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James Geikie
Chapter IX. Retirement from the Professorship and Last Days, 1904-15


During 1904 Prof. Geikie began to suffer from an affection of the knee which troubled him for some years, and proved to be a form of rheumatism. In October he writes to his son telling him of the progress of his new book, which was published the next year as Structural and Field Geology for Students, and in a few years' time ran into a second edition. With his usual optimism he hoped to have it out early in the New Year, if not before, but by the following April he was still busy with proofs, and publication did not occur till June. Writing in April he says:—"The last sheet of my book will be off to the printer to-morrow, and the book itself will, I hope, appear before the end of the month. I shall feel like a fish out of water with no scribbling on hand. Nothing like it for filling up vacant hours." When writing this letter he was on the eve of starting off for a visit to Ayr, in the hope that a course of bicycling would "supple" the leg. In this, however, he was disappointed, and in summer he and Mrs Geikie went to Wildbad in Wiirtemberg, where he hoped to find a cure.

The baths, temporarily at least, did him much good, but his fellow-patients, mostly of German nationality, did not please him, and his letters are full of humorous complaints in regard to them. He was keenly interested also in the nature of the water, being convinced that its curative properties were not due to the constituents apparent on analysis but to some of the rarer elements, such as radium, present though undetected. The suggestion has been made and confirmed in regard to other waters since, but his keenness on the problem is of interest as showing that there was no; failure of mental power. His letters to his doctor son on the physiological effects of the waters are full of his old verve and clearness of exposition. Characteristically, however, he breaks off the scientific discussion to speak of the "fat Fraus and Herren," whom he and his wife daily watch "as they slowly waddle and roll to and fro" near the Trinkhalle. His impressions he sums up in the following verses:—

The typical Frau, to my British mind, Is preposterous in front and prodigious behind: Her digestion is sound—for, 'tis very clear, Her grub she dissolves in an ocean of beer. Her lord, who is equally round and obese, Rolls along by her side, with a grunt and a wheeze— Rolls along, did I say?—they do not roll far, But rotate within reasonable reach of a bar.

With perhaps some recollection of his early studies of Heine, he takes eye measurements of the average German lady, and winds up with a vivid description of an ordinary German's meal, and a disgusted— " But the most of these people are gross eaters."

During 1906, as indeed until his death, he was carrying on a constant correspondence with Prof. Stevenson of New York, in which many questions— geological, social, political, personal, and so forth— came up for discussion. Thus in January 1906 he says, speaking of his sons and their careers:—"All the birds are out of our nest now, all save one wee lassie who remains to brighten our hearts with laughter and song." By this time his eldest son was established in a practice at Ayr, the next two were working as mining engineers in Borneo, and the youngest was studying music in Germany.

During this year the rheumatic knee still troubled him, and a visit to Harrogate to try the waters there did not produce much permanent benefit. The summer was spent in Ayrshire, but was saddened by the sudden death of a favourite niece, who had been almost a daughter of the house during the long years when the family consisted only of boys, and was on holiday with her uncle and aunt at the time of the acute illness which caused her death.

In 1907 his eldest son was married, and there is a charming letter written to him on his wedding tour, with much wise advice about matrimony, mingled with personal experiences. Among other things the writer says:—"When I went on my honeymoon I took a geological hammer with me, but the geology did not count for much. I think the hammer was used chiefly for digging up roots and ferns for your mother, or for knocking off bits of rock that were covered with gay lichens." The young couple had gone to Devonshire, and this sent the father back to Herrick, and that writer's description of "dull Devonshire."

In the autumn Prof. Geikie had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Stevenson of New York, who came to London for the Centenary Celebration of the Geological Society there. At the end of November he writes to his eldest son, saying;—"My work at College is easy this winter, for I feel in much better health than I have done for two or three years. My lameness is practically cured, and I begin to think that I may yet be able to go with May to her first ball, and dance a reel with the nicest-looking girl in the room—as usual."

