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James Geikie
Chapter III. "The Great Ice Age": (1) Years of Preparation, 1865-71


The year 1865 saw James Geikie, as already stated, doing Survey work in Ayrshire, and this, with its continuation, the laborious and sometimes tedious mapping of the Lanarkshire coalfield, kept him in the west till 1872. Of these years of patient toil, diversified by independent research upon the drifts, by geological holidays, and by the making of translations of Heine and other German poets, comparatively little has been preserved. His correspondents in these early days were chiefly the members of his own family, and most of his letters have been destroyed, except where the presence of some cherished verses determined their preservation. From the scanty records in the diaries, from the few letters that remain, and from the published account of his surveys, it is, however, possible to indicate broadly the course of his daily life.

In 1865 he was stationed in South Ayrshire, Girvan and Cumnock being two of his centres there. The most notable event of the year, however, was a visit to Norway in July to August. Unfortunately, only the barest notes of this visit remain/ and, except for the descriptions of fiord scenery in Prehistoric Europe and elsewhere, we do not know what impressions were obtained.

It was apparently chiefly a steamboat journey, with short excursions to glaciers and other areas of special interest to the traveller. Boat was taken from Newcastle to Aalesund, then vid Molde and Christiansund (where a brief note records an exquisite sunset about eleven, with sunrise following at one) to Trondhjem. After a day in this town the journey was continued to Rbdo and Melbvar. From this point a trip was made in a boat with four men for twenty miles up the fiord to visit the Fondalen ice-field. Several days were spent here, and various glaciers were visited and presumably studied. A return was then made to Melovar, and the steamer journey continued to Tromso. After a day here James Geikie went on to Skjervo, where he arrived at 2 a.m., as is carefully recorded, and put up at a merchant's house, no inn being available. Here he was most hospitably . received, and enjoyed his brief glimpse of a Norwegian interior. Next day a boat was taken across the fiord to the Jokul-fjeld, and an apparently profitable excursion, which included icebergs and icefalls among the objects seen, ended at a fisherman's cot at midnight. Next day was spent idling about, because the wind was adverse, which suggests that the boat was a sailing-boat, and the start was not made till evening, so that the whole night was passed on the water, Skjervo not being reached till six in the following morning. Two days were spent here, and then the steamer taken to Loppen, from which an excursion was made to Bergsfiord, where the glacier was visited. Another excursion was made to Oksfjord, and the steamboat rejoined as far as Hammerfest, the furthest point reached. On the return journey the call at Christiansund permitted of an expedition, taken in company with the geologist Dr Dahll, .during which a "fierce controversy" took place. Finally, a Dutch steamer brought the traveller from Bergen to England after what must have been a most instructive tour.

The following year, 1866, found him still in Ayrshire. Little record of it is left, beyond the tale of work, and the publication of his first scientific paper. By this time he had moved to the north of Ayrshire, where he was also in the following year. This year, 1867, witnessed the appearance of his first glacial paper, this being "On the Buried Forests and Peat Mosses of Scotland, and the Changes of Climate which they indicate," a subject which was to engage his attention more or less closely for the remainder of his life. His spare time was still occupied with the translations, many examples of which occur in his letters to his sisters. Occasionally his muse took less serious forms, as may be seen from the lines given oh next page, which appear in a letter much of which is taken up with translations from "that lugubrious poet in whose stanzas the word weinen is rarely omitted—it may be sweetly rendered by the English whining." The lines mentioned follow some criticisms of the habits of the inhabitants of an Ayrshire town, where the society, in James Geikie's words, was "eminently peeous and drouthie." The lines are as follows:—

Takin' toddy a' the week,
Comes the Sabbath day,
Then to Kirk three times they gang,
And sleep the fumes away.

