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James Geikie
Chapter VII. Edinburgh and the Professorship, 1882-88

Official work in Edinburgh began with the delivery by the new professor of his inaugural address on 27th October 1882, the subject being "The Aims and Methods of Geological Inquiry."

'In early days the class was small, and as the income derived from Sir Roderick Murchison's endowment was supplemented by the students' fees, then paid direct to the professor, their number was an important matter. Further, at the time of the appointment, as for many years later, geology was not compulsory for any degree, and was not even an optional degree for the ordinary course in Arts. This meant that the professor had not a status in the University comparable to that of those of the Arts professors whose courses were compulsory, or of the members of the Medical Faculty. On the other hand, it meant that the students who took the class did so from a genuine interest in the subject. The fact that Prof. Geikie soon acquired much weight in the Senate was due entirely to his strong personality, unassisted, at least at first, by any advantages of position.

The letters of this first winter session are filled, as might be expected, with the business of settling down in Edinburgh, the buying of furniture and carpets, the "grind" of getting up the lectures, and recurring regrets at parting with old friends. A letter to Mr Home, written at the beginning of January 1883, illustrates very clearly the dawning of genuine interest in the new work, still mingled with longings for the old. The following passages may be quoted:—

I was at the office the other day. . . . But how the days flash by. And how the dear old days are gone when you and I and the others used to chaff and make a noise o' winter in that office. It makes me melancholy sometimes when I think of it all. I am Professor in Edinburgh University, but my heart is in the Survey with my old Survey chums. Here are tall hats, black coats, pompous windbags—and in a word, starch and humbug. My boy, I have been caught too old. Had I come here earlier I might have become "respectable" too—but it is too late! However, I get on well with my students who, being young, understand fun and such improvised nonsense as I endeavour to cheer them with. I fancy some of my colleagues would have their hair elevated if they heard me. I like the work much better than I expected, but eh man ! I miss the freedom of the country.

The office alluded to above was, of course, the Survey Office, and Prof. Geikie's colleagues record that at first he found it difficult to keep away from it. He generally dropped in on his way to or from the University to see how things were getting on, and never missed an opportunity of meeting his old friends. When he began to have students' parties some of the Survey men were generally asked also, so that the students might have an opportunity of coming into direct contact with the men who were making geology in Scotland.

Many allusions in the early letters show that the new professor found the task of arranging his class work irksome. In certain branches of geology he had himself taken little interest, having specialised early, and as at first he had no assistant, all the work fell on his own shoulders. For microscopic work and some aspects of mineralogy he had always expressed contempt, as being only suitable for the men who could not or did not work in the field; and these despised subjects he now felt himself constrained to "get up" for class purposes, and this necessity drew from him many groans. One must admit that there was a certain tragedy in this taking of a man of forty-four off his own highly specialised work to grind up a subject of practically no use to him in that work; but such tragedies are frequent when original thinkers are placed in professorial chairs which demand much elementary teaching. Preparing for his microscopic class, he complains, means sitting up half the night, and is "fiddling work," requiring little in the way of brains.

A letter to Prof. Stevenson of New York, dated . 26th January 1883, is not without interest in the same connection, in showing the effect of this drudgery on his own work. In acknowledging one of the former's publications, he says:—"I am sorry I have no papers to send you. My preparations for a new start as professor in our University here have absorbed nearly all my leisure time, so that several papers I had chalked out have been laid aside for the present." A letter to Mr Home, written a few weeks later, while the author was invigilating a class examination, shows where his thoughts turned as soon as the strain was lifted for a moment. It records the receipt of a letter from Prof. Nathorst of Stockholm, who had been doing work in Spitsbergen, and had come independently to the same conclusion in regard to certain points as James Geikie. The latter adds:— "He says he is delighted that his conclusions, arrived at independently, should corroborate and support mine. Very nice."