In the spring of 1908 Prof, and Mrs Geikie and their daughter, together with a niece, went to Portugal, which they all enjoyed greatly. In the early part of this year also the first grandchild, a little girl, was born. Another event of the year was the translation of Structural Geology into French.

The correspondence with Prof. Stevenson was still going on, and there was an interesting letter from the latter in August. He was contemplating retiral from his professorship, while Prof. Geikie had no wish to give up his own post, and the two discussed the question of the desirable age for the event. Prof. Stevenson wished to have leisure to complete some private work of his own, and his letter contains the following interesting passage :—

You were a fortunate man: you struck out into an unexplored field and you lived to correct your own errors. Yours became the monumental monograph on the Glacial period: the volume is in all libraries and it never can be ignored safely by even the shrewdest and most unscrupulous of borrowers. A merciful Providence directed your steps toward a problem of world-wide interest. Your great-grandchildren will see your work quoted in all standard treatises. Like the rest of us you have brought many loads of bricks for the geological edifice, but, unlike most of us, you have shared in the work of construction.

The summer of this year was spent at an east coast watering-place, where the weather was wet and cold. Prof. Geikie was frankly bored, and expresses himself in a letter to his eldest son with a vividness which will appeal to all who have had a similar experience. The letter is long—its composition was doubtless the occupation of a hopelessly bad day— and we shall quote only some extracts:—"Our rooms are so small we are constantly tumbling over each other and gnashing our teeth at each other. ... I have got to loathe that beach, and to hate the sound of the waves, and the smells of the village, and the raucous voices of the natives and their sluttish ways. I have been reading a very interesting book upon the cemeteries of Etruria. Some of the painted sepulchres must be quite cheerful, and I really think if one could hire such a tomb for the summer it would be better than taking a house in Caledonia stern and wild. Of course we should only sleep in the sepulchre —a good lamp would give all the light required.

We should select one on a hill-side near to which no motors could possibly come, quiet and retired, with only sheep and cattle for our neighbours. . . . From the doorway of the tomb we could feast our eyes on unrivalled scenery, bask in the sun, scent the soft zephyrs with the aroma of tobacco, and envy no man. . . . The geology would interest me, but what I would chiefly enjoy would be blue skies, warm sunshine, absence of whirlwinds and tornadoes, with none of that blighting easterly haar. No wonder the majority of Scotsmen are Calvinists and Radicals— their country is enough to make them that—and worse, if it were possible."

A little later in the letter, however, he admits to having had one really good day, when he and Mrs Geikie made an excursion together:—"We had a bag loaded up with grub, kettle, teapot, spirit lamp, etc., the weight of which was not inconsiderable. I would have dropped it, but your mother was so happy with the prospect of tea by the sad seashore, that my heart melted within me. (I must say, however, that my whole body was in a melting condition before we got back.)"

In 1909 his second grandchild was born, another girl, which brings from the grandfather the remark:— "Girls are far the nicest, especially when a father gets old and wants some one to bring him his slippers, or to fill and light his pipe. Boys are of no use in a family; they only make noises, damage the furniture, harass their mothers—and, in short, they are the very devil."

Writing in March to his son, he returns to the question of his resignation, saying:—" For myself, I don't feel like resigning just yet! I can walk like any other Christian, and enjoy my work as much as ever : and my class keeps up its numbers."

In the summer he had an invitation to 20 to Boston to be present at the inauguration of Dr Abbott Lawrence Lowell as President of Harvard University, and at the same time to deliver another series of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston. He refused the invitation, however, though with regret, for he shrank from the long voyage across the Atlantic. Another pleasant incident of the year was the publication of Profs. Penck and Bruckner's Die Alpen im Eisseitalter, which was dedicated to "James Geikie, dem Verfasser von The Great Ice Age, dem Landsmann von John Play fair."

