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Memoir of Sir Andrew Crombie Ramsay
Chapter XI - Retirement, Summary of career


Released from official life, and free to go where he pleased in this country or to travel abroad, Sir Andrew Ramsay looked forward to a few years of pleasant rest and cheerful occupation in the pursuits that more especially interested him. And to his friends the regret at seeing him retire from active life was tempered by the reflection that now at last he would be able to work as he chose at those problems which, by the pressure of his Survey duties and his engagements in London, he had been prevented from thoroughly investigating. But time and over-exertion had done their work upon him. His life henceforward was marked by a calm, painless, and gradual decline. His days for mental exertion were now at an end.

For a short time after his retirement he remained in London, and had a fair enjoyment of life, usually finding his way to the Athenaeum Club in the course of the afternoon, and having a game of billiards with some friend there. When summer came, and brought with it the time for retreating to Beaumaris, he was able to take short walks and to indulge his favourite pastime of steering a boat. He tried to do a little writing on a geographical subject which he had undertaken. As the autumn approached, the second daughter was again ordered abroad for the winter, and as Sir Andrew had such a love of mountains, it was determined to move the whole family to St. Moritz.

In the early part of the season the place gave him great pleasure, for he was able to take some fairly long walks, and it was a delight to him to find himself once more in the chain of the Alps. But in the middle of November the snow came, not to depart for the rest of the winter. hereafter every walk involved a slippery descent from the hotel and a slippery ascent in returning. The consequent fatigue became so great that his pedestrian excursions were necessarily limited. Sledge-driving proved equally impracticable, for the keen frosty air induced severe pain round the glass eye. He was thus cooped up in the hotel, the most practicable exercise available being obtained by pacing up and down a covered verandah open to the air.

By the end of March the party was glad to take flight by the Maloja to Chiavenna, and thence by steamer on the Lake of Como to Cadenabbia. Sir Andrew enjoyed watching the pleasure which these charming scenes gave to his daughters, who saw them for the first time, and he seemed himself also to appreciate their beauty; but the confinement of the preceding winter had left its mark upon him. The old spirit of happy comprehension of what he saw, and the keen zest with which he scrutinised new physical features and sought to interpret them, were now only too visibly on the wane. The route homeward included a halt of a fortnight at Venice, which he thoroughly enjoyed, and another for the same length of time at Pallanza, which also gave him much pleasure.

The. family returned to England in time to spend the summer at Beaumaris, where Sir Andrew's diminished strength was painfully shown by his shortening walks. They went back, however, to the Continent in the autumn in order to pass the winter at Hyeres. The journey homeward in May (1882) proved to be the last of Ramsay's experiences of foreign travel. He was well enough to be greatly interested in the Roman remains of Southern France. At Nimes his antiquarian zeal was kindled by the grand amphitheatre and the baths and the Maison Carree. He walked across the Pont de Gard by the old water channel. Farther north his ardour for the relics of the past was renewed in Auvergne, as he paced the mouldering rampart of the Bill of Gergovia, and pictured to himself Csesar's siege and the heroic defence of Vercingetorix. Fain would he have climbed the Puy de Dome, but the weather prevented him from attempting it.

For the next two years Sir Andrew and his family came up to London for the winter, but he hardly ever went to the Athenaeum, and was only able slowly to walk up and down the streets in the neighbourhood of his house in Cromwell Crescent. It was then resolved to break up the London home, in order that he might remain permanently at Beaumaris. There he continued for a time to enjoy the panorama of his own Caernarvon shire mountains, and was much more in the open air than he could have been in London. But from this time forward nothing could be done save to watch with sad and affectionate eyes the progress of the slow decline. His mind does not seem in these last years to have reverted often to his geological days; at least he seldom spoke of them. His memory would sometimes dwell on the long bygone days of his childhood.

He continued to read with delight the Waverley Novels, and the humour of Dean Ramsay's Reminiscences of Scottish Life never failed to call out his merry laugh. His general health remained good, but his strength, bodily and mental, seemed imperceptibly to ebb away.

