Nina Morgan highlights the value of local knowledge
Never underestimate the generosity of enthusiastic amateurs. While soliciting donations of interesting stones to illustrate the geology of Britain in the columns of the new Oxford University Museum (now Oxford University Museum of Natural History), the geologist John Phillips [1800 – 1874] tapped into a rich vein of enthusiastic amateur geologists among the Scottish aristocracy. One donor of stone for a museum column was the Scottish nobleman and Liberal politician John Campbell, the 2nd Marquess of Breadalbane [1796 – 1862], who wrote to Phillips from his Highland estate near Taymouth on 1 November 1855 to say:
“I shall have very great pleasure in giving every facility to process the Syenite from Ben Cruachan that may be required for the New Museum at Oxford… [and] If there are any other rocks on my property which would be useful to the New Museum pray let me know and I shall do my best to provide these.”
Ben Cruachan, located east of Oban at the north-eastern end of Loch Awe, is the highest point in Argyll and Bute, and perhaps first summitted by the geologist John MacCulloch [1773 – 1835] in 1811. The ‘syenite’ – actually a granite containing pink and white feldspar – was admired by Phillips who referred to it as ‘the beautiful mottled granite of Cruachan’. It now appears as Column 5 in the Museum.
Although Breadalbane may have mistaken a syenite for a granite on this occasion, there is good evidence that he was knowledgeable about his local geology and mineralogy. He was convinced that the Scottish mountains could supply an abundance of metallic ores and employed a German expert to prospect his property. Although this project was not a success, Breadalbane continued to work his mines at Tyndrum even at a loss. Nevertheless, he felt confident to discuss the local geology with Roderick Murchison [1792 – 1871] and he certainly knew how to recognise hornblende when he saw it. While touring through the western Highlands as part of his efforts to unravel the very complex geology there, Murchison visited the Marquess of Breadalbane in 1860.
As Archibald Geikie [1835 – 1924] recalled in his book, Scottish Reminiscences, Murchison remarked to the Marquess that:
“… one great difference between the oldest rocks of the north-western and those of the Central Highlands lay in the presence of abundant hornblende in the former and its absence from the latter. ‘Stop a bit, Sir Roderick,’ interrupted the Marquess. ‘You come with me to-morrow, and I’ll show you plenty of hornblende.’ Next day a walk was taken across a tract of moor near the Black Mount, Sir Roderick accompanying some ladies, while the chief marched on in front. At last when the rock in question was reached, the Marquess shouted in triumph, ‘Here’s hornblende for you.’ And he was right, as Murchison, with a queer non-plussed look on his face, had to admit.”
What Murchison – notorious for believing he was always right – said in response was not reported. And as Geikie was a protégé of Murchison, he provided no further details!
- Geikie, A. (1906) Scottish Reminiscences. James Maclehose & Sons, 447 pp.
- Gutteridge, P. (2022). A talk given to The Warwickshire Geological Conservation Group, available to view at www.nwhgeopark.com
- Morgan, N. & Powell, P. (2022) A Story in Stone: The Geology of the Oxford University Museum. Geologica Press, 160 pp.; www.gravestonegeology.uk
I thank Paul Smith, Director, and Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for permission to quote from the letter from Breadalbane to John Phillips, and Tom Sharpe, Roy Starkey and members of the History of Geology Group (HoGG] for information on John McCulloch.
Nina is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford, UK.