In the same letter he complains that in this particular town the invariable question put to you by strangers whose acquaintance you make is, ''What church do you attend?" He adds that he had not acquired the reputation of a regular churchgoer, so that one suspects that something less than the three times a day had to suffice in his case. From this period probably dates an anecdote which he used to tell himself of a somewhat unfortunate visit to a place of worship where, tired out by his week's work in the open air, and not perhaps greatly interested in the discourse, he fell asleep so soundly as ultimately to fall out of the pew—at the end of which he was sitting—headlong into the aisle. He had the presence of mind to remain there with his eyes closed, and was carried out by sympathetic acquaintances, who thought he had been suddenly overtaken by serious illness. But when the feet of the young men were already at the door, the apparently unconscious patient opened his eyes and winked at one of his friends to indicate that the fate of Eutychus had not overtaken him on this occasion. The bearer opposite, with an innocence which did credit to his piety, had not thought of the obvious explanation of the accident, and in his astonishment nearly dropped his burden. History does not, unfortunately, tell whether his loyalty enabled him to keep the matter to himself and so preserve his friend's reputation. For these, it must be remembered, were days when a geologist invariably ran the risk of being suspected of "unsoundness," by the mere fact of his occupation, and was, therefore, one for whom jesting on the threshold of a church was particularly dangerous.

In this year of 1867 Mr (now Dr) John Home joined the Survey, and very shortly afterwards made James Geikie's acquaintance. There thus began a friendship which lasted to the end. Almost from the first Mr Home shared Geikie's enthusiasm for glacial work, and so early as 2nd April 1868 a letter from the latter to one of his sisters records the fact that "Young Home has got me a lot of information, and I shall certainly get a lot more." From this time, indeed, James Geikie constantly asked his colleagues for notes about the glacial phenomena in the areas they were respectively surveying, and for friendship's sake was freely supplied with these. Thus in the course of time he acquired a large amount of detailed information about the different parts of Scotland, with answers to many questions which cropped up in the course of his own investigations. It was not till his early papers, and especially the publication of The Great Ice Age, had attracted the attention of a wider circle of geologists, that this correspondence was enlarged to include most parts of the civilised world. As we shall see later, his early foreign letters gave him great pleasure, even though, until he realised the value of a feeling for languages and a good stock of dictionaries, he had often to ask for help in their translation.

A few lines from a letter to Mr Home, written from Eaglesham on 8th May 1868, may help to show the kind of work he was doing, and reveal also those characteristics which made his colleagues willing to give him all the help they could:—

Dear Young Man,—I hope you are still in the land of the living and the place of hope wherever that may be. These lines I write unto you not that your joy may be full but that you may know that I take (I won't say a fatherly) interest in your welfare, but any other kind of interest you like but self-interest. What are you about, and how do you like the work? Is the Drift blinding your eyes and do you yet see as through a glass darkly? I suppose your Boulder-clay in the high grounds will give you no bother. If you get any gravel will you be so good as let me know whether it occurs in valleys whose watershed is over or under 1000 feet?

Mr Home was then working in the Nith valley,: being stationed at Thornhill. James Geikie by this time had moved from Ayrshire into Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire.

But the great event of 1868, apart from the publication of two more glacial papers, was a trip up the Rhine and on to Switzerland, of which one of the note-books contains a very full and jovial record, which has been supplemented by the recollections of some of the surviving members of the party, who were all Survey men. The record is too long to quote in full, but certain passages may be given. The opening gives so lively a picture of the party, and of the rollicking spirits with which they started, that it cannot be omitted. In connection with the informality of tone, it must be remembered that the diary was only a private record of a gay holiday. It is interspersed, quite characteristically, by very neat diagrams and sketches, and details of the geological observations, which were no doubt worked up afterwards.

Wednesday, 29th July 1868.

Edinburgh to London—Peach, Skae, Home, and Archie in company. Arrive infernally hungry and dirty at St Catherine's dock. Have to swear at a cabman, etc. This of course was Thursday, 30th. Friday, 31st—Start in the Orion for Antwerp— ship none of the best, but passable. Of course a number of English on board. None of them I know. Have a kind of luncheon and satisfy hunger pangs. Brisk breeze gets up towards the afternoon, and puts to flight notions of dinner in the respective buzzums of Skae, Home, and Archie. Peach and I wait so long that our hunger vanishes. Ladies laid out in corpse-like fashion all over the deck, and a good deal of basin work performed. Two very pretty English girls on board—as pretty I think as I ever saw before. Both hold up for a while, but after a time they give in and close up their eyes like daisies. Skae off to bed—Home having meanwhile mysteriously disappeared. Archie follows suit. I smoke, and Peach in despair hovers about the door of the feeding saloon in hopes of being able to see something like preparations for tea. Tea at last! Only 5 out of nearly 150 passengers sit down—one of them a lady. Peach and I make a furious onslaught to make up for loss of dinner. Home, to our surprise, enters, tastes a cup of tea and beats a hasty retreat. The place is close and stifling, and the sounds issuing from the surrounding berths make appeals which cannot be resisted. Peach and I make for the deck, where the fresh air revives us, and I finish off my meal with a pipe.