Almost every fine day until 1891 he was wheeled out in a bath-chair and placed in some sunny, sheltered spot where he could watch the mountains and the sea, while his wife sat and read or worked beside him. These daily little journeys continued to give him great pleasure, until at last, in September of that year, his increasing weakness made them no longer possible. Eventually he was unable to bear the fatigue of rising and being dressed, so kept his bed until, on the 9th December, he passed gently away.

He was buried in the churchyard that surrounds the pretty little church of Llansadwrn, among his wife's people. The spot was a favourite one with him for it commands on the one side a noble view of the whole range of the high grounds of North Wales from the Orme's Head, through the Snowdon group, down to the far Rivals, and on the other a wide sweep of the undulating plains of Anglesey. It was fitting that one who had loved Wales so ardently, who had spent the best years of his life there, and who had done more than any other writer to unravel at once its geology and its physical geography, should be laid to rest within view of the peak of Snowdon, and within sound of the rush of the tide through the Strait of Menai.

This memoir would be incomplete if it did not give some retrospect and summary of the work achieved in the lifetime which it has attempted to describe. It is too soon yet properly to appraise the ultimate value of this work in the general progress of science. But we may at least group Sir Andrew Ramsay's labours in the several categories under which they may be classified in order to form some conception of the general character and sum of his contributions to the geology of his time.

I. The department of Structural Geology comprises his earliest and his latest labours, beginning with his little pamphlet on Arran, and ending with the voluminous second edition of the monograph on North Wales. Between these two limits he accomplished a large amount of investigation directed towards the elucidation of the geological structure of Britain. In England his own share of this labour was for the most part merged in that of his colleagues. For, in his eagerness for the repute of the Survey as a body, he was careless of his individual fame. Undoubtedly his own greatest achievement is his mapping in North Wales, and more particularly the working out of the structure of the complicated and mountainous ground around Snowdon. It must be remembered by those who now examine the geology of that region that when Ramsay surveyed it the science of petrography hardly existed at all in England. He had no assistance from the microscope, and scarcely any from the chemical laboratory. He had to determine his rocks with no more help than could be given by a pocket-lens, and he was guided in this matter largely by the behaviour of the masses in the field. It should not, therefore, be matter for surprise that a geologist of to-day, coming with ali the appliances of modern petrography, may be able to improve the nomenclature followed by Ramsay, and to show that he had been mistaken in some of his determinations, as where, for instance, he may have classed lavas as tuffs, or tuffs as lavas. The surprise ought rather to be that a man with only field-evidence and his geological instinct to guide him, should have succeeded in unravelling so admirably the complications of so difficult a region.

British geology lies under a deep obligation to Ramsay for the skill and insight with which he deciphered the relics of the older Palaeozoic volcanoes. Without attempting to enter into the minutia; of the mineralogical and chemical constitution of the rocks, he seized upon the salient features that illustrated ancient volcanic action, and he supplied, in the Survey Memoirs and in the Descriptive Catalogue of the Jermyn Street Museum, the first detailed and connected description of the different epochs of volcanic activity in the Silurian period in Britain.

On the maps and sections of the Geological Survey he expressed most of his results in structural geology, and it may be fearlessly asserted that at the time of their appearance these publications were unsurpassed for clearness, beauty, and accuracy. Even where the mapping was mainly the work of his colleagues, it usually had the benefit of help from his skilful hand and sound judgment. His Geological Map of England and Wales, reduced from the Survey sheets and other sources of information, is still the most useful small map of the kingdom, and his general Geological Map of the British Isles is a convenient compendium of British geology.

