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Robert Dick of Thurso
Geologist and Botanist by Samuel Smiles LL.D. (1879)


The preparation of this book has occupied me at intervals during several years. It would have been published before the Life of a Scotch Naturalist, but for want of the requisite materials.

I have to thank my reviewers, one and all, for their favourable notices of that work. It has, however, been objected that I should have culled my last example of Self-Help from a career not already concluded, and exposed the Scotch Naturalist, after his long unmerited neglect, to the harder trial of intrusive patronage, to which my premature biography was likely to expose him.

Whatever truth there may be in this objection, it certainly does not apply in the present case. Robert Dick died twelve years ago, without any recognition of his services to the cause of science, and without any of that Royal Help which, as in the case of Edward, is likely to render the later years of his life more free from care and anxiety.

The first account that I heard of Robert Dick was from the lips of the late Sir Roderick Murchison. He delivered a speech at Leeds on the occasion of the meeting of the British Association, which was held there in September 1858.

“In pursuing my researches in the Highlands,” said the Baronet, “ and going beyond Sutherland into Caithness, it was my gratification a second time to meet with a remarkable man in the town of Thurso, named Robert Dick, a baker by trade. I am proud to call him my distinguished friend. When I went to see him, he spread out before me a map of Caithness and pointed out its imperfections. Mr. Dick had travelled over the whole county in his leisure hours, and was thoroughly acquainted with its features. He delineated to me, by means of some flour which he spread out on his baking board, not only its geographical features, but certain geological phenomena which he desired to impress upon my attention. Here is a man who is earning his daily bread by his hard work; who is obliged to read and study by night; and yet who is able to instruct the Director-General of the Geographical Society.

“But this is not half of what I have to tell you of Robert Dick. When I became better acquainted with this distinguished man, and was admitted into his sanctum—which few were permitted to enter—I found there busts of Byron, of Sir Walter Scott, and other great poets. I also found there books, carefully and beautifully bound, which this man had been able to purchase out of the savings of his single bakery. I also found that Robert Dick was a profound botanist. I found, to my humiliation, that this baker knew infinitely more of botanical science—ay, ten times more—than I did; and that there were only some twenty or thirty British plants that he had not collected. Some he had obtained as presents, some he had purchased, but the greater portion had been accumulated by his own industry in his native county of Caithness. These specimens were all arranged in most beautiful order, with their respective names and habitats; and he is so excellent a botanist that he might well have been a professed ornament of Section D [Zoology and Botany]. I have mentioned these facts,” concluded the Baronet, “ in order that the audience may deduce a practical application.”

This notice of Robert Dick, by a man of so much eminence as Sir Roderick Murchison, interested me greatly. His perseverance in the cause of Science, while pursuing the occupations of his daily labour—his humility, his modesty, and his love of nature—were things well worthy of being commemorated. But I was at that time unable to follow up my inquiries. I could merely mention him in Self-Help, which was published in the following year, as an instance of cheerful, horcst working, and of energetic effort to make the most of small means and ordinary opportunities.

Many years passed. Robert Dick died in 1866* Was it possible that he had left any memoranda on which a memoir of his life and labours could be written ? On inquiry I found that many of his letters were still in existence. I believe that I have been successful in obtaining the greater part of them, or, at all events, those which are the most interesting. In fact, by means of these letters the story of Dick’s life has in a great measure been told by himself.

One of his principal correspondents was the late Hugh Miller, author of My Schools and Schoolmasters, The Old Red Sandstone, and other geological works. His son, Mr. Hugh Miller, of the Geological Survey, has kindly sent me Dick’s letters to his father; though Hugh Miller’s letters to Dick have not yet reached me. They are supposed to be in Australia.

Mr. Charles W. Peach, A.L.S., one of Dick’s best friends, has sent me all Dick’s letters to him, together with much other valuable information as to his life and character. But perhaps the best of Dick’s letters— those containing his references to his private life — were those written to his sister, principally for her amusement; and these have been kindly placed in my hands by Dick’s brother-in-law, Mr. Falconer of Haddington.

I am also indebted to Dr. Meiklejohn, to Dr. Robert Brown, F.L.S., for many letters; and to the Rev. William Miller, A.M., Thurso, for the letters sent by Dick to his uncle, the late Mr. John Miller, F.G.S.

