Things they said: Sir Archibald Geikie

“Every shower of rain and gust of wind, if we could only watch them narrowly enough, would be found to have done something towards modifying the surface of the land.”

Sir Archibald Geikie (1835-1924)

Fowlis Wester JW 84

A Geikie (R G Eves, 1913)
Portrait by R G Eves, 1913

Sir Archibald Geikie’s passion for rocks was kindled when he was a young boy, searching for fossils in a quarry near Edinburgh.   In later years, as one of the leading geologists of the Victorian era, he was fascinated by the effect of water and ice on the landscape, and he travelled to Norway to watch glaciers in action.  For Geikie, the countryside posed a never-ending supply of questions, and he believed that the evidence was all there, ready to be interpreted:

“We can hardly take any country walk… in which with duly observant eye we may not detect either some geological operation in actual progress, or the evidence of one which was completed long ago.”

Ammonite Carsaig beach, Mull 3Sir Archibald Geikie was Edinburgh University’s first ever Professor of Geology.  He was appointed Director of the Scottish Geological Survey and later became Director-General of the British Geological Survey;  he was honoured with the Livingstone Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1905.

Quotes from ‘Class-book of Geology‘ (1890) by Archibald Geikie
Photos:   Boulder with glacial striations, Glen Quaich;  Ammonite at Carsaig, Isle of Mull  © Jo Woolf

Further reading:

Writing about history and landscape at The Hazel Tree ( Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

10 thoughts on “Things they said: Sir Archibald Geikie

  1. A new name to add to my overfull brain cells. It is though amazing how so many of our Archaeologist, Geologists and Naturalist became “hooked” as young lads just exploring free. I suppose that beats thumbing a phone all day!

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  2. You know I share his love of rocks! I wonder if he ever got to the desert.
    Wonderful to see all that rock unencumbered by vegetation. 🙂 Although Scotland does seem to have more than it’s share of exposed rock. Thanks, Jo.

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      • What an incredible collection of drawings. He did an excellent job of recording what he saw. An important talent before photography became available. If he made it through the mountains to western Utah he would certainly have seen some of our more unusual geological formations. Many years ago I traveled west with some friends and we went through that area at night with a full moon. A very eerie experience. Would love to hear him talk about his travels!

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      • Sounds fabulous! Yes, his memoirs – or what I read of them – were quite entertaining, although it was mainly Scotland that I was reading about. He travelled in the Western Isles when the people there were still living in blackhouses, and few of them had ever seen an outsider such as himself. One old woman told him she thought he was soft in the head!

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      • I must admit I’ve gotten a similar response when extolling the beauty of some rock formation. It’s amazing how many people don’t “get” geology. 🙂

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  3. I seem to remember there being either a portrait or a bust of him in the Grant Institute, Edinburgh University’s geology building. I didn’t realise he was the first Professor of Geology there (I expect it’s clearly marked next to his likeness and I failed to absorb the information). A geologist friend of mine, also a geology professor, started his interest in the subject with fossil collecting too, so perhaps it’s quite a common route into geology. What amazes me is the way in which clever chaps like Geikie not only take an interest in the world around them, but go on to discover things the rest of us would never even consider. That’s the mark of a true scientist, I suppose. I’m getting the impression that the list of recipients of the Livingstone Medal represents a highly impressive role call of top boffins.

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    • It could well be him, Lorna! I’m sure he deserves to be there, anyway. I was always picking up stones myself as a kid, but I was never enough of a scientist. But I still have matchboxes full of little fossils! Geikie really did have a such a genuine curiosity about the landscape, and it must have been an interesting time, when the creation of landforms was still being debated and no one really understood the ice ages as we do now. He would be amazed and fascinated by our findings, I’m sure. And he had a younger brother, James, who was also a geologist and one of the founding fathers of the RSGS. Yes, the Livingstone Medal list is pretty impressive! I was always surprised when I came to research someone new, and started to read about what they’d done. Even when I thought I knew them, it was really only superficial stuff and it was – still is – amazing to get under the surface and try and get to know them as a person.

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