One of the two authors of the book, Prof. Penck of Berlin, was, as has been indicated here, an old friend of Prof. Geikie's. The two first met in 1883, and, as we have already stated, Prof. Penck had repeatedly acknowledged his scientific debt to the author of The Great Ice Age, while there was a personal tie in addition. In 1914 Prof. Penck received the Gold Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and was Prof. Geikie's guest at the time when the presentation was made.

In the summer of that fateful year, however, Prof. Penck was one of the foreign guests at the Australian meeting of the British Association, and was in Australia at the outbreak of war. In the opinion of his hosts, his behaviour, in an admittedly difficult situation, lacked the perfect " correctness " which was desirable, and this both in Australia and on the homeward journey. Some indiscretions in the way of sketching and photographing in the vicinity of military works led to his being detained for a time in London on his return. During this period he corresponded with Prof. Geikie on geological matters. After the latter's death he wrote to Mrs Geikie from Germany a letter which, in spite of the circumstances indicated above, and in spite also of certain phrases which jar, cannot be regarded as anything but sincere. We quote from it the following passages, which form a notable tribute. The letter, it should be stated, was written in English:—

James Geikie belongs to those who have influenced most my scientific evolution. His clear way of seeing things and his reasoning made a convincing impression on me, and though I never listened to one of his lectures, I felt always to be one of his students. He was my master. His Great Ice Age showed me the ways to understand the glacial deposits of Central Europe: his Prehistoric Europe arose my interest for prehistoric questions: his views on mountains, valleys and lakes gave me the base for my morphological work. He made me also acquainted with English and Scotch, with the life on the other side of the Channel, with English poetry, for he was a poet himself. And now he is dead, and he died in the year of the great war, which breaks the strongest links between our peoples.

I am not superstitious and I do not lay stress on this coincidence of facts. I hope what I believe he would hope too, that the struggle of the nations will have one day its end, and that peace will come again which unites the different nations for great scientific works. But while the peoples are still fighting, I must express my heartiest sympathy to my old friend's wife.

Returning to the chronological order of events in Prof. Geikie's last years, we find that the year 1910 was an unfortunate one, for he had a sharp attack of pneumonia in the spring. From this he made eventually a wonderful recovery, but the process was somewhat slow. Before his illness he had begun the book which was published in 1913 as Mountains: their Origin, Growth, and Decay, but his health, and the time it took to collect the beautiful illustrations, delayed its appearance. A letter from his brother, Sir Archibald, in September 1910 to Mrs Geikie speaks of his wonderful recovery, and goes on to say:—"I hope he won't overtax his strength at College. With so splendid an installation for the Geological Department the temptation to do so must be great. I don't know of any college or university that is better fitted out for geological teaching than Edinburgh now is."

In this year Prof. Geikie retired from the presidentship of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and his retiral was the occasion of the presentation of his portrait, painted by Mr A. E. Walton, R.S.A., to the Society, a replica being at the same time given to Mrs Geikie. The ceremony of unveiling took place in the Society's Rooms on 7th November 1911, when Prof. Geikie's old friend and colleague, Dr John Home, gave a short address on the scientific career of the original of the portrait.

It may be noted here that the fact that Dr Home had for many years been living in Edinburgh explains the absence of letters in later years, for personal intercourse had taken the place of correspondence. Dr Home retired from the Geological Survey in this year of 1911, and in a letter to Prof. Stevenson, Prof. Geikie speaks of a dinner given to him by present and former colleagues on the occasion of his retiral. Writing in March, he says:—"Last night Dr Home (Geol. Survey) was entertained by his present and former colleagues. My brother, wonderfully hale and hearty, was in the Chair. Home retires from the Survey in June. It seems a short time ago when he first started work in the Survey as a lad under my guidance. But upon reflection I see the 'short time' = 44 years! When I think of it, old age seems to have come upon me all at once."