The same letter to Mr Home contains an allusion to an odd form of compliment which had just reached the writer. A lady in Nova Scotia, apparently a total stranger, had written to ask if the author of The Great Ice Age would stand godfather to her baby. The cream of the jest was, however, that the said baby was not expected to enter this vale of tears till some three or four months after the date of the letter. History, unfortunately, does not record whether or not the infant put in an appearance, nor whether it had to be baptised as James or Jamesina, but the professor gave his consent without, as he says, any ungentlemanly reference to common proverbs.

At the close of this, his first winter session, the new professor took a party of students on a long geological excursion to the Border district, his old hunting-ground. During the course of the excursion, which lasted several days, the party visited Buchtrig, whether wholly from geological or partly from sentimental reasons does not appear. Some fine tramps were taken over the hills, and the fact that the leader had himself worked out the geology of the district must have added much zest to the excursion.

In May the first summer class in geology was held, this being one of Prof. James Geikie's innovations. It was well attended, twenty-six students taking part, and consisted of both indoor work and excursions. After this year this summer course became a part of the regular routine, and while it was a great improvement from the point of view of teaching, it naturally still further diminished the professor's spare time, and placed him at a disadvantage, so far as independent work was concerned, with his colleagues of the Arts Faculty who then had only a short winter session.

The summer holiday was spent at Largo in Fife, and the summer was clouded by the death of Prof. Geikie's father, who passed away at the age of seventy-three, having seen both his geologist sons established in positions of importance.

The work of the following session, 1883-1884, proved easier than the first, "but just yet the Chair is not a 'bed of roses.' It takes up more time than I had reckoned for."

From an etching by Mr William Hole, A.R.S.A.
A Study of Prof. Geikie in 1884.

Spring brought two distractions, the Tercentenary celebrations of Edinburgh University, and preparations for a visit to Canada and the United States in connection with the British Association meeting at Montreal. Of the former Prof. Geikie soon wearied, and voiced his weariness, and perhaps some remains of resentment in regard to those winter nights spent —fruitlessly from his point of view—in " getting-up " uncongenial subjects, in a series of verses. These at the time were shown only to privileged friends, but may be quoted here now for the sake of those who can see a joke, even if it is partly at their own expense. They make it clear that the author was not yet wholly reconciled to academic life.


Hail stately pile ! hail treasure-house of lore!
Dear nurse of many a wit and many a bore!
What mingled thoughts have we in this late time,
Reviewing all the glories of thy prime!

Three hundred years ago thou hadst thy birth,
And now thy name is known o'er all the earth:
In making ropes of sand once great thy skill—
Thy fame is now the scalpel and the pill.

Alma Mater, 'neath thy learned shade,
How many a plot against mankind is laid!,
And ghouls in hundreds every year stalk forth,
To testify to all what thou art worth!

Tramp! tramp! they come, the ministers of death,
At their approach the boldest holds his breath:
"Your money and your life!" they gleeful cry—
And awestruck patients pay their fees and die.

These ghouls thy children are: nor these alone,
O bounteous mother, hail thee as their own!
Nursed in thine arms, the vacant—void no more
In countless numbers issue from thy door!

Confusion tightly pack'd within each brain—
Or air, compress'd, distending the inane,
Thine is the gas they own, and thine the lead,
The tongue untiring, and the addled head.

To pulpit and to platform see them fly,
For, wind-distracted, they must speak or die;
Bored and perplex'd the audience shifts about,
Those only happy who can snooze it out.

But I, unlucky, whither shall I go,
Who of this lore of thine so little know!
What academic prize to me shall fall,
Content to know a little, and not all!

Forgive me, O my mother, if I still
Keep some brain-space for after years to fill!
Nor chide if I decline this awful cram
Of unassorted victuals for exam!

The spring brought also the offer of the honorary fellowship of the Geological Society of Stockholm.

