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Significant Scots
James Hutton

James Hutton

HUTTON, (DR) JAMES, an eminent philosophical character, was born in Edinburgh on the 3rd June, 1726. His father was a respectable merchant, who for many years held the office of city treasurer, and was admired by all who knew him, for his sound judgment and strict integrity. He died while James was very young; the care, therefore, of her son’s education devolved upon Mrs Hutton, whose great maternal kindness was only exceeded by her desire to give her son a liberal education. She sent him first to the High school of Edinburgh, and afterwards to the university, where he entered as a student of humanity in 1740. Professor M’Laurin was then the most celebrated teacher in that seminary, but though Dr Hutton admired his lectures, he did not seem much disposed towards the science which he taught. To professor Stevenson’s prelections on logic may be attributed the first direction given to young Hutton’s genius, not so much for having made him a logician, but for having accidentally directed his mind towards the science of chemistry. The professor having casually mentioned in one of his lectures, in illustration of some general doctrine, the fact, that gold is dissolved in aqua regia, and that two acids, which can each of them singly dissolve any baser metals, must unite their strength before they can attack the most precious; the phenomenon struck so forcibly on the mind of Hutton, that he began to search with avidity after books which might explain its cause, and afford him an opportunity of pursing a study altogether new. He at first found some embarrassments in his pursuit from the superficial works that came to his hands, and it was from Harris’s Lexicon Techni that he first derived his knowledge of chemistry, and which by a sort of elective attraction drew his mind all at once to a favourite study, that decided his prospects in life.

Though he pursued his academical studies with closeness and regularity, and evinced a taste and capacity for instruction, his friends did not see much profit likely to arise from scientific pursuits, and accordingly persuaded him to adopt some profession, which, though much against his inclination, he agreed to, and was accordingly placed as an apprentice with Mr George Chalmers, writer to the signet, in 1743. The dry routine of a laborious profession in a less ardent mind might have checked, if not for ever destroyed, those seeds of genius which were as yet scarce called into life; but so strong was Mr Hutton’s propensity for scientific study, that, instead of copying papers, and making himself acquainted with legal proceedings, he was oftener found amusing himself with his fellow apprentices in chemical experiments; so that Mr Chalmers was forced to acknowledge that the business of a writer was one in which he had little chance to succeed. With a fatherly kindness, he therefore advised young Hutton to embrace some other employment more suitable to his inclinations, and relieved him at once from the obligations he came under as his apprentice. How much is science indebted to that liberal-minded man! Having now to fix upon another profession, he selected that of medicine,, as being the most nearly allied to chemistry, and began to study under Dr George Young, and at the same time attended the lectures at the university from 1744 to 1747. The schools of medicine in Edinburgh at that time had not arrived at the high perfection for which they are now so justly celebrated, and it was thought indispensably necessary that a physician should finish his education on the continent. Mr Hutton accordingly proceeded to Paris, where he applied himself closely to anatomy and chemistry. After remaining for two years in France, he returned home by the way of the Low Countries, and took the degree of doctor of medicine at Leyden in 1749.

On arriving in London, about the end of that year, he began seriously to reflect upon his prospects in life, and he soon saw, that however much he wished to establish himself in his native city as a physician, there were many obstacles which seemed insurmountable. He was a young man whose merit was unknown, and whose connexions, though respectable, had no power to assist him, the business being then in the hands of a few eminent practitioners who had been long known and established. All this seems to have made a deep impression on his mind, and he expressed himself with much anxiety on the subject in corresponding with his friends in Edinburgh. Amongst these there was one, a young man nearly of his own age, whose habits and pursuits were congenial with his own, and with whom he had tried many novel experiments in chemistry; amongst the best was one on the nature and properties of sal ammoniac. This friend, whose name was James Davie, had, in Mr Hutton’s absence, pushed his inquiries on the subject to a considerable extent; the result of which afforded him a well-grounded hope of being able to establish a profitable manufactory of that salt from coal-soot. Mr Davie communicated the project to his friend in London, who, with a mind as yet undecided on any fixed pursuit, returned to Edinburgh in 1750, and abandoning entirely his views on the practice of medicine, resolved to apply himself to agriculture. What his motives were for taking this step it is difficult to ascertain. His father had left him a small property in Berwickshire, and being of an independent and unambitious mind, despising avarice and vanity alike, he most probably looked upon the business of a farmer as entitled to a preference above any other. But not being disposed to do any thing in a superficial way, he determined to gain a knowledge of rural economy in the best school of the day. For this purpose he went into Norfolk, and took up his residence in the house of a farmer, from whom he expected to receive sufficient instruction. He appears to have enjoyed his situation very much,—the natural simplicity of his disposition according well with the plain, blunt characters around him.

