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James Geikie
Chapter I. Boyhood and Youth, 1839-61

James Geikie was born on 23rd August 1839, in a house in Edinburgh which was later pulled down to make room for the University Union. He was the third son and the third child in a family of eight, consisting of five sons and three daughters, and was baptised as James Murdoch Geikie. He abolished —to use his own word—the Murdoch in boyhood.

His father was in business in Edinburgh, but by taste and inclination was a musician, and in later years, after retiring from business, devoted himself entirely to music, and was the author of a number of compositions, sacred and secular. A little anecdote, recalled by his son in later years, suggests that it had always been his ambition to be a professional musician, and that he had been thwarted in youth. The story relates that one day he said to James somewhat sadly:—"If ever you have a son who wants to make music his profession, do not oppose his wish."

In the fulness of time, it is interesting to note, one of James Geikie's sons did express this desire, and his father scrupulously observed the injunction of the long-dead grandfather. The point is not without importance, from more than one aspect, and is at least a partial refutation of the pessimists who, like Samuel Butler, maintain that each generation repeats the mistakes of the last in dealing with youth.

Another artistic strain in the family was represented in the person of Walter Geikie, an uncle, who was a well-known' painter of Scotch scenes and left also some good etchings. Of him James Geikie, in an undated fragment of what .was apparently intended to be a history of the family, says:—"Of my Uncle Walter I will say nothing: the Life prefixed to his etchings having already forestalled anything I could tell. He was a capital mimic and possessed of boundless good nature. Had he been longer spared he might well have become famous in his profession, but Death, to whom the genius and the numbskull are one and the same, carried him off in the year 1837—two years before I was born." James, it may be noted here, had himself considerable skill as a draughtsman, as both his published works and his geological notebooks show clearly, which adds interest to this note upon his artist uncle. Another uncle, who was a minister and went out to the United States when James was- young, was the father of Cunningham Geikie the divine, author of a widely-read Life of Christ. The latter lived with the Geikie family in Edinburgh for some time in his student days.

The MS. from which the above quotation is made, which is annotated in pencil by its author, is, as stated, a mere fragment and undated. Internal evidence, however, suggests that it may have been written about 1856, the writing and composition recalling some extant letters of this period, and it shows, as further quotations will indicate, that its author, with all his obvious immaturity, was even then feeling after a style.

James Geikie's mother was a Miss Thom, a daughter of a merchant captain, who was born in Inverness but established himself at Dunbar. Here he married the daughter of a local shipbuilder, whose family was connected by marriage—to quote again the MS. already mentioned—with "that Roderick MacKenzie who suffered his head to be taken from him that he might save that of Prince Charles Stewart"; a fact of which the boy James confesses himself very proud. In his later days Captain Thom often visited his married daughter, and the important part which he played in developing the imagination of the children is suggested in the following sentences (from MS.):—"My Grandfather Thom when I first knew him had not ceased to plough the sea for his living. He was of a middle stature, well-made, and muscular. I can still see his fine head nearly bald—what hair he had was of a beautiful silver white—his Roman nose. I can still at this late period follow him in his walks. I see him sitting with his old cronies—relics of fights by land and sea—on that seat between the two old trees—long since pulled down to make way' for those improvements, so-called, which have altered entirely what in my young days went by the name of 'The Meadows.' His stories of adventures with the robbers of the sea are rife in my memory. His voyages to places whose very names smack of fairyland—his hairbreadth escapes—his deeds of daring— the recollection of all these rises vividly before me at the mere mention of his name. I looked upon him as another Sinbad—a second Robinson Crusoe; and my acquaintance with his queer old friends served to heighten the romantic colours in which I viewed him! Alas! all these school-boy dreamings are past; but they will sometimes flit before me as I lie gazing up into the deep blue of a summer sky, recalling the old days which have gone away into dim forgetfulness: and they will sometimes come again as I sit alone musing by the winter fireside. Verily there is a something—call it what you will— about the past which renders it infinitely more endearing to us than all the brightest dreams of the future."

The only comment which it is necessary to make upon the above is to repeat that it was apparently written when the boy was about seventeen, and thus, as we shall see, at a period when he was engaged in uncongenial work, and when his future was uncertain : these facts help to explain what the James Geikie of a later day would have contemptuously denounced as the "high-falutin " style.

In addition to the visits of Captain Thorn to Edinburgh, family intercourse was kept up by return visits of the children to Dunbar, where the ships appealed strongly to the imagination of James. He was fond of saying in later years that he used to watch them dipping below the horizon and longed to follow them to see what lay beyond; and the Wanderlust, so early developed, lasted till the end of life. In a letter to one of his sons, written to Egypt in 1901, he says:—"Old man tho' I am, I'm just as keen to knock about the world as ever I was. It is like renewing my youth even to think about it!"

