country;" while in the same year field-work seemed to continue, with short interruptions, till December. In the following year, 1864, a start was made even earlier, on 1st February. That somebody was taking too optimistic a view of Scotch weather is, however, obvious from the entries in the diary, where "snow," "snow," "snow and rain," "wet day," "snow, 8 or 9 inches " follow each other with a steady persistency, which justifies the brief entry on 14th March: "Begin to grow desperate—lock up my razors." At this time Mr Peach and James Geikie were endeavouring to map the Ochils from Kinross as a centre, and Dr Peach informs the writer that the two made strenuous but mostly ineffectual efforts to get on with their outdoor work at a time when rocks and superficial deposits alike were concealed in a thick mantle of snow. Apparently, however, there were some alleviations, for one of the tantalisingly short entries in the diary mentions a "Pisgah view of Ochils," obtained apparently from Rumbling Bridge ; while Dr Peach states that out of working hours the two toiled hard at their German.

The mode of study took a direction which had some influence on James Geikie's future, and is of interest on this account. The first impetus to the study of the language came apparently from Dr Young, who was very friendly with Dr Schmitz, the Rector of the High School, whose daughter he married at a later date. Young had apparently a good knowledge of the language, and he, early in their association, urged upon Mr Peach the necessity of acquiring at least a reading acquaintance with it, and recommended the learning of German poetry as a capital means of obtaining a vocabulary. By the spring of 1864 Mr Peach had already a considerable repertory, and his recitals roused in James Geikie his old passion for verse-making. The songs were first put into rough English, with many jokes about their sentimentality, and then James Geikie turned the rough translations into English verse. This was the beginning of a pastime which he carried on during a large part of his life. A selection of the verses was published in 1887 as Songs and Lyrics by Heinrich Heine and other German Poets. In the preface the author says that all the renderings there given were done "for his own amusement in those 'brave days of youth,' when difficulties and impossibilities are hardly recognised." Many of the verses were published practically unaltered after more than twenty years' interval, for most of them were made in very early days. They occur in letters, in note-books, diaries, and in various other places among his papers of the later sixties, and were evidently a true labour of love.

As frequent mention has been made of the diaries, it may be well to state that these for the most part contain little or nothing save the barest records of mapping done, hours of work, memoranda as to expenses, and so forth. Those of the first year or two, however, not unnaturally, since the work was entirely new, are a little fuller. That for 1862, if it ever existed, does not seem to have been preserved; but 1863 contains one or two interesting entries, which emphasise still further the point already made as to the enthusiasm, plans, and ambitions with which the Survey was entered. On its first leaf the following lines are written:—"Was not so old last year as I am this—fact for the curious biographer who is no doubt destined to reap immortality by the interesting use he will make of the copious entries in this diary." But as for many weeks afterwards the "curious biographer" finds no written word beyond the statement that drawing pens were bought at an outlay of 1s. 6d., it is to be feared that no superstructure in regard to an expectation of future fame can be built upon the entry. The corresponding page on next year's diary is more prosaic, for it bears only a series of "Memoranda" which include an injunction to get a wife when income allows, and to have only three children, two boys and one girl. Rather oddly there is a letter extant which announces the birth of his third child, many years later, and bewails the fact that it is another boy, when a girl would have "rounded off the family so nicely." The much-loved daughter did not appear on the scene till many years afterwards.

From the 1863 diary two short entries may be quoted, for they stand side by side on the same page, and are in many ways very characteristic of the man. The first relates to a day spent in indoor work, though with the careful corollary that this was not due to the weather. Opposite this formal entry is written:— "Mouth filled with cursings and my heart with evil thoughts, all owing to the squalling and girning of an ill-natured, red-headed, unwashed, petted, fractious imp—the son and heir of our landlord, the shepherd." Some of the epithets have been omitted —the provocation was doubtless extreme!

The following day was spent in the open air, and opposite stands this:—"Meet J. Y. on top of Black Law; walk back to Summerhope by way of the old churchyard. Exquisite moonlight night. Scene inexpressibly sad—feel of course very sentimental; and have a whole troop of depressing thoughts and reminiscences,—some of which cause me to heave sighs like the bellows of the Village Blacksmith. The ingenious biographer will never guess what these sighs were for, nor have I any intention of enlightening him."

Finally, we may note that the holidays of the years 1863 and 1864 were both spent in Scotland, the first on the shores of the Solway and on the coast of Ayrshire; the second on the Moray Firth, then north to Brora and south-west to Fort William and Oban. Both seem to have been largely devoted to geological work, but were on a less ambitious scale than many of those of later years.

The late spring and summer of 1864 saw James Geikie beginning work in Ayrshire, where he was stationed for some years. With the end of 1864 we may say that his introductory period of life on the Survey closed.


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