There follow, by one of the sudden transitions in which the diary abounds, notes on the colour of the water, and on the jellyfish seen.

A night's sleep seems to have restored the party, for they landed at Antwerp the following morning apparently all in good spirits, and after a stroll round the town took train for Cologne, passing Liege, "which lies beautifully in a lovely wooded valley," en route. After a short visit to Cologne—"here I was pleased to find Heine's good Christopher in the Dom "—the party went on by boat to Konigswinter. "Sail up the Rhine not very interesting, but the evening is exquisite and the flat country looks well." At Konigswinter they spent some days—very hot ones—climbing the Siebengebirge and geologising, with lighter intervals. One of the interludes may be mentioned:—"Peach swam across the Rhine in twelve minutes (before breakfast)."

After a day or two at Konigswinter the party went down the Rhine to Bonn, to see Prof. Zirkel there and to visit the museum. Bonn is somewhat briefly dismissed:—"This is a lost day. I hate Bonn . . . hooked it back to Konigswinter — and loafed about." At Bonn the party met Sir Roderick Murchison, then Director-General of the Geological Survey, profanely called "the Duke" in the diary, for his mannerisms made a strong appeal to the sense of humour of the more lively members of the party. The veteran geologist—or at least so the juniors asserted—graduated his greetings in careful accordance with the official position of each. But the old chiefs genuine interest in geology was shown by his eager questions about the recent results of the Survey work in the Southern Uplands.

Finally Konigswinter was left, "with regret," for the Laacher See, a detailed visit to the Eifel country being one of the great objects of the tour. James Geikie's early work in the Ochils had aroused his interest in volcanic phenomena, and his geological notes in regard to the next section of the tour are singularly full.

The party took steamer to Brohl, and then drove to the lake, being, as is carefully recorded, cheated both by the boatman who took them off the steamer and by the driver. Perhaps the fact accounts for the next entry:—"I have seen prettier places than the Laacher See." The party had an introduction, obtained presumably through Prof. Zirkel, to one of the fathers at Laach Abbey, and he and a companion accompanied them on a tour round the lake, in order to point out the objects of geological interest. A trip to the Bausenberg was also made. Next day the members of the party walked to Niedermendig to see the famous quarries there. Here they tasted the beer stored in the caverns, and characteristically—for James Geikie did not have to wait for Mr Chesterton to sing the merits of beer—the diary devotes nearly equal space to the geology and the beverage. "It was deliciously cold and I like the flavour. I had heard much of the coldness of this beer, viz., that no one could drink more than a small glassful at a time. But I found no difficulty in taking down a good pint, and if I had not had the mine to get out of, I could easily have stowed away double the quantum."

Some other interesting excursions were made in the neighbourhood of the Laacher See, in company with the friendly monks, and then finally the party set off in a farm wagon for a thirty-mile drive to Daun, in the heart of the Eifel country, over very rough roads. The vehicle was cheap, but this seems to have been its only merit, and the driver, a prosperous peasant with money in the bank, as he explained to them, had the disadvantage of not knowing the way. The journey took over twelve hours, and when the tired party reached the village it was to find that it' was market - day there, and rooms were difficult to obtain, so that the weary scientists had to seek lodgings where they could, some in an inn, where they were "nearly eaten up with fleas," and others in a private house. After a day here, another long drive was taken to Bertrich, where the better hotels, an indirect result of the local medicinal springs, revived the drooping spirits of the diarist. Unfortunately the bill next morning proved that the presence of the visitors had another effect also, and the tone of the diary again becomes subdued, till, after a long drive, the Moselle was reached, and its scenery had a restorative effect.

At Cochem the geologists engaged a boat and two men to row them forty miles down the Moselle to Coblentz. The first twenty miles, it is carefully explained, were delightful; but darkness came on long before the destination was reached, and it was midnight before an unwilling dockkeeper allowed the boat to enter Coblentz. But in spite of the fatigue and tedium of the long journey, the diarist expresses himself as highly delighted with the trip.