Among those who have also favoured me with valuable information as to Dick’s life, I have to mention Mr. Brims, Procurator-Fiscal, Thurso; Mr. G. M. Sutherland and Mr. Fielding, Wick; Professor Shearer, Airedale College, Bradford; and Dr. George Shearer, Liverpool.

With respect to the Illustrations, they have, for the most part, been the result of several journeys which I have made round the coast of Caithness, and also into the inland districts frequented by Robert Dick, while making his numerous journeys in search of fossils, boulder clay, ferns, plants, and grasses.

The illustrations have been much improved by being drawn on the wood by such accomplished artists as Leitch, Skelton, and Boot, and engraved by Cooper, Whymper, and Paterson.

Mr. Sheriff Russell of Wick and Mr. Charles Peach of Edinburgh have also given me their assistance in the preparation of the illustrations.

The engraving of Mr. Peach has been executed by Charles Roberts, after a photograph by Mr. Dallas, Edinburgh.

London, November 1878.


Chapter I. Tullibody
The village of Tullibody—Windings of the Forth and Devon—Scenery of the Devon—The Ochils—Castle Campbell—Rift in the 0chill — Menstrie—Bencleuch—The Picts — The “Standing-Stane”— Cambuskenneth — The French at Tullibody — The Abercromby family.

Chapter II. Robert Dick's Boyhood
Robert Dick’s birthplace—His mother—The children sent to school— Teacher of the Barony School—Robert Dick an apt scholar—His talent for languages—Resides at Dam’s Burn—Schoolmaster at Menstrie — Climbs the Ochils — Life at home —His stepmother —Family difficulties—What Dick learnt as a boy—He leaves home.

Chapter III. Robert Dick Apprenticed
Apprenticed to a baker—Life of a baker’s boy—His early and late hours—Delivering the bread—His observations of Nature—First acquaintance with Botany—Remembrance of the plants of the Devon—His sister Agnes—His day of rest—A great reader—Mr. Dick removes to Thurso—Robert Dick leaves Tullibody—A journeyman baker at Leith, Glasgow, and Greenock—Removes to Thurso— Begins business in Thurso—Thurso Bay—His delight in the sea— The sea-bird’s cry.

Chapter IV. Description of Caithness
The name “Caithness”—Nesses along the coast—Caithness Scandinavian—Wicks in Caithness—Saetrs, Dahls, Thorsa—The people ~ Firths or fiords—The Piets drowned—Currents in the Pentland Firth—Stroma—Pentland Skerries—The furious winds in Caith* ness—No trees or hedges—Barrogill Castle—The coast scenery— Wick Bay—Duncansby Head—The Stacks—John o’ Groats—The old castles—Al-wick, Keiss, Girnigo—The Gyoes—The inland country—The Caithness mountains—The great mountain, Morven —Agriculture—The old Caithness plough—Thurso—Roads—Crab* bans—Ord of Caithness—Sir John Sinclair—Thurso Castle—Road over Benclieilt—Sir John Sinclair’s improvements.

Chapter V. Dick Begins Business
Wilson Lane, Thurso — First flour bought — Studies conchology— Botany—His father leaves for Haddington—Dunnet Head, Hol-born Head, and the Clett—The Gyoes—The inland country— Entomology—Beetles, Bees, Butterflies, and Moths—The boys follow Dick—Makes friends of the boys—Rare insects brought to him—Astronomy, Geology, Phrenology—Dick invited to marry— Annie Mackay — Mechanical method for making biscuits—His biscuits.

Chapter VI. Botanical Wanderings
His entomological collection—Tested everything by observation—His books—Books imbedded in his flour—His microscope—Hogarth’s works—A great reader—Botanical excursions—Spring in the North —Watching the growth of the flowers—The ferns—Caithness flora —Study of Botany—Midsummer time—Solitude—The moors—The soaking rain—Walking for a fern—Standing on a liill-top—Letters to his sister—Walking over a . moor—Journey to Morven top— Diels taken for a salmon-poacher.