II. In Stratigraphy much of Ramsay s work is so intimately bound up with his labours in structural geology as to be hardly separable. But his two presidential addresses to the Geological Society mark a distinct epoch in stratigraphical work. Darwin had dwelt upon the imperfection of the Geological Record. Ramsay proceeded to indicate the historical meaning of this imperfection. He pointed out the various breaks :n the succession of the stratified formations of Britain, and by his wide practical knowledge of the subject, gave it a clearness and significance which it had not before been suspected to possess. He showed that these breaks sometimes consist of actual unconforinabiHties, arising from disturbance and denudation, and demonstrating a long lapse of time unrecorded by stratified deposits ; while in other instances they are marked by no visible discontinuity of the stratification, but by a sudden and more or less marked change in the fossils characteristic of two apparently consecutive formations. His careful tabulated lists of genera and species that pass from one formation to another finally annihilated the long-lived delusion that each geological system was complete in itself, and was separated, by a general destruction and re-creation of life, from the formation that succeeded it. Accepting Darwin's views on the origin of species, he argued that the relative lapse of tune between different formations might be determined by the greater or less distinction between them as regards their organic contents. By this line of argument he was led to the novel and suggestive conclusion that periods of time, of which there was in the geological record of Britain no strati-graphical chronicle, might be much longer than those which were represented by stratified formations.

These doctrines were by far the most important which had been taught in regard to the principles of stratigraphy since these principles were first determined by the discoveries of William Smith.

III. Connecting his Stratigraphkal with his Physiographical researches comes the series of papers in which he discussed the former existence of Continents, or of terrestrial conditions, during the deposition of the geological record. He dwelt especially upon the red colour of certain formations, their barrenness in organic remains, the proofs of the occurrence of traces of land animals and plants in them, and the similarity presented by them to the deposits of salt lakes or inland seas. In this way he tried to restore in some degree the physical geography of ancient periods of the earth's history. He attempted also, from the same kind of reasoning, to estimate the relative value of the old continental periods, and came to the conclusion that the period which began with the Old Red Sandstone and closed with the New Red Marl may have been comparable to all the time that has elapsed from the beginning of the deposition of the Lias down to the present day.

IV. In Physiography Ramsay's work was abundant, as well as remarkably original and important. It may be grouped in three subdivisions: (i) Denudation in General; (2) The History of River-valleys; and (3) The Results of the Operations of Ice.

(1) The early paper on the Denudation of South Wales, published in 1846, in the first volume of the Memoirs of the Geological Survey, was undoubtedly the most important essay on the subject which up to that time had appeared. Much had previously been written on the question of denudation, but it was of the vaguest nature. It was Ramsay's merit that he based his discussion upon the results of careful surveying. He had traced out the structure of a complicated geological region, and was able to show what should have been the form of the surface had it depended entirely on geological structure. He was thus in a position to demonstrate how much material had been removed by denudation, and how far the process of removal had been guided by geological structure. It is true, as he himself afterwards confessed, that at that time he assigned too much power to the sea, and too little to the subaerial agents, in the lowering of a mass of land. But his exposition of the old base-level of ancient erosion, or 'plain of marine denudation,' as he called it, will ever be a classical study in geological literature.

Subsequently, as he realised more and more how mighty had been the action of rain, frost, rivers, glaciers, and other subaerial forces in carving the surface of the land, he came boldly forward to take the lead among British geologists in enforcing this doctrine.

(2) During the last ten years of his official life the physical history of river-valleys exercised a peculiar fascination on Sir Andrew's mind. The subject had for many years engaged his attention, but not until the appearance in 1862 of his friend Jukes's remarkable memoir on the river-valleys of the south of Ireland did he realise how the problem might be satisfactorily attacked. He was led to the conclusion that the denudation of the Weald had been effected by subaerial waste, and that the cause of the flow of the rivers, from that central low tract through the encircling rim of chalk downs, was to be sought in the ancient topography of the region, when the streams descended from a central, still unremoved dome or ridge of chalk. Extending this process of reasoning, he afterwards discussed the main causes whereby the rivers of England had been led to flow in the courses which they now follow. There was undoubtedly a good deal of speculation in this discussion, but his treatment of the subject was full of suggestiveness, and pointed out the direction in which, with perhaps a larger array of facts, the question might eventually be solved.

