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James Geikie
Chapter VI. Last Years on the Survey, 1878-82


The spring of 1878 saw James Geikie engaged in active correspondence with Prof. Ramsay in regard to their joint paper on the Gibraltar work, and also occupied, in his own words, in fighting with wild beasts at Ephesus and elsewhere, that is to say, in sundry controversies over glacial matters.

His happiness at home was clouded by the severe illness of his little son. In his letters he speaks of being knocked up with night-nursing, for he walked up and down the greater part of the night with the child in his arms during the most anxious period. Happily the baby made a good recovery, and in a letter to Mr Home towards the end of the year he says:—"'The boy' is hale and flourishing, and a great amusement in the evenings when I come home. I prefer his company even to that of a pipe! Excuse the 'eavy fawther.'" He was very fond of children at all times, and his own were a source of great joy to him.

In summer he went back to the Cheviot region for a couple of months to finish off his work there, and revisited Buchtrig. It was during this visit that he met Sir George Douglas (cf. p. 67). In August he went abroad with his wife and her sister, the baby, now quite recovered, being left with his grandmother. The tour was via the Rhine to Switzerland, and then across the St Gothard by carriage into Italy. Some interesting letters to the home people record the experiences met with, but as the ground covered is very well known they need not be quoted here. During the course of the tour some geological observations were made bearing on points treated in Prehistoric Europe, which was being written during this year.

Signs of overwork and some worry were, however, observable as the year went on. In an undated letter to Mr Home he complains of not feeling good for much:—"I was busy at a new book, but being in the blues now for some time, the MS. lies aside, and I sometimes wonder whether I shall ever finish it. I thought my trip abroad would have cleared up my faculties, but no such luck!"

Among his causes for anxiety were his own future and that of the Survey. Prof. Ramsay's health was breaking down, a fact which grieved James Geikie very much, and the possibility that difficult days for the Survey and its members were coming loomed ahead. In an unwonted fit of melancholy he says in the same letter:—"It makes one sad to think that the 'brave days of old' are all passing or past away. One gets sick of the strife and din and wishes for peace and rest, which, however, will only come when one shuts his eyes for the last time." He found also that his distance from a good library was a great drawback in his work. The letter, with all its sadness, speaks of the pleasure which he found in the company of the " small chick," who seems to have had a potent charm wherewith to dispel his father's clouds of gloom.

Among the letters of the spring of 1879 are several to Mr Lamplugh, now of the Geological Survey. In regard to these Mr Lamplugh says:— "I do not know that they contain anything that is now of sufficient consequence to warrant their reproduction. But they illustrate very well the kindly attention and trouble that the late Prof. Geikie was always ready to give to a beginner in science. I was under twenty years of age when the first of these letters came to me, and I have kept them as treasures from those days."

The letters in their friendliness and unaffectedness bear out this description, and some other letters of the same period show that while the writer was never deaf to the appeal of a common interest in the progress of knowledge, when to this was added the stronger appeal of friendship, he gave himself wholeheartedly. His friends Messrs Peach and Home had written a paper on "The Glaciation of the Shetland Islands" for the Geological Society of London, and in this James Geikie took the keenest interest, giving advice freely both on the method of presenting the contents, and on the technical points connected with the effort to obtain for the paper a fair hearing and speedy publication. A hitch in the matter of publication brings from him a letter full of genuine and practical sympathy, combined with a whole-hearted espousal of his friends' cause.

During this spring also he was still engaged, with varying fortunes, upon his Prehistoric Europe, a task of great magnitude on account of the enormous number of references and the labour which these involved. Thus a letter written early in March represents, as it were, the trough of the wave—he tires of the book at intervals, thinking it will never do, and throws it aside in a "kind o' scunner." Another letter at the end of May shows him on the crest of a new wave of enthusiasm. He had just received many new pamphlets from "furrin' parts," mostly inspired by his own glacial work, often accompanied by letters from the authors. Thus he says:—

Dr A. Penck of Leipzig writes to the effect that it was the reading of Great Ice Age that first opened his eyes to the meaning of the Diluvium of Northern Germany. He says he has got evidence of three glaciations with intervening glacial deposits! He says he has all the burning enthusiasm of a convert! His letter has greatly gratified me, of course. I see he is an old hand and has done a lot of geological work. Then I have a long letter from a Dr R. Lehmann of Halle, who is also congratulatory at the success with which the German Drifts have recently been explained on the principles laid down in my book!! Also, some duffers have sent me their photographs ! I wonder what has so suddenly wakened them up. Helland has a long and interesting paper on the German Drift which I suppose you will see: also a batch of papers on same subject from Prof. Berendt of Berlin. I don't know how I am to get through all the Swedish and Norwegian papers I have received. They are so hard to read.