It has been remarked of Dr Hutton, that to men of an ordinary grade of mind, he appeared to be an ordinary man possessing little more spirit perhaps than is usually to be met with. This circumstance made his residence in Norfolk quite agreeable, as even there he could for a time forget his great acquirements, and mingle with the simple characters around him, in so cordial a manner, as to make them see nothing in the stranger to set them at a distance from him, or induce them to treat him with reserve. In years after, when surrounded by his literary friends, the philosopher loved to describe the happy hours he spent while under the humble roof of honest John Dybold, from whom he had learned so many good practical lessons in husbandry. From his residence in Norfolk, he made many journeys on foot through other parts of England to obtain information in agriculture, and it was in the course of these rambles that, to amuse himself on the road, he first began to study mineralogy and geology. In a letter to Sir John Hall of Douglas, a gentleman possessed of much taste for science, he says, while on his perambulations, "that he was become very fond of studying the surface of the earth, and was looking with anxious curiosity, into every pit, or ditch, or bed of a river, that fell in his way, and that if he did not always avoid the fate of Thales, his misfortune was certainly not owing to the same cause." This letter was written from Yarmouth in 1753. With the view of still further increasing his knowledge of agriculture, he set out for Flanders, where good husbandry was well understood, long before it was introduced into Britain, and travelling through Holland, Brabant, Flanders, and Picardy, he returned about the middle of summer, 1754. Notwithstanding all he had seen to admire in the garden culture that prevailed in Holland, and the husbandry in Flanders, he says, in a letter to his friend Sir John Hall, from London, "Had I a doubt of it before I set out, I should have returned fully convinced that they are good husbandmen in Norfolk." Many observations made on that journey, particularly on mineralogy, are to be found in his Theory of the Earth. As he was now sufficiently initiated in a knowledge of agriculture, he wished to apply himself to the practice in his own country; and for that purpose, returned to Scotland at the end of summer. He at first hesitated on the choice of a situation where he might best carry his improved plans of farming into effect, and at last fixed upon his own patrimony in Berwickshire. From Norfolk he brought with him a plough and ploughman, who set the first example of good tillage. It was a novel sight for the surrounding farmers to see the plough drawn by two horses, without an accompanying driver. The new system was, however, found to succeed in all its parts, and was quickly adopted, so that Dr Hutton has the credit of introducing the new husbandry into a country where it has, since his time, made more rapid improvements than in any other in Europe. He resided on his farm until the year 1768, occasionally making a tour into the Highlands, with his friend Sir George Clerk, upon gealogical inquiries, as he was now studying that branch of science with unceasing attention.

While residing on his farm for the last fourteen years, he was also engaged in the sal ammoniac work, which had been actually established on the foundation of the experiments already made by his friend and himself, but the business remained in Mr Davie’s name only till 1765, when a copartnership was regularly entered into, and the manufactory carried on in the name of both.

As his farm, from excellent management, progressively improved, it became a more easy task, and to a mind like his, less interesting; so that finding a good opportunity of letting it to advantage, he did so, and became a resident in Edinburgh in the year 1768, from which time he devoted his whole life to scientific pursuits. This change of residence was accompanied with many advantages he seldom enjoyed before; --having the entire command of his own time, he was enabled to mix in a society of friends whose minds were congenial with his own; among whom were Sir George Clerk, his brother Mr Clerk of Eldin, Dr Black, Mr Russel, professor of natural philosophy, professor Adam Ferguson, Dr James Lind, and others. Surrounded by so many eminent characters, by all of whom he was beloved and respected, from the vast fund of information he possessed, he employed his time in maturing his views and searching into the secrets of nature with unwearied zeal. In one of these experiments he discovered that mineral alkali is contained in zeolite. On boiling the gelatinous substance obtained from combining that fossil with muriatic acid, he found that, after evaporation, the salt was formed. Dr Playfair thinks this to be the first instance of an alkali being discovered in a stony body. The experiments of M. Klaprath and Dr Kennedy have confirmed the conclusion, and led to others of the same kind. With a view of completing his Theory of the Earth, he made many journeys into different parts of England and Wales, and on visiting the salt mines of Cheshire, he made the curious observations of the concentric circles marked on the roofs of these mines, to which he has referred in his Theory, as affording a proof that the salt rock was not formed from mere aqueous deposition.