Other incidents of 1911 were a spring holiday in Devonshire and a summer one in Switzerland, while in autumn Prof, and Mrs Geikie were at the Centenary celebrations at St Andrews University. Of these, Prof. Geikie sends a lively description to his daughter. He enjoyed the proceedings very much on the whole, but found many of the meetings and entertainments too long for his taste and strength. Of one dinner he complains that the speakers " not only exhausted time but encroached upon eternity."

Towards the end of the year, now that the question of resignation was beginning to demand an early decision, Prof. Geikie resolved to present to the University the large collection of books and pamphlets which he and his brother Sir Archibald had made for the use of the students of the geological classes. A letter from the Secretary of the University Court, written at the close of December, says:—"The Court desires me to communicate to you, and through you to your brother, Sir Archibald, in conjunction with whom this valuable collection of scientific works was made, their most cordial thanks. The loyalty to 'Alma Mater,' on the part of Sir Archibald and yourself, has been warmly appreciated by the Court."

The chief incident of 1912 was a visit to London to take part in the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the Royal Society, of which his brother, Sir Archibald, was president. In the following year Prof. Geikie was elected President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, an honour of which he was very proud. He held this position while his brother was still President of the London Society—a somewhat remarkable coincidence. In writing to congratulate him on the appointment, Sir Archibald says:—"I hope it will not give as much work and worry as my Chair here has given me."

In the early part of 1913 Prof. Geikie delivered in Edinburgh the Munro lectures, which were published the following year as The Antiquity of Man in Europe, and of it his old friend Prof. Stevenson says:—"This is no old man's book." In 1913, as already stated, the book on Mountains was published, and was„ dedicated to the author's "Old Friends and Colleagues on the Council of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society."

The summer of 1913 was spent in Skye, and there Prof. Geikie employed his leisure, as so often in holiday times, in writing verses. A few stanzas may be quoted:—

Tired of Auld Reekie's stink and din,
My thoughts fly far away,
And bear me on until I win
The shores of Broadford Bay.

O there, I know, the heavens are bright,
Keen is the air and pure,
And calm the day, and still the night,
And rest and sleep secure.

Auld Reekie, very dear art thou,
And yet, tho' fair to see,
Ten months within thy gates, I trow,
Are quite enough for me.

Ended at last the weary round!
Good-bye to leaden skies:
With every mile we onward bound
Our spirits higher rise.

Onward o'er straths, thro' mountain glens,
Past shimmering lochs and streams,
Until we view, with all its Bens,
The island of our dreams.

And there we live the life that's good,
No care, no stress, no strain,
With heart revived and brain renewed,
Lost youth comes back again.

But if, as these verses show, holiday times still as of yore brought a sudden rebound of spirits, the strain of life was obviously beginning to tell. A pathetic letter has been preserved which was written to an old student, now Dr M'Alpine of the Department of Agriculture, Victoria, in the spring of 1914. In it the writer says:—"Edinburgh has changed much within the last thirty years. To me it is a very different place, for I have seen so many of my old friends and companions pass away. The ghosts of those I have lost crowd about me, and like every old chap I feel the pathos of life. But I cultivate the philosophy of Daft Jamie Gordon, and believe it 'as weel to dee goin' as sittin'.' So I work away and still find much to interest me in this workaday world."

In an accompanying letter Dr M'Alpine recalls an incident of his student days which made a great impression upon him. One day, while with a party who were being taken over Arthur's Seat by Prof. Geikie, the discussion turned from the igneous rocks of the hill to the evidences of former glaciation. Prof. Geikie carefully removed the turf from some rocks near the summit to show the finger-marks of the vanished ice, and then as carefully replaced the grass in order that the evidence of the past might be preserved. For one of his students at least the unconscious act read an unforgettable lesson of reverence.

This message from across the sea may serve to suggest how much gain came from those years which sometimes seemed to be spent largely in a weary round of drudgery. It is not only in his books that the dead man still speaks to the world. That, in fair weather and in foul, in the prime of manhood and when age was creeping on, Prof. Geikie led successive bands of often raw youths and maidens over those hill-sides, has helped to give them an interest which Nature alone could not give, a charm which untrodden ways can never attain. On those grassy slopes an old man saw visions and young men dreamed dreams, and the dreams and the visions have become a part of our island heritage.