Subsequently he attacked the history of individual rivers, working it out in more detail along the same lines as he had already followed. In this manner he traced the successive stages which, in his opinion, had led to the excavation of the present valley of the Rhine, showing that in Miocene time the flow of the drainage between the Black Forest and the Vosges had been from north to south, or towards the great hollow lying to the north of the Alps, that subsequent disturbance and elevation of the Alpine chain tilted the ground in such a manner that the drainage was reversed, and the streams from the tract of the Alps were collected into a river which found its way northward, and gradually excavated the valley and gorge rn which the present Rhine still flows. Though it cannot be demonstrated that such have been the successive stages in the history of the course of this river, the available evidence makes Ramsay's explanation highly probable.

The later application of the same principles of interpretation to the history of the valley of the Dee in Wales led him into still ampler fields of speculation, because dealing with a vaster and dimmer geological past. He could not claim to have proved every step in his chain of argument, but he undoubtedly propounded a method whereby, if such questions are capable of solution, they may most advantageously be attempted.

(3) It was in his researches among the traces of ancient glaciers and ice-sheets that Sir Andrew accomplished his most original physiographical work. His demonstration of the occurrence of evidence of two glaciations in Wales was an important step in the. elucidation of the history of the Ice Age, for he showed that after a general glaciation of the Welsh hills and valleys, and the deposition of the drift upon them, a later time came when the ice existed only as local glaciers in the valleys among the higher mountains.

But his name will be most widely known for his theory of the Glacial Origin of certain Lake-basins. This theory has been warmly attacked and as vigorously defended. The contest regarding it still continues, though more than thirty years have passed since it was published. This is not the place for a review of the voluminous arguments that have been adduced for and against the theory. If we look upon the doctrine as promulgated by its author, and not in the extravagant form in which it sometimes appears in the hands of too zealous partisans, we must admit that Ramsay was the first to call attention to the remark able fact that lakes are especially numerous in the glaciated tracts of the northern hemisphere. Taking the rock-basin lakes on which he based his doctrine of glacial erosion, it is a fact that while they are prodigiously abundant in glaciated tracts like the gneisses of Canada, Scandinavia, Finland, and Scotland, they either do not occur, or are excessively rare, outside of ice-worn areas. It is likewise true that these rock-basins have once been filled with ice, for roches moutomides occur round their margins and rise from their bottoms. There can be no doubt also that the ice which filled them was in motion, for the rocks that enclose them are scored and polished, and the direction of the striae shows that the ice descended into the basins at their upper end and ascended from them at the lower. Ramsay went farther, and insisted that the hollows themselves had actually been dug out by the moving ice. I have myself no doubt that he was essentially right in this contention. That there may be difficulty in the universal application of his doctrine will be readily admitted, and was fully recognised by himself. He carefully guarded himself by the very title of his original paper, 'On the Glacial Origin of Certain Lakes,' from being supposed to have one explanation for all sheets of fresh water over the surface of the globe. But that the lakes in glaciated regions are connected in origin with the general denudation of the regions in which they lie is a fact which few geologists who have carefully mapped the rocks around these water-basins will dispute. And the only agent known to us to be capable of the kind of erosion which would produce such basins is land-ice. On any other hypothesis yet proposed the lake-basins are not only unintelligible, but contradictory to all that is now well ascertained regarding the progress of denudation and the influence of geological structure upon topography.

In connection with Sir Andrew Ramsay's glacial work, reference should be made here to his papers on the evidence for the existence of ice in Palaeozoic time. The Permian examples cited by him were certainly striking, but the general feeling among geologists seems to be that the evidence is not convincing. The cases from the Lower Silurian, Old Red Sandstone, and Carboniferous formations are still less conclusive.