In connection with the seafarer's blood which he inherited from his mother's side, it is also of interest to note that James was an excellent traveller both by sea and land ; the sea had no terrors for him, and his voyages were a source of continuous pleasure, both at the time and in recollection.

As to his immediate intellectual heritage, it seems probable that James took the majority of his qualities from his father's side. But his mother, of whom he was very fond, was a woman of great ability and much ambition for her clever sons, whom she spurred on in their careers. Her extraordinary skill as a needlewoman, and her capacity for hard work, are enshrined in the family traditions, and it is probable that James took from her his remarkable perseverance and his manual dexterity. The father was full of bonhomie, probably as deeply impregnated as his son with the joie de vivre, and like him more desirous of a full life than given to the narrow concentration which achieves a particular purpose at the expense of so much.

From his father James seems to have inherited his imagination and the touch of constructive genius which enabled him to do such noteworthy work; but one can well believe that the instinct which led the son to interleave his scientific observations in his geological note-books with verses, prevented the father from devoting himself as whole-heartedly to the pursuit of worldly prosperity as his wife may have thought desirable in view of the large and growing family.

It is at least certain that money was not very abundant in the early days, though the house contained many books, and there seems to have been much music and liveliness, the father, like the son, being a capital story-teller. He must also have been a' traveller in his day, for James in a letter to his brother William speaks of him as going off to the Continent in 1858, a much rarer adventure for a man of moderate means then than now. The occasion was a musical festival at Bonn, and was apparently taken advantage of to the full, the tour being extended to Paris and elsewhere.

Details in regard to the early life of James Geikie are scanty. These were days long before the time When conscientious parents recorded in neatly kept note-books all details as to the growth and development of their offspring; while with babies following each other' at regular intervals throughout a long period of years, the mother had probably little time to put on record any signs of precocity in the elder boys, if such existed. Two little stories, however, emphasise the statements made above as to the effect on the children's imagination of Captain Thorn's yarns. When very small James, in company with his brother William, who was two years older, set off to walk down to Joppa, some three and a half miles from Edinburgh, to see the world, and incidentally to visit an aunt who lived in the district. The two arrived very tired, only, after a meal and a rest, to be ignominiously taken home again by their aunt. In those days communications between the shore and the city were difficult, and the party had to trudge back on foot, the small James, whose ambition on this occasion had somewhat outrun his strength, having to be carried most of the way.

But this inglorious finale did not quench the ardour of the youthful pair, who were probably slow to grasp the attitude of grown-up people towards displays of initiative on the part of the young. Next time they planned to make a voyage on their own account, and to place the water between them and over-zealous family affection. They were so far successful as to reach Leith and find their way on board a ship. But alas! even here they were met by a display of the adult passion for interference, and were taken home by a sailor who, regardless of the soul within, maintained that their diminutive stature debarred them from seeking life and adventure on the high seas. As one of the grandfather's most popular stories related how he had sunk a pirate boat in the Bay of Naples, by means of a small gun loaded with scrap iron, and how in consequence he had been feted by the Neapolitans, and had had his portrait painted, one can imagine that the brothers were very bitter at this second check to their own ambitions. James had to wait many years before he faced Italian pirates and brigands, and then it was the milder variety which requires to be treated with another metal rather than iron, and cannot be disposed of by Captain Thorn's summary methods.

Another story of childhood is interesting because it shows how completely the boy was the father of the man. At some unknown but early date he had a serious illness. So desperate seemed his condition that the doctor, speaking in the presence of the apparently unconscious boy, permitted himself to tell the mother that recovery was practically impossible, and was not to be desired, as the child would be feeble-minded. After the doctor had left, the poor mother came back into the room crying, but little Jamie found strength to whisper feebly: "I'll no dee yet, mother."

Long years afterwards, in a bad illness some four or five years before his death, somewhat similar incidents happened. One day after he had seen the doctor exchange a grave glance with the nurse, he managed, after the doctor had left the room, to say: "Tell him I have a return ticket." On another occasion one sick-room attendant volunteered to another the statement that she did not think the professor would last till the morning, and was considerably startled to hear the apparently dying man, who was lying with his eyes closed, say distinctly, if feebly, "The professor will last till the morning, and he'll last till he sees you out of the house." Needless to say he did more than this, for he lived to tell the tale with his old glee and vivacity. Perhaps the medical science of a later date will be able to find an explanation of this power of resistance, and of its association with the nervous temperament rather than with strong physique. Meantime it is interesting to have another confirmation of the frequent experience that in a death-struggle, whether with internal or external foes, the "muscular Christian" can often give a less good account of himself than the nervous one. The boy, who if he lived was to be feeble-minded, not only lived but added notably to the world's stock of knowledge.