In the spring of 1914 Prof, and Mrs Geikie went to stay at Appin. A friend of the family, a keen entomologist, was to have been of the party, but was at the last unable to come. From Appin Prof. Geikie sent her a series of verses to console her for the disappointment, which was not, he says, really a disappointment, for a heavy storm had destroyed all insect life in her customary collecting-grounds. A few of the lines may be quoted:—

O come nae mair to Appin, lass!
Here things are at an unco' pass!
A tempest rages o'er the land,
Uprootin' trees on every hand;
Cauld rains and sleet in torrents fa'—
The hills are hidden, ane and a';
Naething but waves and clouds we find,
Naething we hear but screechin' wind.
Ahint the dykes, wi' heads downcast,
The kye seek shelter frae the blast;
Distracted wi' the wintry weather
The sheep are huddled a' thagether:
The birds, puir things, are blawn awa'—
Even the sea-mew and the craw.
You needna come to Appin noo
The wiley beetle to pursue:
Clockers and bugs o' every kind
Are bashed and batter'd by the wind,
And kill'd are a' the chrysalises—
Dear to the heart O' learned Misses.

To Appin also the family returned in summer, after Prof. Geikie's retirement from the Chair at Edinburgh, and it was there that they got the news of the outbreak of war. Prof. Geikie gave his last lecture at Edinburgh on 19th June, and his successor, a former student of his own, Prof. Jehu of St Andrews, was appointed shortly afterwards.

The rest of the story is soon told, for Prof. Geikie's hope that his retiral from the professorship would give him time for his own work was not destined to be fulfilled. The autumn was spent— as all spent that fateful autumn—in watching and waiting, but unlike some of his fellow-countrymen, Prof. Geikie, if he never doubted of the ultimate result, was yet sure from the first that the war would be long and terrible. He was not well throughout the winter, for an attack of influenza in November weakened him, and he seemed to have lost his power of recovery. Later he suffered from his old enemy, dyspepsia, though there did not appear to be any particular cause for alarm. On the 1st of March he died suddenly as the result of a heart attack, some months before completing his seventy-sixth year.

He died as he would himself have wished to die, without any slow progress of decay, and without knowledge that the end was so near.

His contributions to science are discussed in the section-which follows: his personal character should be apparent from what has been already said, without the need of an elaborate analysis. As a friend wrote to Mrs Geikie in the first days of her loss:—"There was always an out-of-door atmosphere about him, like a strong wind sweeping over the moors bringing life and health with it;" for the hills and open country which he loved had taught him much.

In sum, he was through and through one of the island folk, a true native of "this little island, this England," with its wide, wind-swept moorlands, its disciplined freedom, its ordered life, and had in addition the strong individuality of the northerner to whom nothing comes without labour. Even the milieu in which he was born is significant, for it was that from which so many of the intellectuals of Scotland have come; and it is noteworthy that he remained a Scot to the end, at once fiercely critical of his country and fellow-countrymen, and full of intense love for the one and of profound sympathy with the other. He never, like some anglicised Scots, sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, or faltered in the conviction that he was the heir of a glorious heritage, won by the toil and sweat of generations, and the result was to give something of that poise and assuredness which those who are false to their own traditions can never possess. It will be clear also that there was nothing of the dry-as-dust pedant about him, for he was above all things a man, one for whom life in all its aspects was sweet. He gave freely—to the world of his labours, to his intimates of his affection, and he received much— honour from his fellows, and what he perhaps prized more, the love of those who knew the real man beneath the northern shyness and reserve.

All is transitory—his conclusions may be disputed, new lights may be thrown on problems which seemed to him conclusively solved; but the nation which can produce 6uch men can never be poor, and his uprightness, steadfastness, and simplicity of character enabled him to leave an abiding imprint upon his day and generation.


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