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2. Hutton′s Edinburgh: Introduction

This paper sketches the social, historical, and political background of James Hutton and the Edinburgh of his time.

At the suggestion of the Conference Organising Committee and Scottish Natural Heritage, a small book on James Hutton: The Founder of Modern Geology was published by The Stationery Office during the week of the Conference (McIntyre & McKirdy, 1997). Although addressed to a general readership, this book contains previously unpublished Huttonian material. It shows Hutton to have been a first-class, enthusiastic, and tireless field geologist. Dennis Dean′s augmented edition of Hutton′s own eminently readable account of geology in the field and in the study was also published during the Conference (Hutton, 1997). These resources being available, the Committee decided that the opening address should deal with Hutton′s Edinburgh – the intellectual, social, and political environment that made Hutton′s geology possible.

In his novel Guy Mannering (1815, Chap.39), Walter Scott describes how Counsellor Pleydell, an Edinburgh advocate, thrust letters of introduction into his visitor′s hand: "Mannering was gratified with seeing that they were addressed to some of the first literary characters in Scotland. ‘To David Hume, Esq.’ ‘To John Home, Esq.’, ‘To Dr Ferguson.’, ‘To Dr Black’, ‘To Lord Kaimes’, ‘To Mr. Hutton’, ‘To John Clerk, Esq., of Eldin’, ‘To Adam Smith, Esq.’, ‘To Dr. Robertson’. “Upon my word, my legal friend has a good selection of acquaintances – [A man] must rub up his faculties a little, and put his mind in order, before he enters this sort of society”. The present paper is intended to serve as a letter of introduction to that very company. Ideally it should be illustrated by portraits; for, as Carlyle wrote: "Often I have found a Portrait superior in real instruction to half-a-dozen written Biographies – or rather, I have found that the Portrait was as a small lighted candle by which the Biographies could for the first time be read, and some human interpretation be made of them" (Thomas Carlyle, 1967, p.174). Robert Louis Stevenson, reviewing an Exhibition of Some Portraits by Raeburn, tells of a lady, returned to Edinburgh after an absence of nearly sixty years, who said "I could see none of my old friends until I went into the Raeburn Gallery and found them all there" (Stevenson, 1913, p.141-142). Portraits of many people mentioned in this paper are in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, the University of Edinburgh (Rice, 1957), and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. For portraits of John Clerk of Eldin see David Brooke, 1971,and McIntyre & McKirdy, 1997 (which also includes Raeburn′s portrait of Hutton).

This is the story of interrelationships and connections between an extraordinary group of highly intelligent people set against a background – sometimes indeed it becomes the foreground – of national and international events of importance and interest. Hutton was one of the central figures. He was seventy years old when he died, but to understand his environment we must reach back, albeit briefly, to events 200 years before he was born, and allude to happenings almost two decades after his death.

On the first mention of a person, in most cases, I give dates of birth and death. By remembering Hutton′s own dates, it is then easy to relate all other dates to events in Hutton′s life. The essential Huttonian dates to keep in mind are: 1726 Hutton was born; 1750 he returned to Scotland from the Continent; 1767 he moved back to Edinburgh; 1785 his Theory of the Earth was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and published in 1788; 1795 Hutton′s Theory was published in expanded form in two volumes; and 1797 Hutton died.

The subject is vast: the dramatis personae includes more than 150 remarkable characters; the range of talent is great, and the interconnections are astonishing. We have here pioneers not in geology only; we meet distinguished lawyers, statesmen, soldiers, sailors, historians, scientists, engineers, and literary men. Despite the constraints of time and space, it is hoped that the paper conveys something of the scope and character of the Edinburgh that Hutton knew (Chambers, 1949; Topham, 1777).

Consider William Smellie (1740-1795) a largely self-taught Edinburgh man with an enormous breadth of interest and accomplishment (Kerr, 1811). Although apprenticed to a printer at the age of twelve, five years later he won the Silver Medal of the Philosophical Society (parent of the Royal Society of Edinburgh) for the most accurate edition of a Latin classic. At the age of twenty he helped to found the Newtonian Club for self improvement. In 1777 he founded the Crochallan Club, one of the most popular of Edinburgh′s convivial clubs (Rogers, 1884; Chambers, 1949; McElroy, 1969). Smellie was printer for both David Hume (1711-1776) and Robert Burns (1759-1796). He played an important part in producing the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1771), to which he contributed major scientific articles. He became a member of the Philosophical Society (Emerson, 1981), and was a founding member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Smellie was an accomplished botanist and antiquary, and a versatile linguist – teaching himself Hebrew in order to print a Hebrew dictionary (Kerr, 1996).