Only one early letter has been preserved, and it gives no clue as to its date, beyond the fact that it is printed in childish capitals, which are, however, wonderfully straight, and shows an uncharacteristic uncertainty as to spelling. It reads:—

Dear Father and Mother,—We are very much disappointed, at your not leaving London on Saturday. We hopet to have the pleasure of seeing you pull down the pears for us but since you have not come, we will have to bigin ourselves and take them down. We are all in good health we wer all up at the castle with Thom to day and saw Mons Meg. Write us soon and let us know when yoo ar really to leave.—Your affectionate son,

James M. Geikie.

James Geikie's early education was obtained at a private school, where he seems to have been unhappy. The master was brutal in his methods, and ill-suited to have charge of a delicate, nervous boy. The climax came when one day he approached James from behind, and seized his ear roughly between his finger and thumb, giving it a painful wrench. The boy, maddened with pain and fright, sprang up, and seizing the nearest object, which happened to be an inkpot, flung it at his assailant. He then made for the door, his exit closing one educational chapter. Afterwards, in 1850, when he was eleven years of age, he went to Edinburgh High School, then under the rectorship of Dr Schmitz. Here James Geikie seems to have distinguished himself chiefly in classics. The classical master was Dr Boyd, who evidently perceived his abilities, for he told him that he expected to hear of him in later years either as a poet or as a literary man.

Under Dr Boyd James Geikie gained a prize for a translation from Virgil into English verse, and his knack of verse-making seems to have been carefully fostered. A number of his verse translations have been preserved, some written out in his brother William's extraordinarily neat hand, others printed by James himself at a later date.

On the whole, however, it would seem as though the education of the boys was carried out more outside school than in it. In those days Scottish schools were unaffected by English traditions in the matter of sport. There were no organised games, and the boys obtained exercise in whatever way pleased them best. The Geikie children kept many pets in their garden, and James's considerable manual dexterity was often called upon in connection with the welfare of these. A family tradition led the children .to give those of their pets who died before their time an elaborate funeral, and James's skill in coffin-making is still lauded by the remaining members of his family.

Of more importance for his future career were the long excursions by which the boys as they grew satisfied their Wanderlust. Edinburgh is, of course, even to-day singularly favoured by Nature in the number and variety of the possible excursions within easy reach of the town, and in those days conditions were still better. In later years, when he took his geological students over Arthur's Seat, James Geikie used often to lament what he regarded as the spoiling of that park by the construction of roads, which for him took away the feeling of wildness, and part of the impressiveness of the wonderful volcanic scenery. He did not live to see a further stage in which the citizens were shut off by the exigencies of war from the enjoyment of the most attractive part of the park.

A little anecdote that he often also told on his excursions is not without interest. As a boy he was lying on the hill one day reading a book when he was accosted by a party consisting of a tall gentleman, a little lady, and a group of children. The gentleman asked the way to the top of the hill, and James not only volunteered to guide them, but ultimately carried the smallest girl pickaback up part of the climb. The party had a pleasant stroll, and parted the best of friends. As the boy came down the slopes towards Holyrood, however, he found a considerable crowd waiting, and learnt that his help had been asked by the Prince Consort, that the lady was Queen Victoria, and the little girl he had carried the Princess Alice.

One motive for the long holiday rambles seems to have been butterfly-collecting, if one may judge from the enthusiasm with which in later years, when himself the father of growing boys, he entered into the pursuit for their sakes. Some of his letters-written to his sons during his travels on the Continent and in America are thoroughly boy-like in their enthusiasm for the beautiful creatures, and in their descriptions of the efforts necessary to obtain perfect specimens. But like many an Edinburgh boy before and since, he was keenly interested in fossils and in the rocks and minerals represented in the neighbourhood of his native town. Fossil-hunting expeditions to the famous limestone quarries of Burdiehouse and Gilmerton, and to the coprolitic shales down on the shore at Wardie, were often undertaken in company with two future colleagues on the Geological Survey —his eldest brother Archibald, later Director of the Geological Survey, and now Sir Archibald Geikie, and the boy who afterwards became Prof. John Young of Glasgow. James was considerably younger than either, and, as he himself indicates in a Memoir prefixed to Dr Young's Essays and Addresses (1904), was only allowed to accompany his seniors occasionally and as a special favour. Indeed, throughout all this early period it seems clear that "Jamie" was only a little boy, not of great account in a family whose hopes were concentrated on the eldest son. The latter seems to have settled his own career early, for it is recorded that one day while walking up the South Bridge with his little brother, he said:—"Do you see that big building with the iron gates? I am going in there, and one day I shall be a professor there." The little brother's feelings at the time are not recorded, but it seems probable that no one in the family contemplated that the great iron gates would open for him also as a professor.