In 1777, Dr Hutton’s first publication was given to the world in the shape of a pamphlet, on the "Nature, Quality, and Distinctions of Coal and Culm." This was occasioned by a question which the board of customs and privy council wished to have settled, in order to fix on the proportion of duty the one should bear with the other when carried coastwise. Dr Hutton’s pamphlet was considered so ingenious and satisfactory, that an exemption of the small coal of Scotland from paying duty on such short voyages was the consequence He took a lively interest in promoting the arts of his native country, and devoted much of his time and attention to the project of an internal navigation between the Firths of Forth and Clyde. He read several papers in the Philosophical Society, before its incorporation with the Royal Society, (none of which were then published, with the exception of one in the second volume of the Transactions of the Royal Society,) "on certain natural appearances of the ground on the hill of Arthur’s Seat." His zeal for the support of science in Edinburgh induced him to come forward and communicate to the Royal Society a Sketch of a Theory of the Earth, the perfecting of which had occupied his constant attention for a period of thirty years, during which time he had never ceased to study the natural history of the globe, with a view of ascertaining all the changes that have taken place on its surface, and discovering the causes by which they have been produced; and from his great skill as a mineralogist, and having examined the great leading facts of geology with his own eyes, and carefully studied every learned work on the natural history of the earth, it must be acknowledged that few men could enter better prepared on so arduous a task. As this Theory is so well known, and has been the subject of so much controversy, our limits will not permit us to enter upon it here; we therefore refer our readers to the book itself.

Dr Kirwan of Dublin, and others, considered Dr Hutton’s Theory both eccentric and paradoxical, and charged him with presumption in speculating on subjects to which the mere human understanding is incompetent to reach, while some gave a preference to the system of Berkeley, as more simple and philosophical; but notwithstanding all the attacks which the new doctrines of Hutton were subjected to, he had the proud satisfaction of being fortified in his opinions by many great and good men, who were bound to him by the closest ties of friendship. Dr Black, Mr Clerk of Eldin, and professor Playfair, as occasion required, were willing and ready to vindicate his hypothesis. But setting aside all these considerations, there existed in the work itself many faults, which contributed not a little to prevent Dr Hutton’s system from making a due impression on the world. In the opinion of his greatest defender, professor Playfair, "It was proposed too briefly, and with too little detail of facts for a system which involved so much that was new and opposite to the opinions generally received. The description which it contains of the phenomena of geology, suppose in the reader too great a knowledge of the things described. The reasoning is sometimes embarrassed by the care taken to render it strictly logical, and the transitions, from the author’s peculiar notions of arrangement, are often unexpected and abrupt. These defects, run more or less through all Dr Hutton’s writings, and produce a degree of obscurity astonishing to all who knew him, and who heard him every day converse, with no less clearness and precision than animation and force." In the same volume of the Transactions appeared a paper by him, "A Theory of Rain," which he afterwards published in his "Physical Dissertations." Having long studied meteorology with great attention, this ingenious theory attracted almost immediate notice, and was valued for affording a distinct notion of the manner in which cold acts in causing a precipitation of humidity. It met, however, from M. De Luc with a vigorous and determined opposition; Dr Hutton defended it with some warmth, and the controversy was carried on with much sharpness on both sides.