As a contribution to Physiography his volume on The Physical Geology and Geography of Great Britain is worthy of special mention. It puts in clear and untechnical language the evidence on which geology proceeds to trace the bygone history of a terrestrial region. Unfortunately, the last edition was brought out by him when his powers had already begun to fail, and he was led to weight the book by the addition of various already published papers and essays which, though excellent for the purposes for which they were written, were somewhat out of place in his otherwise charming little volume.1

V. Sir Andrew made few contributions to the literature of the History of Geology. His two inaugural lectures at University College presented a rapid sketch of the leading features in the progress of geological research up to this century, and his last address as President of Section C of the British Association at York in 1881 gave an outline of the advance of geology during the fifty years preceding that date.

He was a thorough uniformitarian in geology. Having early imbibed his theoretical views from Lyell's Principles, he maintained them to the end, and took occasion when he was President of the British Association at Swansea, and consciously approaching the end of his active career, to proclaim them as a last declaration of faith to his contemporaries.

VI. In this retrospect of the literary and other work which Sir Andrew Ramsay accomplished, reference should not be omitted to his contributions to the Saturday Review. Sometimes these were criticisms of publications, and in that case often took as their subject the maps and memoirs of some Colonial Survey. He was thus enabled to do signal service to his friend Logan, then struggling with the Canadian Philistines, who saw no practical good in geological work of any kind. But now and then he let his fancy loose in the pages of the Saturday, and treated geological and other topics with the light playfulness so characteristic of his talk, but in which the nature of his official writings hardly allowed him to indulge in print.

VII. But it is not by the visible amount of published work that we can rightly estimate the extent of Sir Andrew Ramsay's influence in promoting the advance of his favourite science. For nearly thirty years he was a teacher of geology. Year by year a fresh band of young men came to listen to him, and to carry the fruits of his instruction to all parts of the world. Season after season he lectured to working men, who flocked in hundreds to hear him. His lectures were not written out, but delivered from notes, and were always kept up to the latest conditions of the science. Many a time some new deduction that had been simmering in his mind for a while would be communicated first of all to his students. In the debates at the Geological Society, also, he would often make known some fresh observation, or some novel presentation of known facts, or some suggestive speculation which had recently taken shape in his mind. Indeed, much of his work was published only in this way, for writing became increasingly irksome to him; but in the excitement of lecturing or of discussion he would pour out from his full stores of information, and taking his audience into his confidence, would flash out new views that he had never communicated to any one before. There was always something remarkably suggestive in his lectures. He loved to put broad and striking views of geological principles and theory before his audience, and sought thus to excite an interest that would search for detail, rather than to weary it by dwelling on the detail himself. He spoke with a good deal of facial expression, his brow sometimes wrinkling with his earnestness to make a point clear, and again beaming with a kindly smile as he was enjoying his discourse, and felt that he was carrying his auditors with him. The working men used to crowd round his table at the end of a lecture to ask questions, and one of them once said to him, 'You are the best lecturer I ever heard in my life; and you always look so happy in it.'

There was another form of instruction less palpable perhaps than that communicated in formal prelections, but not less valuable—the practical training which he gave to his men on the staff of the Geological Survey. Those who have enjoyed that training look back upon it as one of the privileges of their lives. The influence of his example was contagious. A district which had seemed hopelessly entangled and insufferably dull, after a visit from the Director came to be seen in a new light. Its very difficulties grew to be centres of attraction, and its dulness was changed into freshened interest. That this influence has not been without effect in the higher education of the countrj will be seen from the number of men trained under Ramsay who have held or now hold University chairs or other educational appointments in this country and in the colonies.

But above and beyond the impress of his scientific achievements Sir Andrew Ramsay's high position among his contemporaries was largely determined by his individual personality. His frank manly bearing, his well-cut features beaming with intelligence and with a sweet childlike candour, his ready powers of conversation, his wide range of knowledge, his boyish exuberance of spirits, his simplicity and modesty of nature, his sterling integrity, perfect straightforwardness, and high sense of duty, his generous sympathy and untiring helpfulness, marked him out as a man of singular charm, and endeared him to a wide circle of friends who, while they admired him for his genius, loved him for the beauty and brightness of his character.


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