Chapter VII. Discovers the "Holy Grass"
Business and science—Want of friends—His dress—His love of nature —A deputation from the boys—Dick a general referee—His knowledge of plants—The Hierochloe borealis—Retains the discovery for twenty years—Dick’s paper on the subject—The Royal Botanical Society, Edinburgh—The Moonwort—The Stork’s-bill—Pursuit of ferns—Dunnet Sands—The Dorery Hills—Loch Shurery—Dick’s fernery at the Reay Hills.

Chapter VIII. Dunnet Head
The coast scenery near Thurso—Holborn Head—The rockbound coast —The Gyoes—Fury of the waves—Scrabster Roads—New rocks laid bare—Dunnet Head a favourite haunt—Height of the cliffs— Extent of the peninsula—Dwarwick Head—Yachting trip round! Dunnet Head—The gyoe near Dwarwick—The sea-birds—The lighthouse—Slips of the rocks—Dick’s journey to Dunnet Head— Dunnet sands—Over the heather—Down the cliffs—Search for ferns—Overtaken by the sea—Dick found by a pleasure party— Geology of Dunnet Head—Devoid of organisms—The sandstone cliffs—Sandstone from shore to shore—Rocks at Brough—Dunnet Loch—A superstition of Caithness.

Chapter IX. Geology Discovery of a Holoptychius
Studies Geology—Mantell and Buckland—Hugh Miller’s Old Red Sandstone—Addresses Hugh Miller—The Holoptychius—Describes the beginning of his studies—Hugh Miller’s account of Dick— Gentlemen-geologists—The scalding theory—Dick sends his fossils to Hugh Miller—Hugh Miller’s acknowledgments.

Chapter X. Geology of the Thurso Coast
Invitations to Hugh Miller—Description of the coast—Thurso East— Fossiliferous beds—“That man is mad”—View from the coast— Pudding Gyoe—Murkle Bay—Yiew of Dunnet cliffs—Geologising at Scrabster—The sea—The Coccosteus—An old burying-ground— Bishop’s Palace—Scrabster Roads—Holborn Head—The Deil’s Brig —The Clett—Slater’s monument—Brims—Searching for fossils on Holborn Head.

Chapter XI. Hugh Miller Visits Dick
Dick’s observations in geology—Opposed to theorising—Dip of the strata—How came the fossil fish ?—The flagstones of Caithness— Geological formation of Caithness—Elevation and depression of the land—Differences of climate—The glaciers—The boulder clay— Beds of coal—Dick sends his fossil remains to Hugh Miller—A bundle of findings—Dick publicly mentioned—Weydale—An auld bachelor—Dipterus and Diplopterus—The quarrymen and tiie fossils —Banniskirk—“Fresh herring”—Walking sentry—Reconnoitres for Hugh Miller—Hugh Miller visits Robert Dick—Their walks along the shore—Dunnet sands and Dunnet Head—Holborn Head —Description of Hugh Miller—The expatriated Highlanders— “Donald’s Flittin”.

Chapter XII. Death of Dick's Father - The Boulder Clay
Thomas Dick at Haddington—Removes to Tullibody—His illness and death—Letter to his sister—Competition at Thurso—His absence from “the Kirk”—The reason why—Dick’s solitary service—His collection of fossils—Researches into the boulder clay—His journeys by daylight and moonlight—Boulder clay along the Thurso river —Finds marine shells and flints—Thurdistoft—Belts of clay— Ilarpsdale—Sends Hugh Miller the marine shells.

Chapter XIII. Dick’s Searchings Amongst The Boulder Clay
A journey to Freswick—Starts at midnight—Castle of Freswick— Wanderings up the burn—Finds marine shells—Hugh Miller’s conclusions—The eastern side of Dunnet Head—Dick’s walk under the break-neck rocks—Cliffs at Brough—Goes into a boulder clay ravine—Proceeds down a ledge—Wonder upon wonder—Dick’s reflections—Journey to Harpsdale—Another visit to Freswick— Boulder stones—Village of Castletown—Wild bulls of Dunnet— Moss of Mey—The Skerry Lights—Stroma Isle—The Wart Hill— Wades along Freswick Burn—Searches amongst the boulder clay— All the country once occupied by the sea—Dick’s conclusions.