With two older brothers, and two more following after, it is not to be wondered at that James Geikie's school-days soon ended. In 1853 he left the High School, and at the beginning of 1854 was apprenticed to Mr Thomas Constable, the printer. His life here does not seem to have been happy. The confinement and long hours did not suit his health, the occupation did not appeal to his tastes, and among his chief consolations seem to have been occasional geologising holidays and books. These he read on his way to and from his work, for the family by this time lived on the other side of what, despite the past tense of the MS. quoted on p. 6, is still called The Meadows, and this open space had to be crossed daily.

In October 1855, however, his brother Archibald joined the Geological Survey, and this, which opened a possible avenue of escape for James, then only sixteen, marked an important turning-point in his career. Of the period as printer it is only necessary to add that, much as he disliked it at the time, he was fond of saying in later years that it was a useful experience, for it gave him a knowledge of the routine of printing work which stood him in good stead in his own constant proof-reading.

He stayed at Constable's till the summer of 1858, and some letters to his brother William have been preserved which give interesting glimpses of his character in this period of drudgery and development. William had gone out to relatives of the family in the United States, and the letters were written to him there. His death, it may be noted, took place as the result of an accident, shortly after the date of the last of the letters. Some extracts from them may be quoted:—

Hope Park, 31st Dec. 1856.

I have met with very little in my daily routine, since I went to Constable's, that could entertain you, and will therefore skip over my past years and come to the pint, as Cousin Archie used to say. When you left you'll remember I was still daidlin' mong drudgery. I had to do so for a good while after that, till so it chanced I was promoted to a frame. I got on pretty well, considering the long hours, and badly ventilated room, which were playing the very mischief with my health, so I hung on (if you'll excuse the expression) until summer had come with its usual slackness in trade, and then I got rest. But summer, alas! like everything beneath the sun, is perishable, and so the crows' nests began to peer through the thinly clad trees once more, and autumn coming sighing and weeping, but bringing with her, as her recompense and consolation, the richly laden field and the clear cloudless moon. . . . Well I went back to the office, and winter, and spring, and summer and autumn passed away, and "the new year's coming up" (of which I wish you and all the natives very many happy returns), and here I am at home away from the office again. The late hours (9 to 10) have knocked me up (or, as you are a bit of a Yankee, "down" if you like) and I have got leave for a week or two, which I intend spending with Archie. He, the Professor, delivered a lecture at Penicuik the other day on the "Geology of the District"

Aug. 1858.

I am home at present on the sick list, and it is not likely I'll be back to office before the end of autumn. We have glorious weather here at present,—and if I go to the country I have not the slightest doubt but I'll enjoy myself. B------'s master has failed; but the General is not as yet out of his employment altho' he expects soon to be so. I wish I were out of mine; I verily believe it will land me in a premature grave. It never has agreed with me.

Mother is anxious to go off to the country with me. We are just looking about for a place. Perhaps Melrose or Lanark, but lodgings in both places are dear. I go at any rate with Archie next month to Fife; to be located probably at Aberdour; where I will be able to prosecute my geological studies, for I hope, if I am spared, to be able to join the Survey.—My dear Willie I will now close. I never forget you nor ever shall. You become all the dearer the further and longer you are away. God grant that we meet again on earth, if not we are always sure of meeting in a far better place. —I am your affect, brother,


The gloomy prognostication that his work at the printer's office would land him in a premature grave was not fulfilled, but the statement helps to explain why he left the work in the same year as that in which the letter was written, having apparently never returned to the office after writing it. In order to leave he broke his apprenticeship, and this was strongly opposed by his employer, who told him that a man who changed his profession would never succeed, a prophecy—in any case somewhat extreme —which was not fulfilled in this case.

But after leaving the printing-works there was still another interval of waiting before the boy settled down to his life-work, and found his vocation. He did not finally enter the Survey till October 1861, a few months after his lifelong friend Dr Young. The period of waiting was spent partly at the University, where he attended among other classes Prof. Allman's natural history course, a subject with which geology was then united. He was also in a lawyer's office for a time, while waiting for a vacancy on the Geological Survey.

To enter this he had to pass what was called a "Qualifying Examination," which then included what the profane called Civil Service "tots." These were long sums in compound addition, which had to be done within a limited time and with great accuracy. Though the operation became more or less mechanical to those who practised it assiduously, it presented considerable difficulties to those who were not accustomed to such work, especially when, like James Geikie, the victim had not what are called "business" instincts. The difficulties were, however, overcome, and in October 1861, as already stated, he entered the Geological Survey, forming a member of the small Scottish staff, which consisted of Messrs H. H, Howell, Archibald Geikie, Dr Young, and himself, with the addition, a few months later, of Mr (now Dr) B. N. Peach. Of this band only Sir Archibald Geikie and Dr Peach now survive.

With this appointment to the Survey the period of uncertainty and waiting ended, and James Geikie, at the age of twenty-two, entered on his life-work, and henceforth found his way clear before him.

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