A postscript to this letter says:—" Pray excuse the exulting egotism of this epistle. I would not write so to anyone else."

But while glacial work was thus occupying most of his attention, lighter subjects were not altogether forgotten. In another letter to Mr Home, written on Good Friday, he says:—

In a few days I am going to ask you to do me a favour, which is to run your eye over some MS. I shall send you. You need not read it all through—that would be too much of a good thing—but just dip into it here and there, and see what it is like. You will laugh when I tell you that the MS. is poetry, translations from the German. These have been lying beside me for some ten or twelve years. I was urged by several friends of good judgment to publish them long ago. But I would not be induced to do so, so I laid them aside until I had quite forgotten them and could read them and criticise them as if they had been the lucubrations of another man. They bore this better than I expected, and I gathered together all I could find and have had them copied out and stitched into a volume.

It is perhaps needless to say that this MS. was the translation of Heine's poems, of which mention has already been made here repeatedly. The intention to publish at this time was abandoned, partly because of the possible effect on the "new book," i.e., Prehistoric Europe.

During this spring James Geikie was also corresponding with Dr Helland on glacial topics, and had arranged to accompany him to the Faroe Islands, to study the glacial phenomena there. A start was made at the end of May, and the two spent a delightful time together. Prof. Helland's knowledge of the language being a great help. James Geikie's paper on his observations was published a year or two [later, and his note-books contain long descriptions of his experiences, with many sketches and diagrams. A more informal account is given in a letter to Mrs Johnston of Crailing Hall:—

I enjoyed my trip very much though I had to rough it more than most people would care to do. But what I saw was quite enough to make me forget all discomforts. Perhaps the most striking features of the Faroe Islands are their sea-cliffs. These range in height from 300 feet to 2000 feet. I sailed in a little boat round a large part of the coast-line and was very much impressed. The cliffs rise sheer up out of deep water, seeming in some places almost to overhang. Fancy the sun shining brightly on a great wall of brown rock 2000 feet high—a wall which shows an infinite number of little shelves and ledges, and all these ledges thickly set with sea-birds in myriads, while the air is filled with them, wheeling and screaming above you, and the water is alive with them swimming, diving, floating, and capering ! The great Atlantic rollers come smoothly up to the base of the cliffs and sweep into the caves, only to rush out again with a hoarse roar, and a wild splash of spray and broken water.

Not very long after his return from the Faroes, at the end of July, his second son was born.

Several letters from Prof. Ramsay, on the Faroes work and other subjects, in the course of the summer show the friendly terms upon which the two were. Thus in announcing that he (Ramsay) had been chosen President of the British Association for the Swansea meeting in 1880, he adds:—"And unless you write the Presidential Address for me, I will take steps to have you dismissed from the Survey!" Unfortunately for James Geikie, the time during which Ramsay had anything to say upon Survey matters was fast drawing to a close. A few days later Ramsay writes in jubilant spirits because their joint work at Gibraltar had proved correct, although certain borings had seemed at first to cast doubt upon some of their conclusions. Prof. Ramsay's feelings in the matter are expressed as follows:—"Ho ho ho! Ha ha ha! also he he he!" In the same letter Ramsay speaks of Prof. Penck's results, saying:—"It is a grand coup for you."

Among James Geikie's other correspondents this summer were Prof. Stevenson of New York, a very warm friend of later years after the two had met in the flesh, and Mr T. F. Jamieson, who like Ramsay was greatly interested in the Faroes work. Towards the end of the year he writes to Mr Home:—

I have recently got heaps of new facts from Germany, France, and Austria, not to mention Italy, which will greatly aid me in working off my present book. That same book drags its slow length along, but I hope to finish it in time for publication next year.

After giving a general sketch of the contents of the book he goes on:—

My references to foreign writers will astonish you with their "learned profundity"—what do you think of Italian, Greek, Spanish, Austrian, German, Hungarian, French, Danish, Dutch, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic references ! The time I have spent over these with grammar and dictionary, and the trouble in having others translated for me by learned pundits, are such that I will never, I think, undertake anything of the kind again. Sometimes two or three long nights' work is summed up in a short line; or even has no mention at all! I only hope the result will justify the time expended. It is all intensely interesting, however.