Chapter XIV. Iceberg Period
Action of icebergs—Journey to Dunbeath—Crosses Caithness from north to south—Granitic debris—Dunbeath Water—Finds marine shells—Granite and conglomerate—The boulders—The moors— Loch More—The auld carle—The want of sneeshin—Deceived by the auld carle—Formation of Caithness—Journey to Acharynic— Picturesque appearance of the river—Dirlot Castle—Dallmore and Cattack—Strathbeg—Journey to Sinclair Bay—Noss Head—Various other journeys—Visit to Shurery—View from the Ben—"Walk up Strath Halladale—Journey along the Pentland Firth—The Haven of Mey—The Caddis worm.

Chapter XV. End of Correspondense with Hugh Miller
Dick’s assistance to Hugh Miller—Professor Agassiz’s testimony— Professor Sedgwick—Specimen of the Diplopterus—Professor Owen —Hugh Miller’s acknowledgments—Ruling by authorities—Geological maps—Dick’s travelling map—Government should make the maps—One first creation—Winter in Caithness—Groovings of ice—Rolling home an Asterolepis—How Dick polished his fossils— Working among the rocks, at Barrogill, Mull of Mey, Scarskerry— The base at Gill’s Bay—Scotland Haven—Ramble to Bencheilt— The Druid’s Temple—Stemster Loch—Bed over bed—Hugh Miller’s works—Popes of all sorts—Hugh Miller’s death—Dick’s story of “The Fairies”—Dick’s lamentations over Hugh’s death.

Chapter XVI. Charles W. Peach, A.L.S.
Another worker among the rocks in Cornwall—Charles Peach—How working men may advance knowledge—Peach and Dick—Peach born at Wansford—His schooling—Assists in his father’s inn—Is appointed riding officer in the Coastguard service—Studies Natural History—His frequent removals in Norfolk—The Rev. J. Layton— Superintendent at Cley—Removed to Lyme Regis, Beer, Paignton, and Gorranhaven—Studies Zoology—The Geology of the Cornish coast—Reads a paper at the British Association—Constant attender at the meetings—The meeting at York—Dr. R. Chambers’ description—Discovery of the Holothuria nigra—Charles Peach promoted to Landing Waiter at Fowey—His discovery of organic fossils— Testimony of the Royal Cornish Geological Society—Removes to Peterhead—Continues his studies in Zoology and Botany—Removes to Wick — His first visit to Robert Dick — His second visit to Dick — Their walks — Battles in Dick’s bakehouse — Peach discovers fossils in the limestone of Durness—Effects a revolution in Geology.

Chapter XVII. Robert Dick and Charles Peach
Peach finds a new fossil—Dick’s reply—The monk of Cambray reading backwards—Views of Geology—Ill-will to geologists—Mr. Peach’s paper at Liverpool — Fossil wood — Dick’s botanical collection— Mr. W. L. Notcutt—Dick’s correspondents—His Sunday walks— Dr. Macleod—“ Ta tail pe brak”—Encounter with a Highlander— Sir Roderick Murchison—Calls on Robert Dick—Letter from Sir Roderick—Second visit to Dick—Moulds a map of Caithness in flour—Sir Roderick’s letter—Voyage of Murchison and Peach to the Shetland Islands—Sir Roderick’s speech at Leeds—“Hammers an* chisels an’ a’ ”—Amygdaloid—Dick’s rhymes—Another letter from Sir Roderick—Another rhyme.

Chapter XVIII. Lion-Hunters - Ferns and Mosses
Thurso people and Dick—Opinions about his rhymes—Lion-hunters— Annie Mackay—The Duke of Argyll—Sir George Sinclair—Thomas Carlyle and Baroness Burdett Coutts—Lady Sinclair—“Welcome Charlie” — Medical students—Dr. Shearer—Dr. Meiklejohn—Dr. Brown—The Juncus squarrosus—Study of mosses—Club mosses— Finds the Osmunda regalis—Ferns on Dunnet Head—Cornish heaths—Studies from Nature—Fossil wood—Illness—Hart’s-tongue fern—Section of Caithness strata—Plants the Royal Fern over Caithness — Darwin’s Journal — The littleness of things — Dr. Shearer’s question—Correspondence with Dr. Meiklejohn—Influence of climate on roses.