In his observations in meteorology, he is said to be the first who thought of ascertaining the medium temperature of any climate by the temperature of its springs. With this view he made a great number of observations in different parts of Great Britain, and found, by a singular enough coincidence between two arbitrary measures quite independent of each other, that the temperature of springs along the east coast of this island varies a degree of Fahrenheit’s thermometer for a degree of latitude. This rate of change, though it cannot be general over the whole globe, is probably not far from the truth for all the northern parts of the temperate zone. In explaining the diminution of temperature as we ascend in the atmosphere, Dr Hutton was much more fortunate than any other of the philosophers who have considered the same subject. It is well known that the condensation of air converts part of the latent into sensible heat, and that the rarefaction of air converts part of the sensible into latent heat; this is evident from the experiment of the air gun, and from many others. If, therefore, we suppose a given quantity of air to be suddenly transported from the surface to any height above, it will expand on account of the diminution of pressure, and a part of its heat becoming latent it will be rendered colder than before. Thus, also, when a quantity of heat ascends by any means whatever from one stratum of air to a superior stratum, a part of it becomes latent, so that an equilibrium of heat can never be established among the strata; but those which are less, must always remain colder than those which are more compressed. This was Dr Hutton’s explanation, and it contains no hypothetical principle whatsoever. After those publications already mentioned had appeared, he resolved to undertake journeys into different parts of Scotland, in order to ascertain whether that conjunction of granite and schistus, which his theory supposed, actually took place. His views were first turned towards the Grampians, which the duke of Athol learning, invited him to accompany him during the shooting season into Glentilt, a tract of country situated under these mountains. On arriving there, he discovered in the bed of the river Tilt, which runs through that glen, many veins of red granite traversing the black micaceous schistus, and producing by a contrast of colour an effect that might be striking even to an unskilful observer. So vivid were the emotions he displayed at this spectacle, that his conductors never doubted his having discovered a vein of gold or silver. Dr Hutton has described the appearances at that spot, in the third volume of the Edinburgh Transactions, p. 79, and some excellent drawings of the glen were made by Mr Clerk, whose pencil was not less valuable in the sciences than in the arts.

He pursued his observations with unabated ardour, and in the two next years, with his friend Mr Clerk, made several excursions into Galloway, the island of Arran, and the neighbourhood of Jedburgh. In all of these he discovered the same conjunction, though not in so complete a manner, as among the Grampians. In 1788, he made some other valuable observations of the same kind. The ridge of the Lammermoor hills in the south of Scotland consists of the Silurian or graywacke formation (then named primary by Hutton, but afterwards found to belong to the transition series), which extends from St Abb’s head south-westward to Portpatrick, and into the north of Ireland. The seacoast at Eyemouth and St Abb’s-head exhibits striking sections of these rocks, which there appear contorted and dislocated in a remarkable manner. The junction of the graywacke with the secondary strata was an object of instructive interest to Hutton. In the same year he accompanied the Duke of Athol to the Isle of Man, with the view of making a survey of that island. He found the main body of the island to consist of what he termed primitive schistus (graywacke), much inclined, and more intersected with quartzose veins than the corresponding rocks in the south and south-east of Scotlaud. The direction of these strata corresponded with that of the greywacke rocks in Galloway, running nearly from east to west. This is all the general information he obtained from that excursion. It was reserved for later geological researches to determine the true nature and relations of the Silurian or graywacke series, by means of the fossils which they have been found to contain. It was not till after Hutton’s day that geologists became palaeontological.

Notwithstanding his assiduous attention to geology, Dr Hutton found leisure to speculate on subjects of a different nature. A voluminous work from his pen made its appearance soon after the Physical Dissertations;—"An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, and the Progress of Reason, from Sense to Science and Philosophy;" in three volumes quarto. In this treatise he formed a general system of physics and metaphysics. His opinions on the former subjects were very singular. He deprives matter of those qualities which are usually deemed most essential, solidity, impenetrability, and the vis inertiae. He conceived it to be merely an assemblage of powers acting variously upon each other, and that external things are no more like the perceptions they give, than wine is similar to intoxication, or opium to the delirium it produces. It would be vain in us to attempt to analyse this singular work, which cannot fail to recall to the mind the opinions of the ingenious Dr Berkeley; the two systems agree in many material points, but differ essentially in others.