Perhaps it may be well to repeat in connection with this letter that this laborious work was the occupation of what should have been leisure hours, and that in addition to it James Geikie was putting in some eight or nine hours' work per day in the field or at office work, was carrying on an extensive correspondence, was lecturing in various parts of Scotland, and was writing scientific papers. Much of his writing had thus to be done by curtailing the hours of sleep, and most of those who came into close contact with him at this time regarded his capacity for work as something almost superhuman. But despite his heavy labours, this year seems to have been a happy one, and perhaps helped him to bear the period of storm and stress which was to come.

The chief incident of the following year, 1880, was the completion and publication of Prehistoric Europe, and the letters are full of allusions to it. Thus towards the end of January he writes to Mr Home:—"Still grinding away at my tome. Got about a third to write yet. The thing swells out, I am sorry to say; there is so much more to tell than I had any idea of." The severity of the strain was, however, obviously telling upon him, for only a week or two later he says:—"All at present is at a standstill. My head has given up work, and I must leave it alone a little: been going at it early and late too much!" A little later he says; again:—"I am going to rest and do nothing but read. You have no idea what a loathing one takes to paper and pen sometimes! But doubtless you have the same."

It was nearly the end of July before the MS. was finally completed, and the nature of the effort is indicated by the fact that the concluding sentences of the book were written in his sleep! He was working at it as usual till far into the night, and could not find a fitting sentence to round off the whole. After trying for some time ineffectively, he decided to leave the matter till the morning, and went off to bed, the time being 2 a.m. In his usual orderly fashion he had placed the last sheets on his writing-table, putting two books on top to prevent the papers" from being scattered by a chance draught. In the morning he found them scattered over the table, to his great disgust, for it was a stern household regulation that papers were taboo for all hands save their owner's. The maid when taxed, however, denied indignantly that she had touched them, and when the injured author gathered up his treasures he was astonished to find, written in his own handwriting, though not with his usual neatness, the sentence which now stands as the final one. Evidently he had dropped to sleep and come down to complete the unfinished task in a subconscious condition. The story shows clearly that it was time the book was done with.

But the labour did not cease with the completion -of the MS. The holiday, which began early in August, was spent partly in London, looking up final references, and partly in South Wales, with a view to making out some further glacial points. A letter to Mr Home suggests the mixed feelings which the completion of the task brought. He says:—"I am well pleased now to have the thing off my hands. I will not soon begin another such work. It is too much worry and labour—and yet pleasant withal." Later he writes:—"Now that my book is off my hands, time in the evenings hangs heavy on my hands"—the Nemesis, a psychologist would say, of overwork, for it was obviously the condition when nothing but work had become possible!

Various pleasant little incidents, however, occurred this autumn. Thus the French geologists, MM. Falsan and Chantre, sent him a copy of their Monograph on the old glaciers of the Rhone basin. In sending the book M. Falsan spoke with gratifying warmth of The Great Ice Age, and of the many new ideas which he and his confrere had obtained from its perusal. "I feel as if I shall get cocky," says James Geikie in a letter, "and, as pride goes before a fall, am beginning to dread lest Prehistoric Europe should be damned." M. Falsan also asked permission to translate The Great Ice Age into French, and there were German offers to translate both The Great Ice Age and Prehistoric Europe.

The latter appeared towards the end of November. Copies were sent, among others, to Charles Darwin and to Prof. Ramsay, whose letters in reply were a source of great gratification to James Geikie. Darwin wrote both immediately upon receipt, and later after he had read the book. In the second letter he says:— "Yours is a grand book, and I thank you heartily for the instruction and pleasure it has given me." That this was not mere flattery is apparent from the keen discussion of certain special points in which he was interested.

The next year, 1881, was one of great stress, though the tale of its external events is soon told. That Prof. Ramsay's health was failing had long been known, and though his actual resignation did not take place till the end of 1881, the fact that it was impending was obvious long before. It was also known among the Survey men that his retiral would mean extensive changes, likely to affect directly and indirectly most of the members of the staff. As has been already stated, it led to James Geikie's resignation and his acceptance of the professorship at Edinburgh University. Something must therefore be said in regard to the reasons that induced him to leave highly congenial work for a post which was not, certainly at first, wholly so, and which further, at least in early days, did not materially improve his financial position.