Chapter XIX. Robert Dick in Adversity
Dick’s attention to business—Is oppressed by competition—Loses his money-Loses his health—Thinks of removing from Thurso—More bakers—Bakers and whisky dealers—John Barleycorn—No coddling and nursing—Improvement of Thurso—Annie Mackay’s conversation, Dick’s housekeeper—Dick’s honesty—His cheerfulness— Keeps moving—Pores over dried mosses—Jacob’s son—Eyesight becomes defective—His struggles to live—Sir Wyville Thomson—His description of Dick—Dick resumes his researches among the fossils —His great labour—Finds an extraordinary fossil.

Chapter XX. Dick Compelled to Sell his Fossils
The “Prince Consort” shipwrecked—Dick’s flour lost—Unahle to pay the loss—Appeals to his sister—Obtains 20 from her—Prepares to sell his fossils—Mr. John Miller, F.G.S.—Correspondence with him—Writes to Sir Roderick Murchison—Sells his fossils to Mr. Miller—Pays his bill for the lost flour—His business again falls off—Nature comes to his relief—His lonely walks—His favourite resorts—The Daisy—The Bulrush and Lapland Reed— Troubled with rheumatism — Native roses—Professor Babington —Professor Owen—Mr. Notcutt—Mr. Pringle, Farmer's Gazette—“0 waft me o’er the deep blue sea”—Dick a sleepless man—St. Peter’s burying-ground—A believer in the unseen world.

Chapter XXI. Recommences a Collection of Fossils
Again searches for fossil fish—His wondrous astonishment—The dead fish—Platform of death—View of Caithness and Orkney—Death a necessity — Interview with a quarryman — Hugh Miller’s views referred to—The Old Red conglomerate—Searchings among the rocks—A large fossil found—Searches for an entire fossil fish—His constant diggings—Mr. Salter’s lecture—Digs in hard frost—Order of succession—Bed of rolled pebbles on Morven top—Stony clays on Thurso river—Metamorphic action—Liquid silica—Flint casts— The chalk formation—Dick’s letters.

Chapter XXII. Dick's Friends Fossilising and Moss-Hunting
How the Thurso people regarded Dick—His antediluvian garments— His appearance—His inner thinkings—The little we really know— Dignity and purity of Dick’s character—Dr. Shearer’s statement as to his thoroughness—Peach and Dick—Careful and abstemious— “No pampering”—Correspondence with his sister—Ferns in December, Peri—Dick nearly shot—Death of his sister—A new friend —His meeting with Dick—His frequent interviews—Dick’s museum described—His herbarium—Walls of his bakehouse—His interest in Egypt—Natural History Society of Thurso—A museum—More correspondents—Mr. Jamieson, Ellon—Lines to Charles Peach— Award to Peach for his discoveries in geology—Peach finds new fossils—A sea-snake—Pterichthys DieJci—Peach’s duties—Retires from the service—Continues the study of geology and zoology—Dick’s letter on receiving his photograph.

Chapter XXIII. Dick's Last Year - His Death
Dick afflicted by rheumatism—Competition in business—His trade suspended—His biscuits—Scarcely earns the wages of a day-labourer —A good new year—Collecting mosses and ferns—Reform—The rain—Working at fossils again—The old days gone for ever—A boulder stone from Helmsdale—Bishop Colenso’s book—The Thurso merchants—Mr. Carlyle’s oration—Railway projects—Dick pictures himself—Dick’s last walk—His description—His illness—Mr. Miller’s helpfulness—Continues to work—His last letters—Mrs. Harold—Robert Dick’s death—A public funeral—Followers to his grave—Winding up of his affairs—Sale of his library—The proposed pension—Too late.

Chapter XXIV. Characteristics
Dick self-sacrificing life—Unhappiness in his bringing up—His delight in nature—His love of facts—The mystery of geology—Its wonders —His researches among the rocks and boulder clay—His unselfishness—His givings to Hugh Miller—Hugh Miller’s acknowledgments —His extraordinary journeys—Necessity for work—His intellectual labour—His modesty—His enthusiasm—His closeness of observation—His idea of geology—His collections of fossils—His herbarium —His character—His childlikeness—Sir George Sinclair’s testimony —Professor Shearer—Charles Peach—His poverty—Annie Mackay —Dick a reverent and devout man—Moral of Dick’s life.

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