James Hutton is rightly regarded as the founder of modern geology, and a very large literature is devoted to consideration of this assertion and its implication. His geological importance have been described and thoroughly documented elsewhere (see Dean, 1992; Hutton, edited by Dean, 1997; and McIntyre and McKirdy, 1997). But to think of him simply as a geologist is a mistake. Hutton’s interests were much wider. He was a man of his time, as all of us are creatures of our individual environments. Hutton lived in a truly remarkable community, with its own peculiar constraints and defects, but nevertheless a community of highly intelligent men who had broad interests and who were (usually) “equally prepared to speak and to listen”. They were bold and original thinkers. They included men involved in matters of national and even international importance. Many spanned a great range of both subject matter and personal experience. Directly or through his immediate friends, such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, Hutton seems never to have been more than one step away from men as diverse as James Watt, Benjamin Franklin, William Eden (of the Secret Service), Lord Cornwallis, and three Lord Chancellors, as well as thinkers of the first rank in many varied disciplines.
James Hutton, with his unique contribution to knowledge of our planet’s history, was close to the centre of this community, not only by virtue of his life-span but, thanks to his generous and warm personality, by his friendships with some of the most brilliant men of the age. This paper will have achieved its object if the reader gains a feeling for the broad cultural, social, and political environment in which Hutton lived. If we could reproduce the intellectual climate that made Hutton and his friends possible, we would have found the philosopher’s stone.
The following quotations from Playfair help us see the man that his friends loved and respected:
“A brighter tint of gaiety and cheerfulness spread itself over every countenance when the Doctor entered the room. ... The acquisition of fortune, and the enjoyments which most directly address the senses, do not call up more lively expressions of joy in other men, than hearing of a new invention, or being acquainted with a new truth, would, at any time, do in Dr Hutton. This sensibility to intellectual pleasure, was not confined to a few objects, nor to the sciences which he particularly cultivated; he would rejoice over Watt’s improvements on the steam-engine, or Cook’s discoveries in the South Sea, with all the warmth of a man who was to share in the honour or the profit about to accrue from them. The fire of his expression, on such occasions, and the animation of his countenance and manner, are not to be described; they were always seen with delight by those who could enter into his sentiments, and often with great astonishment by those who could not”.
“With this exquisite relish for whatever is beautiful and sublime in science, we may easily conceive what pleasure he derived from his own geological speculations. The novelty and grandeur of the objects offered by them 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 nature, are things to which hardly any man could be insensible; but to him they were matter, not of transient delight but of solid and permanent happiness”.
“On attending to their conversation, and the way in which they treated any question of science or philosophy, one would say that Dr Black dreaded nothing so much as error, and that Dr Hutton dreaded nothing so much as ignorance; that the one was always afraid of going beyond the truth, and the other of not reaching it”.
“What dust of extinct lions sleeps peaceably under our feet everywhere! The soil of this world is made of the dust of Life, the geologists say; ... ” Thomas Carlyle: Historical Sketches of Notable Person and Events in the Reigns of James I and Charles I, Edited by Alexander Carlyle, London: Chapman & Hall,  1902, p.70
“How many brave men have lived before Agamemnon! ...Their crumbled dust makes up the soil our life-fruit grows on.” Thomas Carlyle: Past and Present, Book 2: The Ancient Monk, London: Chapman & Hall  1891, p.111.
Having mentioned the Clerks of Penicuik, and pointed out that no fewer than three of its members helped Hutton in the field, a slightly fuller account of the family is appropriate [see genealogical tree 2]. Sir John Clerk (1676-1755), the second Baronet is the central figure– “the most notable virtuoso in the Scotland of his day” (Brown, 1987). Antiquarian, architect, connoisseur and patron of the arts, John Clerk was one of the Commissioners chosen to negotiate the Treaty of Union (1707) between Scotland and England. His financial acumen was early recognised, and he was appointed a Baron of the Scottish Court of Exchequer, the guardian of Crown revenues in Scotland. In 1740, the year Hutton entered Edinburgh University, this John Clerk wrote a Dissertation on Coal illustrated by cross-sections of folded and faulted strata found in that part of the Midlothian coal field belonging to his family (McIntyre & McKirdy, 1997, p.46).
Clerk’s wife had died in 1701 after delivering her first child, named John after his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Young John was sent to school at Eton, where he did well, but returned to study at Edinburgh University; for his father was sure that all subjects other than English language could be better acquired in Edinburgh than in either Oxford or Cambridge. Moreover his father knew that Scotsmen with an English education “would always have a stronger inclination for England than for their own Country“ (Clerk, 1892, p.99). Sadly, in 1722 young John, who had shown much promise, died only a few months after his grandfather.
The Baron married again and from this second marriage he had sixteen children. The eldest, James (1709-1782), succeeded as the third Baronet. We are concerned particularly with the third son, born after the suppression of the 1715 Jacobite Rising and named George (1715-1784) after the Hanoverian King George I; and John (1728-1812), the first son born after the death of his brother, whose name he was given. This George Clerk was Hutton’s companion on the excursion to the North of Scotland in 1764. Playfair tells us that George Clerk was “a gentleman distinguished for his abilities and worth, with whom Dr Hutton had the happiness to live in habits of the most intimate friendship“. We know George’s brother John as John Clerk of Eldin, Hutton’s companion in Glen Tilt (1785) and Galloway (1786), and whose son John (later Lord Eldin) was Hutton’s companion in Arran (1787).
The Baron’s brother William (1681-1721) married Agnes Maxwell, heiress of Middlebie, an estate in Dumfriesshire. Dorothea, their only child, was left an orphan, and at the age of seven or eight was under the Baron’s guardianship, her mother having “left it upon her“ to marry her cousin George Clerk (Clerk, 1892, p.96n, 134, 144-145, 251-252). The marriage took place “privately“ in 1735, George being 20 and Dorothea 17. The estate of Middlebie passed to Dorothea as heiress in her own right. The entail required that any heir must adopt the title Maxwell, and for this reason George adopted the name George Clerk-Maxwell.
Succeeding his brother James in 1782, George became the fourth Baronet. At the first meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he was elected one of the Presidents of the Physical Class, but he died in 1784. Sir George Clerk-Maxwell’s obituary (dated July 5, 1784) written by his nephew, John Clerk of Eldin’s son John, was published in the first volume of the Society’s Transactions – the volume containing Hutton’s Theory of the Earth. In the Transactions Clerk-Maxwell is hyphenated, as it is in The Dictionary of National Biography, which lists Sir George Clerk-Maxwell under Clerk.
Sir George Clerk-Maxwell had two sons. John, the elder of the two, succeeded as 5th Baronet, but had no heir. James, the younger son, had two sons: the older son, George, succeeded his uncle, becoming the 6th Baronet, with the title Sir George Clerk of Penicuik, and from him the Clerks of Penicuik are descended; John, the younger son, carried the Clerk-Maxwell name and inheritance, and his son was the great nineteenth century physicist James Clerk-Maxwell of Middlebie. (Burke’s Peerage Baronetage and Knightage, 1970, which also hyphenates Clerk-Maxwell).