In August he started for New York, this being his first journey across the Atlantic. He enjoyed the voyage very much, being one of the very few passengers who were able to appear at meals during a stormy period met with soon after leaving Ireland. Later the weather improved and the party became very lively, Prof. Geikie participating in all the entertainments and gaiety which went on. "I feel already 20 per cent, better in mind and body," he says; "twenty years younger am I too, or I would not enjoy such high jinks as go on here." Several friends were made on the ship, and one of these, a Boston gentleman, showed much kindness to Prof. Geikie on his arrival in New York. Thanks to him, it was possible to see something of the city during a brief stay there, the incidents including a visit behind the scenes of a theatre, where the stage manager announced that he had read The Great Ice Age.

From New York the journey was continued to Chicago, which did not make a very favourable impression, and on to St Paul, much of geological interest being seen en route. From St Paul the party went to Winnipeg, the furthest point west reached. The crossing of the prairies made a great impression on Prof. Geikie. He says:—

I have often pictured the prairies to myself, but somehow the picture never comes up to the reality. How strange it is to gaze over a seemingly limitless extent of grass-land as flat as any Scottish haugh-land. The sky was exquisitely bright—white clouds sailing over a delicate blue—but the colours of the prairie surpass my powers of description. The wild flowers fairly took my breath away—there were blues, purples, whites, and yellows, the latter predominating. Standing outside of the car one never tired watching the changing hues — here were broad belts of yellow, there patches of blue and white and purple. Or all the colours were commingled in a dazzling confusion. The rails are laid flat on the prairie and the sweet flowers grow up to the rails. Butterflies in absolute clouds—great big fellows—danced and flitted about, and now and again a flight of birds appeared. But huts or houses were seen only at very wide intervals—sometimes many miles were passed without any sign of human habitation. I enjoyed the ride of 500 miles through the prairies much more than anything else I have yet seen. It was a new experience. What an expressive silence seemed to overhang the vast stretch of grass-land. A heavy storm of rain and sheet lightning suddenly came on and drove us into the car at sunset. When I woke this morning at four o'clock and looked out of the carriage window I saw an exquisite sunrise— a beautiful pink flushed all the east, and the prairie fairly gleamed with golden yellow and blue.

The notes on Winnipeg and on the journey-thence to Toronto are interesting as showing how little future developments were expected at this date. Of Winnipeg, described as being "in the far west," Prof. Geikie says:—"Winnipeg is a surprising place for so far distant a region. Here are some 25,000 inhabitants: it is quite a considerable town— with churches, theatres, etc., etc., and a Scientific Society." Speaking of his journey eastwards he says:—

Photo by Guteirunst, Philadelphia.
Prof. Geikie in 1888

We left Winnipeg on Wednesday; (20th) and travelled all day through rough rolling ground, very rocky and sprinkled with my friends—boulder-clay, morainic gravel and sand, and large erratics. The country was upon the whole rather dreary, dense thickets of spruce fir covering the rocky knolls, and swamps and morasses lying in the hollows. Here and there where the ground was more open the prairie flowers flourished, and butterflies and dragon-flies fluttered and darted about in the sunshine. Night overtook us while we were still in the same monotonous country. A number of British Ass. folk had joined us at Winnipeg, among them Prof. Ramsay, [Later Sir William Ramsay.] a nephew of my Prof. R. The night we passed in the sleeping-car, and next morning found us still sweeping along through the same kind of forest land. Very fine evidence of ice-work was seen all the way—just like what I know in Wester Ross and Sutherland. We breakfasted at a rough station in those dreary backwoods. Houses are few and far apart in such a desolate region, and I can't see how the railway can ever pay. We passed over 1000 miles of land, most of which seemed to me as barren and hopeless as the poorest tracts of the Outer Hebrides. The trees are small miserable sticks, and everywhere one sees rising above these small trees tall ragged and naked trunks, marked with fire, showing that much forest land must have been destroyed by fire in earlier days. We stopped at last at Port Arthur, at the upper end of Lake Superior, where we spent the day and night. This is a small backwoods town of some 2000 or 3000 inhabitants. The view over Thunder Bay is fine, and I enjoyed a walk into the country.

Next day the party sailed down the lakes to Owen Sound and took train for Toronto. From here Niagara was visited, and after that the journey continued to Montreal.

