Click the Browser Back-button for the Chapter headings of "Hutton's Edinburgh"

Hutton's Edinburgh: Preface

James Hutton was an accomplished field geologist. He systematically tested his conjectures, and those of others, by seeking new observations which were either consistent with those conjectures or provided reasons for rejecting them (McIntyre & McKirdy, 1997). Everyone interested in the history of science will agree with Playfair who, in his Life of Dr Hutton, wrote: "It would be desirable to trace the progress of an author’s mind in the formation of a system where so many new and enlarged views of nature occur, and where so much originality is displayed" (Playfair, 1805, p.55). This was my subject in 1957 at Herbert Evans‘ History of Science Club in Berkeley (a modern incarnation of the Oyster Club), and also in toasting Hutton at the Banquet of the Geological Society of America in San Diego in March 1961 (McIntyre, 1963). Following Tomkeieff’s example (1948), I tried to see Hutton in his historical context.

Herbert Butterfield’s argued that historical understanding is achieved by "making the past our present and attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own" (The Whig interpretation of History, 1931/1951, p.16). Developing this thesis, Colin Russell declared that it is "perverse to imagine that the practitioners of science operate in a cultural vacuum. They, and we, are affected by the prevailing climate of opinion and this will have a profound effect on how science is perceived" (Whigs and Professionals, Nature, 1984, Vol.308, p.777). Nevertheless, Hutton is often presented as if he lived in isolation. It was therefore a pleasure to give the opening address at the Conference in Edinburgh marking the bicentennial of Hutton’s death. I attempted to sketch Hutton’s Edinburgh – the environment in which Hutton made his great contribution to our understanding of Earth’s history.

"Scientists grope their way, seeking to divine where they are going from where they are coming; they reach into the future as well as the past". They think they see networks of concepts extending though time: these "are not whiggish sins but the essence of science in action" (Edward Harrison, Whigs, prigs and historians of science, Nature, 1987, Vol.329, p. 214). My text was longer than could be accommodated in the Proceedings of the 1997 Hutton Conference, and I am grateful to Earth Sciences History for agreeing to make it available.


James Hutton (1726-1797) was born and bred in Edinburgh. Having decided to be a farmer, he went to Norfolk aged twenty-four to learn new methods of husbandry. From that base, he travelled widely and developed an interest in geology. In 1767 he left his Berwickshire farm and returned to Edinburgh, where he became a valued member of the remarkable group of men who founded the Royal Society of Edinburgh and made the city an unrivalled intellectual centre of the age.

Edinburgh was a capital without the distractions of king and parliament. When the Industrial Revolution began, many disciplines were already represented by men of world-renown who knew each other – many, indeed, were related. There were still no boundaries between narrowly defined disciplines; there was shared interest in all knowledge.

Geological structure had constricted Edinburgh’s growth, keeping the compact Old Town on its ancient defensive ridge. The North Bridge, completed soon after Hutton’s return to Edinburgh, made possible the planned New Town, in dramatic architectural and intellectual contrast to the mediaeval city. The beauty and interest of Edinburgh’s scenery is the result of an active geological past. Consequently, in a small and accessible space, rocks of different character are exposed in a natural geological laboratory.

James Hutton did not live in an ivory tower. War, rebellion, and revolution, both political and industrial, all had their influence. In a turbulent world, a decade of peace (1783-1793) was another factor making possible Hutton’s great contribution to modern geology.


I am indebted to many more people than can be named here. First to my parents who ensured that, like them, I was born and raised in Edinburgh, and then to the four Edinburgh men who were my teachers; in particular to Dr A.M. Cockburn who, when I left for California in 1954 gave me Chambers’ Traditions of Edinburgh inscribed "From one Edinburgh callant to another". To Arthur Holmes who talked to me about Hutton and introduced me to his friend Professor S.I. Tomkeieff. To the Edinburgh Geological Society, on whose Committee I served in 1947 when Tomkeieff gave a memorable address on James Hutton and the Philosophy of Geology marking the 150th anniversary of Hutton’s death. To Pomona College for providing a great library and an environment conducive to intellectual inquiry. To Professors Learnihan, Kemble, Woods, and Poland of Pomona’s history department, and to my friends Iain Gordon Brown, H. Stanton Hill, George H. Clark, Dan F. Merriam, K.E. Iverson, Sheila D. McIntyre, and my wife Ann, each of whom has given me encouragement and suggestions over several decades, and to Norman E. Butcher, Dennis R. Dean, and Richard Jemielita who have worked with me in recent years. In 1997 Professor Celal Sengor joined me in visits to localities associated with Hutton in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland; I found our discussions stimulating, useful, and enjoyable.

I am grateful to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a Fellowship in 1969 to study the Rise of Scottish Geology, and to the Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh for the privilege of honorary staff positions and the use of their libraries during my retirement. The Scottish Record Office, the National Library of Scotland, and the Edinburgh Public Library have made available their invaluable resources; Mr Thomas B. Smyth, Archivist of the Black Watch Museum in Perth, was also very helpful.

I thank Professor G.Y. Craig and the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Organising Committee for the invitation to give the opening address, on Hutton’s Edinburgh, at the Conference commemorating the bicentennial of James Hutton’s death. This historical essay þ an expanded version of that address– is an anthology of the writings of many scholars, and I am alone responsible for the selection of the material and for remaining errors. Objectivity, like beauty, is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. Space does not permit me to do justice to all sides of each issue, but I have cited references to authors who have different viewpoints. Readers might well begin by reading the final reference – Professor Youngson on bias in the writing of history.

I dedicate this essay to Sir John Clerk, Bart. of Penicuik and Lady Clerk, who continue so generously their family’s long tradition of patronage, friendship, and support to all who take an interest in Scottish art, science, and history. I am grateful, once again, for permission to quote and refer to documents in the Clerk Muniments.

Click the Browser Back-button for the Chapter headings of "Hutton's Edinburgh"