Guest Post: Darwin in Edinburgh

The following is a guest post from John Tweedie (@JTweedie), who recently partook in the Darwin in Edinburgh walking theater tour, which “retraces Darwin’s steps, exploring the locations & characters that influenced his own evolution in the city.” John sent along a summary of the tour to share here at The Dispersal of Darwin (all photos were taken by John).

Darwin in Edinburgh

Charles Darwin followed in his father’s footsteps by moving to Edinburgh in 1825 to study medicine. He shared a flat at 11 Lothian Street with his older brother Erasmus who was also studying medicine.

This flat, owned by Mrs Mackay, is unfortunately no longer there, replaced by the National Museum of Scotland. A plaque on the wall shows where the flat once was.

It was from here that I joined a walking tour as part of the Edinburgh Fringe: Darwin in
Edinburgh. We started on Lothian Street, walked through the university and down
Drummond Street, past the Salisbury Crags before finishing at Dynamic Earth, a science centre devoted to the Earth Sciences.

The show was written by Jane Westhead who also played the role of Mrs Mackay. Geologist Angus Miller led the walk and provided some of the scientific content to the audience. Angus runs Geowalks, leading geology field trips around Scotland.

This immersive, interactive theatre also featured Aaron McVeigh as Charles Darwin,
Marshall Mandiangou as John Edmonstone and Jamie Scott Gordon as Robert Grant.

Through Mrs Mackay we hear Darwin’s father, a disapproving voice about how Darwin was not making an effort with his studies. In this performance, Mackay was almost a mother figure to the 16 year old Darwin, keeping an eye on him and encouraging him not to
disappoint his father while motivating him that his wide interests in botany, zoology and
geology means he’ll have a secure future whatever path he chooses.

We were introduced to Darwin in the Old College Quad, a building that, apart from the
prominent dome, was completed in 1827 and would have been familiar to Darwin. It was originally designed by Robert Adam and finished by William Playfair, nephew of James Hutton’s champion John Playfair.

Darwin spoke about his miserable medical lectures with Dr Duncan. It’s fair to say that
Darwin wasn’t impressed by Duncan and in the show he spoke a line that he had written in a letter to his sister Caroline in 1826 describing his lecturers: “Dr Duncan is so very learned that his wisdom has left no room for sense.”

We were then introduced to Robert Grant, one of Darwin’s mentors in natural history and who provided the spark that led to Darwin’s professional career. Grant graduated from Edinburgh with an M.D. in 1814 before further study in Paris and elsewhere. He returned to Edinburgh in 1820 and became a lecturer in invertebrate animals at John Barclay’s anatomy school.

Shortly after meeting Grant, we caught up with John Edmonstone. Edmonstone lived nearby and taught Darwin taxidermy, a skill that would prove invaluable when he was preparing specimens that he collected on the Beagle voyage. We heard Edmonstone speak about his time as a slave in Guyana and from Darwin on his family’s history as advocates for the abolition of slavery. There was even time for some funny adlibbing as Edmonstone spoke about how cold Edinburgh was while performing during a heatwave!

Edmonstone learned taxidermy himself from naturalist Charles Waterton, a regular visitor to the Demerara estate of Edmonstone’s owner Charles Edmonstone. Darwin would visit Waterton’s house, Walton Hall in Wakefield, West Yorkshire in 1845. Waterton would create the world’s first wildfowl and nature reserve on his estate.

Edmonstone had been working preserving specimens for Robert Jameson’s university
museum by the time he met Darwin. Jameson was another of Darwin’s lecturers – could he have introduced Darwin to Edmonstone? Jameson’s lectures were described by Darwin as “incredibly dull” and produced in him the intention “never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology, or in any way to study the science”. Jameson was also a Neptunist of all things.

After leaving the university, we made our way through the throngs of festival-goers downhill towards Dynamic Earth. We stopped off briefly at the James Hutton Memorial Garden, on the site of Hutton’s house until his death in 1797. Angus, who had been playing the role of guide and commentator on the walk briefly pulled his acting socks on and transformed into Hutton to explain the importance of Hutton to the field of geology and to Darwin.

Hutton came long before Darwin was in Edinburgh, but as an advocate of Plutonism, the idea that rocks like granite formed within the Earth and not precipitated out of the oceans like the rival Neptunist idea, he left an impression on those who would later kindle Darwin’s reconnection with geology, such as Darwin’s mentor and friend, Charles Lyell. Darwin had taken the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology with him on the Beagle, and Darwin and Lyell would later become friends. Hutton’s insight into deep time also provided Darwin with the timeframe needed for evolution to operate.

We stopped again for a short spell to listen to Grant speak about the Plinian Society, a student society founded in 1823 by three Baird brothers. Grant was once secretary and Darwin a member, indeed a council member and it was here that Darwin made his first contribution to science, talking about specimens collected in the Firth of Forth in 1827 alongside Grant. It was on one such trip to the Firth of Forth that Grant spoke about Lamarck. Darwin was already aware of Lamarck’s ideas as his grandfather Erasmus had written about this in Zoonomia but to hear about evolution spoken openly excited Darwin. Darwin and Grant also attended the Wernerian Society in 1827 to hear naturalist John James Audubon speak.

Darwin’s interest in medicine waned in his first year due to the poor quality teaching and because he couldn’t stomach the suffering people underwent in surgery in the days before anaesthetics. But his interests in natural history flourished under the tutorship of Grant, and in the show he spoke to Mackay of his dreams of becoming an explorer like his hero Humboldt.

We stopped briefly under Salisbury Crags where Hutton confirmed his theory about rock formation. This impressive sill, igneous rock that had made its way through horizontal weaknesses in existing rocks, overlooks Edinburgh. Darwin came here in 1838, post-Cambridge and post-Beagle, on his way north to Glen Roy, by which time he was a fully signed-up geologist of some standing. This is a far cry from the days when he would visit these rocks as a student with Jameson and hear the Neptunist explanation for their formation, nearly being put off the subject for life.

We finished the tour at Dynamic Earth with the lofty bulk of Salisbury Crags rising up behind. It was an enjoyable hour and a half. As a voracious reader of all things Darwin, there wasn’t much of anything I didn’t already know but the actors created a world I could briefly inhabit – the world Darwin knew when he was a teenager long before he became the explorer, scientist and author who changed the world.

His time in Edinburgh may have been brief, but the foundations were set for his future career. He was exposed to the geological and deep time ideas of Hutton, he gained valuable lessons from Grant in natural history observation and collecting and re-exposed to ideas about Lamarckian evolution, and Edmonstone’s lessons in taxidermy would serve him well on his five year voyage round the world on the Beagle.

Even though he never excelled academically in Edinburgh, he continued his amateur interest in natural history while training for the clergy at Cambridge. His interest in geology was rekindled by Adam Sedgwick and he would take all this learning with him as an accomplished naturalist on the Beagle before settling down to become a respected writer. Edinburgh was key to the Darwin the world came to know so well.

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