From Montreal Prof. Geikie went south to Philadelphia, where he found the heat very trying, and then back to New York and on to Boston. The latter town attracted him greatly. "I feel more at home in Boston than I have felt since leaving Auld Reekie. The people are more like our own people too." Here he met and made many friends, and tells an amusing experience with a German lady doctor, who made wine from grapes grown in her own vineries. She and Prof. Geikie got on very well together, and the latter was invited to visit the vineries and taste the wine. Having received a private warning, the professor resolved to display extreme abstemiousness when confronted with the fluid, but the lady ceremoniously proposed the health of her guest from across the seas, who felt constrained to return the compliment with a brimming goblet. Fortunately the proceedings came to a close soon afterwards, and Prof. Geikie and his friend were able to hurry home to the latter's house in order to correct the influence of the concoction with a modest "dram." They took a long drive afterwards, and no results followed, apparently, beyond the acquisition of a conviction that the climate of Boston was unsuited to the juice of the grape.

Shortly afterwards Prof. Geikie returned home, and in December he writes to Mr Home bemoaning the amount of work which he found waiting for him. He says:—"But know one thing, O Home, that here in Auld Reekie I am pestered to death with correspondence. People scribble on all sorts of subjects, and expect answers, and I begin to hate the sight of notepaper. And so the letters that I ought to write and like to write remain unwritten, while those I detest to write take up more time than I like to waste. You should have seen the piles waiting for me on my return from Yankee land—some of the rubbish is not answered yet." He goes on in the same letter to say:—"I find living in town more expensive than the country, there are so many calls upon one, and the class does not pay as well as I had hoped. But that is mending and I have good hopes." He also speaks of a "pot-boiler" he was busy with, to wit, his Outlines of Geology, which though far advanced at this time did not appear till more than a year afterwards.

The same note occurs in other letters of the following year, and a projected visit to the Hebrides in the summer of 1885 had to be given up owing to "circumstances over which I have no control {i.e., empty purse)." "Living here is not so easy as in the country," he adds again. But he also says:—"I have got into the ways of my new sphere and jog along very comfortably."

More interesting than the "pot-boiling" of which he speaks frequently, was his work in connection with the Scottish Geographical Society, in which he took an active part in the autumn of 1884. Thus in the letter already quoted he says:—"I have been sair taigled with that Geographical Society, but I think it will do; and I mean to work it to some purpose. We are going to bring out the first number of a Geographical Magazine in January, for which I have promised to write a short article on the Physical Features of Scotland."

At the first meeting of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, it may be noted, which was held on 28th October 1884, Prof. Geikie moved— "That this meeting, recognising the scientific and general utility of a national society for the promotion of geography, resolves that a Geographical Society for Scotland be now formed." He was associated with the Society till his death, and took a very active part in its management, as Hon. Editor from 1888 onward, as a Vice-President, and for the period 1904-1910 as President. Beginning with the first number also he made frequent contributions to the Scottish Geographical Magazine, contributions of great scientific importance, and in addition was always ready to put his knowledge and experience at the disposal of the Acting Editor. During a long period of years his work for the Society must have made large inroads upon his time and energy, and thus geography in Scotland, no less than geology, owes him a great debt of gratitude.

No very noteworthy events took place in the year 1885. The Outlines of Geology was finished, though it did not appear till after the New Year, and in autumn a visit was paid to Louisa, Lady Ashburton, who became a great friend of the family. The visit was to Lady Ashburton's country house at Loch Luichart in Ross, and was very enjoyable, many drives being taken to surrounding places. On the homeward journey Prof, and Mrs Geikie stayed with their friends Mr and Mrs Home at Inverness.

The party at Loch Luichart was evidently a very gay one, and Prof. Geikie, freed from strain and at' leisure, seems to have been full of life. Letters from members of the party, written on receipt of Heine's Songs and Lyrics, which saw the light in the autumn of 1887, are full of allusions to the visit and to the songs that had been sung during the drives, allusions which cast a pleasant light on the geologist's human side.