In deference to the opinions of so great a man as Dr Hutton, we shall inform our readers of the view taken of the moral tendency of his work by his friend professor Playfair, who no doubt scrutinized very deeply its metaphysical speculations, as he in part, if not altogether, became a convert of the Huttonian system. "Indeed," says he, "Mr Hutton has taken great pains to deduce from his system, in a singular manner, the leading doctrines of morality and natural religion, having dedicated the third volume of his book almost wholly to that object. It is worthy to remark, that while he is thus employed his style assumes a better tone, and a much greater degree of perspicuity than it usually possesses. Many instances might be pointed out, where the warmth of its benevolent and moral feelings, bursts through the clouds that so often veil from us the clearest ideas of his understanding. One, in particular, deserves notice, in which he treats of the importance of the female character to society in a state of high civilization. A felicity of expression, and a flow of natural eloquence, inspired by so interesting a subject, make us regret that his pen did not more frequently do justice to his thoughts." Dr Hutton was seized with a severe and dangerous, illness in the summer of 1793, and, although before this time he had enjoyed a long continuance of good health, such was the painful nature of his complaint that he was reduced to great weakness, and confined to his room for many months, where, on his regaining some degree of strength, he amused himself in superintending the publication of the work just mentioned. During his recovery he was roused from his quiet into further exertion by a severe attack made on his Theory of the Earth, by Dr Kirwan, in the Memoirs of the Irish Academy, rendered formidable by the celebrity of the author. Before this period, Dr Hutton had often been urged to publish the entire work on the Theory of the Earth, which he had constantly put off—so much so, that there seemed some danger of its not appearing in his life-time. The very day, however, after Kirwan’s paper was put in his hands, he began the revisal of his manuscript and resolved immediately to send it to press. The work was accordingly published in two volumes octavo, in 1795. He next turned his attention to a work on husbandry, on which he had written a great deal, the fruit both of his vast reading and practical experience. He proposed to reduce the whole into a systematic form under the title "Elements of Agriculture." The time, however, was fast approaching which was to terminate the exertions of a mind of such singular activity and ardour in the pursuit of knowledge. In the course of the winter, 1796, he became gradually weaker, and extremely emaciated from the pain he suffered from a recurrence of his former complaint, though he still retained the full activity and acuteness of his mind. "Saussure’s Voyages aux Alps," which had just reached him that winter, was the last study of one eminent geologist, as they were the last work of another. On Saturday the 26th March, 1797, although in great pain, he employed himself in writing and noting down his remarks on some attempts which were then making towards a new mineralogical nomenclature. In the evening he was seized with shivering fits, and as these continued to increase, he sent for his friend Dr Russel. Before he could arrive, all assistance was in vain. Dr Hutton had just strength left to stretch out his hand to the physician, and immediately expired.

Dr Hutton was possessed of an uncommon activity and ardour of mind, upheld in science by whatever was new, beautiful, or sublime; and that those feelings operated with more intense power in early life, may account for the want of stability he displayed, and the difficulty he felt in settling down to any one fixed pursuit. Geology and mineralogy were to him two of the most sublime branches of physical science. The novelty and grandeur offered by the study to the imagination, the simple and uniform order given to the whole natural history of the earth, and above all, the views opened of the wisdom that governs the universe, are things to which hardly any mind could be insensible, but to him they were matters, not of transient delight, but of solid and permanent happiness.

He studied with an indefatigable perseverance, and allowed no professional, and rarely any domestic arrangement, to interrupt his uniform course. He dined early, almost always at home, ate sparingly, and drank no wine. The evening he spent in the society of friends, who were always delighted and instructed by his animated conversation, which, whether serious or gay, was replete with ingenious and original observation. When he sought relaxation from the studies of the day, and joined the evening party, a bright glow of cheerfulness spread itself over every countenance; and the philosopher who had just descended from the sublimest speculations in metaphysics, or risen from the deepest research in geology, seated himself at the tea-table, as much disengaged from thought, and as cheerful and joyous, as the youngest of the company.

Professor Stewart, in his life of Mr Smith, has alluded to a little society that then flourished in Edinburgh, called the Oyster Club. Of this, Dr Black, Dr Hutton, and Mr Smith were the founders. When time and opportunity admitted, these distinguished men could unbend one to the other, and on such occasions Dr Hutton delighted in blending the witty and ludicrous in his conversation. Round them soon formed a circle of choice spirits, who knew how to value their familiar and social converse; and it would be vain to look for a company more sincerely united, where every thing favourable to good society was more perfectly cultivated, and every thing opposite more strictly excluded.

Dr Hutton was never married, but lived with his sisters, three amiable women, who managed his domestic affairs. Though he cared little for money, he had accumulated considerable wealth, owing to his moderation and unassuming manner of life, as well as from the great ability with which his long-tried friend, Mr David, conducted their joint concerns. Miss Isabella Hutton remained to lament her brother’s loss, and by her his collection of fossils were given to Dr Black, who presented them to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, under the condition that they should be completely arranged, and kept for ever apart, for the purpose of illustrating the Huttonian Theory of the Earth.

The man who discovered the 'abyss of time'

In the 1700s, the geologist James Hutton identified a formation of rocks that would transform how we think about time.

In the first of three films about "deep time", journalist and author Richard Fisher traces Hutton's steps to one of geology's most important locations in Scotland. He set out to find a richer view of the past, but in doing so discovers a coastline that harbours signatures of the deep future.

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