Coblentz did not make a favourable impression on the travellers, and the diary contains some caustic remarks on the Prussian soldiers, with whom the town was full, and on the Prussian officers whose manners at table in the hotel were a trial to persons accustomed to place reliance upon a fork rather than a knife as an implement for conveying food into the mouth. The subject is one which recurs more than once, for James Geikie, who was singularly susceptible to feminine charm, seemed to resent strongly the general lack of it among the German ladies met with, and could not reconcile himself to the sight of a Fraulein disposing of peas by a method whose only advantage was its rapidity. If the sound reflection that a lady who habitually uses a broad-bladed knife for this purpose is rarely so clumsy as to slit her mouth completely from ear to ear in the process occurred to him, it evidently afforded no consolation, and he found it difficult to sit out a meal in a German hotel if peas entered into the menu. He himself attempted no missionary work, however, though he records meeting two "Yankees," one of whom "had induced one or two German ladies to use their forks instead of their knives for pitching in the victuals. They were surprised, they told him, that the fork could do the work so nicely!"

At Coblentz two of the party, Messrs Home and Skae, turned back, while the rest went on to Goarshausen, where they passed a delightful couple of days. "It is one of the prettiest spots in all the Rhine country." The next stop was at Heidelberg, where the customary sights were visited, and the scarred countenances of the students commented on with true British disgust; the journey was then continued via Basle, Berne, Thun, and Interlaken to Grindelwald. Here the famous guide Peter Michel was engaged, and the party spent "a most interesting day" on the glaciers. "The ice phenomena were well seen, but best on the lower glacier." So successful was the excursion that it was resolved, though all were inexperienced, to make the crossing of the Strahlegg to the Grimsel. Bad weather made it necessary to stop two nights at the Baregg hut, and of these and the day's imprisonment an amusing description is given. On the second day the weather cleared and the chalet was left at five, and, after a tiring day, the party reached the Grimsel at six in the evening, some of the members being much fatigued. Some interesting observations were made en route. From the Grimsel the party made their way down the Rhone valley to Lake Geneva, and at this point the diary ends abruptly. The excursion, it is clear, was one of great interest, and coupled with the previous visit to Norway, must have played an important part in helping James Geikie to visualise the Europe of the Ice Age.

The next three years, 1869, 1870, and 1871, were spent for the most part in hard and continuous work on the coalfields, though in all three years the published papers, no less than the letters, show that all the energy which could be spared from the daily routine was being given to glacial work.

In the spring of 1869 James Geikie started work at Carluke, and an entertaining letter to his mother has been preserved, dated from here on 4th April. It is long and largely about family affairs, but a few quotations may be made, for the tone throws light upon the character both of mother and son. The letter begins abruptly as follows:—

This being a day of rest not only for the beasts that do the work of men, but also for the men that do the work of beasts, it behoveth me thy son to throw aside the cares of the world and the many humbugs that do so easily beset me, and to refresh my soul and peradventure thine also by inditing these few words, to the intent that thou, O my maternal parent! may know of a surety that I thy son am well, and that thy two daughters who sojourn with me here in the wilderness are even as I am. . . .

Write unto me, O my maternal parent! and tell me how it fareth with thy trees which yield fruit of their kind, and with the flowers which thou dost tend in the house that is heated with pipes and hot water in the pipes. And say unto my paternal parent that he hath forgotten me—that I am even as one of the dead—that I long to see the writing of his hand.

Here many friends visit me not—but I am not grieved—and my waistcoats grow tight about me. . . .

Thy daughters salute thee and the paternal—so I salute ye all in like manner. My blessing abide with ye—and in the bonds of love I subscribe myself.—Yours affectionately.

Other family letters in the same year are written from Hamilton, one, dated 19th July, containing the information in regard to his translations that "I have so many now that I think if I go on for a month or so longer I shall have enough to make a small volume."

The allusion to fruit-trees, in the letter quoted above, it is interesting to note, was especially to a pear-tree which grew in the garden of the house in Duncan Street where the family lived at this time. The house is one of two which a few years ago were converted by the Edinburgh School Board into a special school, and in the course of the alterations the jargonelle pear-tree, which figures in many of the family letters, was cut down. It seems to have been a prolific bearer in its prime, and in one of his letters James Geikie alludes to receiving a basket of the fruit, and at the same time to the prolonged silence of the members of the family, which he explains as the result of the "pear-disease," i.e., the absorption of his sisters in the task of consuming the fruit. He himself sends some rhymes in return for his share.