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782) was a lawyer, judge, writer, and influential critic (Ross, 1972); a friend of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and David Hume, and sponsor of Adam Smith (1723-1790). Yet, though Smellie was 44 years his junior, Kames adopted him as a friend, and trusted him as a literary confidant. In the end, Smellie wrote biographies of Kames, Hume, and Smith (Smellie, 1800). It was Smellie who recorded this perceptive analysis of Edinburgh culture:

"Mr Amyat, King′s Chymist, a most sensible and agreeable English gentleman, resided in Edinburgh for a year or two. [John Amyatt of London was a member of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society and was consequently a non-resident founding fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh]. He one day surprised me [William Smellie] with a curious remark. There is not a city in Europe, said he, that enjoys such a singular and noble privilege. I asked, What is that privilege? He replied, Here I stand at what is called the Cross of Edinburgh, and can in a few minutes, take fifty men of genius and learning by the hand. The fact is well known; but to a native of that city, who has all his days been familiarised with it, and who has not travelled in other countries, that circumstance, though very remarkable, passes unnoticed: Upon strangers, however, it makes a deep impression. In London, in Paris, and other large cities of Europe, though they contain many literary men, the access to them is difficult; and even after that is obtained, the conversation is, for some time, shy and constrained. In Edinburgh the access of men of parts is not only easy, but their conversation and the communication of their knowledge are at once imparted to intelligent strangers with the utmost liberality. The philosophers of Scotland have no nostrums. They tell what they know, and deliver their sentiments without disguise or reserve. This generous feature was conspicuous in the case of Mr Hume. He insulted no man, but, when the conversation turned upon particular subjects whether moral or religious, he expressed his genuine sentiments with freedom, with force, and with a dignity which did honour to human nature" (Smellie, 1800, p.161-162. Rosaline Masson compiled an excellent anthology of further descriptions that evoke the history and character of Edinburgh and its citizens (Rosaline Masson, 1912).

Benjamin Franklin knew Edinburgh well (Clark, 1983; Van Doren, 1939). On his first visit, in 1759, he met, amongst others, Adam Smith, William Robertson (1721-1793), and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). Franklin and his son, William, were guests of Henry Home [pronounced Hume, and later to become Lord Kames] in Berwickshire, only 6 miles from the family home of David Hume at Ninewells, and 10 miles from Slighhouses, which Hutton was farming at the time. Franklin had already met Hume in London. Home delighted to entertain at Kames, his country house, and Hutton could have been invited there; for they shared deeply-held interests in agricultural improvement. When Franklin returned in 1771, he stayed with Hume in his new house in St David Street and was the guest of Lord Kames at Blair Drummond, in Perthshire, which Kames′ wife had inherited five years before. Among Franklin′s "distinguished acquaintances in the medical faculty" were Joseph Black (1728-1799), William Cullen (1710-1790), and James Russell (d.1773), all of whom were Hutton′s close friends (Letter to William, January 30, 1772 in Franklin, Papers, Vol.19, p.50). Hutton was living in Edinburgh at the time, and it would be surprising if he and Franklin failed to meet. (For Black and Cullen see Crowther, 1962; Daiches, 1996; Donovan, 1973; Ferguson, 1805; Kent, 1950; Ramsay, 1918; Robinson, 1970; Simpson, 1982; Thomson, 1997).

Franklin, then, had a close connection with Edinburgh, where, as he said in 1760, "At this time there happen to be collected a set of as truly great men, professors of the several branches of knowledge, as have ever appeared in any age or country" [Horn, 1967, p.70 gives the date 1776 (which seems unlikely), and gives his source as Sachse, 1956, p.56; Sachse in Footnote 53 gives his source as Nolan, 1938, p.50; and Nolan in turn gives his source, in Footnote 15, as "See letter, Franklin to Deborah, London 1760" in Smyth′s Collection of Franklin′s Writings; Smyth, 1906, Vol.4 for 1760-1764, gives 3 letters from Franklin to Deborah, none including this quotation. A somewhat similar but weaker statement is in Franklin to Thomas Bond, London, February 5, 1772 (Franklin, Papers, Vol.19, p.62)]. Franklin and his son William were two of the nine Honorary Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh elected when the Society was constituted in 1783. William Franklin later became Governor of New Jersey, and unlike his father was a loyalist during the American revolution (Skempe, 1994).

One of Edinburgh′s special characteristics was neatly summarised by Franklin in the following words: The "disputatious turn –Persons of good sense, I have observed, seldom fall into it except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred in Edinborough" (Franklin, 1949, p.19; Smyth′s The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 1905-1907, Vol.1, p.240).

Despite Hutton′s innovations in farming; his pioneering work in industrial chemistry; his tests of coal for the use of revenue officers; his close connection with James Watt; and his years of work on the Forth and Clyde Canal, some writers criticise him as an impractical theorist, "loftily dismissive of utilitarian science" – as much a theologian as a scientist. These writers are wrong. Hutton was a highly capable and enthusiastic field geologist (McIntyre & McKirdy, 1997; Leveson, 1996) with a deep interest in useful applications (e.g. Clow, 1947, 1952; Multhauf, 1965; Joan Eyles, 1979; Jean Jones, 1982, 1983, 1985).

Hutton had an "exquisite relish for whatever is beautiful and sublime in science"; the implications of his geological discoveries "were matter, not of transient delight but of solid and permanent happiness" (Playfair, 1805, p.91-92). He loved to share the pleasure he had from his discoveries. While out on his own, he had found granite veins in North Glen Sannox, Arran, and it was characteristic that his first reaction was to return to Brodick for John Clerk, junior (1757-1832), who had missed the discovery: "Not contented with this view of those two alpine bodies, in that jaunt which I had taken alone, I wished to give Mr Clerk the same satisfaction" (Hutton, 1997, p.222).

In the last letter (1775) Franklin wrote to Kames, he said: "I almost envy the Abilities you continue to possess of instructing, delighting, and being useful at so late a Period in Life". As Ian Simpson Ross appropriately remarked: "Delighting, instructing, and being useful were the great aims of all the men of letters of the Enlightenment" (Ross, 1972, p.200-201). This was true for James Hutton beyond all others.

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