It must be noted first that by this time he was the author of two bulky books (produced, as we have seen, at the cost of great and continuous toil) which had been hailed at home and abroad as "epoch-making." He had correspondents in most parts of the civilised world; men of mark in their own countries had publicly acknowledged him as a leader of geological thought, a fount of inspiration, an opener up of new paths of research. At the same time, to those immediately above him he was a subordinate, with a very moderate salary, a recipient of orders, with little opportunity for initiating changes or improvements, and was living in a small provincial town, to some extent remote from the main current of public life.

Second, and this is a point which is much less familiar to the general public than in a democratic country it ought to be, his books were not of the kind which bring direct monetary reward to their author. His family was increasing, for his third son was born in this year of 1881; he himself was past forty, and the probability that he could continue to go on working for many years more at the rate at which he had been toiling during the last twenty was necessarily diminishing. Now it is universally admitted, as a general proposition, that when a man without private means has done and is doing important and highly specialised work for his country and for the world, work which does not bring direct pecuniary gain, then it is the duty of those in high places to see that he be established in such a position as to free him from financial anxiety for the future, to enable him to face his responsibilities with a calm mind, to obviate the necessity for his wasting his strength and intellect in hack-work in order to supplement his income. But, while this is admitted as a general proposition, there is always the possibility that petty personal interests will intervene in a particular case. James Geikie left the Survey partly under the pressure of such interests, which seemed to threaten his prospects of immediate promotion, and partly under that of friends who thought that the professorship offered more scope for him. Whether he was right or wrong it is difficult to say, but there is evidence that at least at first he regretted his decision. He might have quitted the Survey of his own free will, and would certainly have done this with a pang, but the thought that his decision to leave was not wholly voluntary, made the pang excessively bitter.

Many of the letters of this year of anxiety are too intimate to be quoted. We shall only insert sentences and phrases to make the narrative plain.

One of the first indications of coming events was an attack upon Prehistoric Europe in the early part of 1881, an attack which it seems quite clear was not motived wholly by an honest desire to promote the cause of science. It was this element which made the matter so hard to bear.

The affair has affected me more than I can tell. . . . You will laugh, but it is true all the same, that I can hardly eat or sleep. For the attack itself I don't mind, I know that my book is a bit of honest true work, and will outlive the attempts ... to stifle it. . . . I wish the snow would go and let me out to have a walk. Sometimes I wish that I had kept clear of writing books altogether. . . . I remember wondering once when Green told me that when he was vexed with anything a romp with his bairns made him quite hearty. It seemed to me overstrained. I don't think so now that I have bairns of my own. Their quaint and funny ways quite carry you out of yourself. . . . Dearly as I love life, I can already foresee that the time will come when I shall be glad to lie down and sleep the sleep that knows no waking. . . . Verily I do believe a good wife and loving mother is the only treasure of treasures that is worth striving for in this world! . . . How much you and I have to be thankful for!

These are a few extracts written to his friend Mr Home at the moment when the history of the incident was just becoming plain, and at a time also when Mr Home's first child had just been born ; they throw perhaps more light upon it and upon the character of James Geikie than any ordered narrative could do.

Later letters of the same spring emphasise the effect which the incident had upon him. "The whole thing," he writes in one letter, "has worried me more than I can tell; "but a journey south, where, inter alia, he lectured at Hull, and led a big geological excursion, helped to change the current of his thoughts, while his reception at Hull gratified him greatly. Fresh letters from continental geologists also, not only praising his book but discussing the bearing of his results upon their observations in various parts of Europe, must have helped to assure him that it was worth while to do honest work, despite detractors. Further, the family moved from Perth to Birnam, where they took a charming cottage at the foot of Birnam Hill, covered with roses, and with a large untidy garden. The early summer was brilliantly fine, and the fresh air and open life of the country must have made it easier to take a more philosophical view of the affair, unpleasant as it was.

The letters of early summer show at least a perceptible recovery of balance and cheerfulness. His third son was born in June, and in answer to congratulations he says:—"A third boy was a great disappointment—a girl would have 'completed' all the family any reasonable man could desire!"

The arrival of the baby prevented him from accompanying Dr Helland on a projected trip to Iceland in early summer, but, rather curiously, an opportunity to visit the island occurred a little later in the same year, for he went to report on some sulphur mines.