The year 1870 finds him still busy on the coalfield, his diary for that year being full of notes of appointments with people connected with the pits, while he seems to have been constantly moving from place to place in Lanarkshire.

Two letters from Prof. Ramsay in July of this year have an historical interest. The first suggests a joint tour on the Rhine to solve a geological problem, and is followed almost at once by another, saying, "Now I fear my Rhine journey-is blown to the winds. . . . This most wicked and accursed war will upset half the Continent of Europe, and it is by no means impossible that we may be dragged into it"—upon which one feels disposed to make the comment that if we had been it is possible that infinite suffering might have been saved forty-four years later! A letter from James Geikie to Mr Home, written later in the same year, says:— "My holidays, I think I told you, were all botched. I could not get abroad, and I had nowhere particular to go at home."

At this time he was stationed at Salsburgh by Holytown, where he made several friends, notably Dr Grossart, with whom afterwards he kept up a correspondence for many years.

In the letter to Mr Home quoted above he says:—"I have been doing a little at those German translations, and have now finished the volume, and am on the outlook for a publisher who won't cheat me. I wish to have the thing published this winter" —a wish which was not, however, fulfilled for many winters. In the same letter he adds:—"I am still among coal . . . but Xmas is coming, and then one will have an opportunity of washing the dirt away. I like this place very well. The house is clean, and the district is moory—just on the outskirts of the great coalfield. I mean to work out as much as I can from here so as to shorten my stay in Glasgow, of which (I) got tired. After all there is nothing like the free fresh air of the country."

The next year, 1871, saw the finishing up of the coalfield work, and simultaneously the beginnings of a gathering together of the accumulated mass of glacial material which was a year or two later to take shape in The Great Ice Age. Letters in the early part of the summer to Mr Home contain detailed plans for a tour in the Hebrides "for the purpose of ascertaining the direction of ice-striae, and quizzing the drifts." It proved impossible for his friend to join him, and the tour was made in company with Mr William Galloway, one of many friends made in the west.

Mr Galloway has kindly supplied a few notes on the tour. The two sailed from Glasgow to Stornoway by the Crinan Canal, and walked to the north point of the island, carrying their belongings with them. Both had a special purpose in view, James Geikie being engaged, of course, in studying glacial action, while his friend had been commissioned to investigate the possibility of establishing a meteorological station at the lighthouse on the Butt of Lewis. On their way back to Barvas they came across an old highland woman who made cups and saucers of unbaked clay. James Geikie was much interested in her work, and ordered a set. It was despatched to Lady (then Mrs) Ramsay, the wife of Prof. Ramsay, then Senior Director of the Geological Survey {cf. Part II.), as a sample of prehistoric ware from the Outer Hebrides. The joke was explained later, but not before, or so it is asserted, some high archaeological authorities in London had been taken in by the "primitive" appearance of the work.

The travellers, presumably on the homeward journey, began a joint composition in heroic verse describing their adventures; but this masterpiece seems never to have been committed to paper, and perhaps never progressed very far.

The tour was apparently short, for James Geikie writes from Bathgate, under date 28th November:— "This last year has been a year of close work and some anxiety, and not having had any holiday to speak of I feel jaded and down in the mouth."

In all his letters of this year he speaks of his laborious work among the collieries, and his notebooks are filled with the usual details of appointments made and notes of information received from different quarters. The following spring saw him in more congenial surroundings in the Border counties, and this chapter may fitly end with the completion of his coalfield work. It may be added, however, that letters from Ramsay, received at the close of the year, and dealing with the problems raised by James Geikie's paper on "Changes of Climate during the Glacial Epoch," a paper of which Ramsay thought highly, show clearly what the years of preparation had done for him, despite their almost ceaseless toil.

It must not be supposed, however, that life was made up of nothing but toil, alleviated by occasional holidays. For many years a considerable amount of the Survey work was done in London, and parts of many winters were spent there. In addition to the Survey men, James Geikie had a considerable number of friends and acquaintances in London, his father's musical connections opening various musical and artistic circles to him. Both in scientific and artistic circles his social gifts were much appreciated, and he himself must have found the winter glimpses into a wider social life than he could find either in the country districts or in the smaller towns of Scotland a most welcome change.


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