In the early part of 1886 the Outlines of Geology appeared,-and was so successful that a second edition was called for less than two years afterwards. During 1886 also Prof. Geikie's fourth son was born.

As the year went on, signs of strain due to the process of adjustment to the conditions of town life began to make themselves apparent, one of the most distressing symptoms being insomnia. A sleeping-draught which gave five or six hours of sleep was welcomed with a fervour which tells a pitiful tale. Perhaps in some ways even more serious for one who was lecturing daily was loss of voice, which occurred at Christmas. The brief vacation failed to produce permanent improvement, and the early part of the year 1887 saw a losing struggle between ill-health and James Geikie's strong sense of duty. As soon as the spring vacation freed him he went off to the Canary Islands to recuperate. A letter from Teneriffe, dated 18th April 1887, indicates a characteristically rapid rebound of spirits:—"This place is a paradise on earth!" The hotel (at Orotava) he describes as "simply fairy-like. It is bowered in trees, palms and others. Fountains and lakes are all round, lovely gardens one blaze of gorgeous colour, and rich green, cool colonnades with lounges where you can sit and dream and gaze on the sunlit sea. The mornings and evenings are simply heavenly."

During his stay Prof. Geikie climbed the Peak on foot, an exhausting excursion in the heat, and one for which he was probably not fit. His account of the effect of rising above the mountain's noontide cloud-cap is interesting:—"When we got above the clouds the sight was very grand. The upper surface is approximately level, and, rising above it, the higher ridges and mountains look so many islands in a tumbled and rolling sea. But such a sea! Imagine the sun blazing down from a perfectly clear and cloudless sky—the mountain tops rugged and serrated, and coloured red and yellow—and the cloud-sea shining with the most silvery brilliance. Now and again the wind would cause the clouds to rise up like billows and roll for some little distance up the hill-slopes above the general level of the cloud-sea, but the invading billows were soon torn to shreds and disappeared." Of the top he says:—"What a weird scene it was. Here were numerous extinct volcanoes, craters looking raw and red just as if they had vomited forth yesterday. The ground was sprinkled all round with slags and cinders and volcanic sand and dust, and not a blade of grass was to be seen."

Prof. Geikie did a certain amount of geologising during his stay in the Canaries, and said in his letters home that he was greatly the better for his trip:— "My voice is as strong as ever, and I feel braced up in every way." Unfortunately the improvement did not last after his return home. He had a disappointing summer, and with winter the insomnia returned. He could do little save his class work, and this was a sore struggle. But the fact of his being cut off from his own special work had the effect of turning his attention again to the German poems, and the book, as stated, finally appeared in the autumn of 1887. A good many of the letters acknowledging receipt have been preserved, for the poems had always been very dear to him. A pathetic letter from Lady Ramsay records the pleasure which the book gave to Sir Andrew Ramsay, now an invalid and sadly changed from what he had been in his prime. She had read some of the verses to him as he sat in his bath-chair at Beaumaris, where the family were now living, and they had brought back some flashes of his old animation.

Prof. Geikie's health continued to give cause for anxiety throughout the winter of 1887-1888, and in summer he and Mrs Geikie went to the Engadine, in the hope that the high altitude and bracing air would do him good. As the weather became colder they went down into Italy, coming home eventually by sea from Naples. Some charming letters to the boys, who were left at home, and to others of the family connection, have been preserved, but deal for the most part only with the usual incidents of travel in the Alps. "The boys" were by this time old enough to be keenly interested in butterflies, and their father gives some humorous descriptions of his attempts to increase their collections.

Among the minor incidents of the tour were a meeting with Huxley at the Maloja, and the delivery by Prof. Geikie of a lecture on the Ice Age at Pontresina to an audience of two to three hundred people. The latter part of the visit to the Engadine was marred by the cold, and the altitude did not seem to suit him so well as he had hoped. On the journey through Italy a stop was made on Lake Como, of which Prof. Geikie speaks with the same enthusiasm as of old. On the whole, the tour seems to have been very beneficial, and to have been an important factor in restoring him to health.

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