On 17th September he writes to Mr Home:— "I have just returned from Iceland, where I have had some very hard but very interesting work. What a country! Fancy me riding eleven hours over lava-beds, mountains, etc., devil a road or even path! However, all was fresh and new."

By this time the question of changes in the Survey was becoming acute, and James Geikie was beginning to debate with himself as to whether he ought to try for the Chair in Geology at Edinburgh for his children's sake. The indecision he found very unsettling. "I can settle to nothing — reading and writing are alike out of the question." More than a month later he writes:—"I am pulled two ways—-my own desire and wish is to remain in the Survey." "My repugnance to that Chair," he says a few days later, "increases as the days go past."

Perhaps nothing, however, shows better his fundamental repugnance to all the weighing of questions of worldly advantage, to the scheming and plotting and wire-pulling which go to the making of appointments, than a letter written to Mr Home in the thick of the conflict. This begins with an account of information which had reached him in regard to the position of affairs as to the Edinburgh Chair, and glides off insensibly into an account of letters just received from Prof. Penck and Prof. Gandry, the one a German and the other a French geologist. Both letters contained much of great interest to him, and the letter becomes a full discussion of the points raised, the question of his own future meantime sinking entirely out of mind.

Obviously he wanted to be let alone and allowed to do his work in peace, to have reasonable security for his children. In one letter he laments his own lack of worldly wisdom, and his willingness to take advice from his various friends; and the rather pathetic balancing of the advantages of one apparently possible position against another, merely meant that his mind was set on other things altogether, and that in consequence he allowed himself to be swayed by the different influences brought to bear upon him. His own candour and frankness made him singularly willing to accept advice offered under the guise of friendship, without stopping to investigate the question whether his advisers were or were not wholly disinterested. But his unwillingness to be separated from his old colleagues remains the dominant note, even when he yielded to what seemed sound arguments brought to bear upon him. His instant response to kindliness is shown by the following quotation:—"Isn't old Ramsay a trump. He wrote me a short, but such an affectionate letter that I declare I could not read it without wet eyes."

His final decision to apply for the Chair was due to the receipt of a private letter which informed him that the Home Office was prepared to appoint him immediately on his sending in an application, on the ground that he was the man obviously best fitted for the post. It was also indicated to him informally that the reputation which he had obtained owing to his books was such that any other testimonial was unnecessary. Inquiries had been made which had satisfied the Home Office that no other possible candidate had such high qualifications for the post. In announcing to his friend Mr Home the receipt of this flattering though unofficial letter, James Geikie cannot forbear adding:—"I shall quit the Survey dead against my desires. But yet I feel I am doing best for myself and for my children."

Both his natural modesty, and perhaps the painful memory of his controversy in the spring, made him uneasy about the fact that the appointment was made without, as he says, any chance being given to other possible candidates. Thus he forwarded the unasked-for testimonials, the writers including all the leading men of the day in his own branch of science. But amidst all the bustle of arranging about the testimonials, and about the leaving of his work and the finding of a house in Edinburgh, the note of regret recurs constantly. "I can't realise that I am leaving the Survey. How vexed I am—no one can tell."

Not all his own regrets, however, could quench his enthusiasm for the service he was giving up. Thus he took up cudgels with the utmost vigour for his friends on the Survey, whose interests he thought likely to be affected by certain proposed changes. These changes he thought regrettable not only on this account, but also because they seemed to him contrary to the interests of the whole Survey.

His new work at Edinburgh was not to begin till the autumn of 1882, and though the house in Edinburgh was taken in spring, the family stayed on in the country all summer, partly to let the new-made professor finish off his Survey work, and partly that all might enjoy the country air. But the respite did not ease the pain of the prospective parting:—"It makes me sad at heart when I think that the old Survey days are for me so soon to end. So life wags—some day soon I shall be ending work for good and all, and then for a long rest, and no heartaches and no headaches. My heart gets heavy whiles at the thought of leaving the green fields over which I have wandered so long and happily. After forty years of life it is almost too late to change. But what I have done I hope will turn out for the best. Anyhow, I hope you fellows will not forget the old comradeship, but come often and see me. I can't yet realise that I am leaving work in the field, and going into town to become fat, greasy, and respectable." And so the summer months slipped away, and autumn brought Edinburgh and the new sphere.


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