A new book reflecting on the work of one of Scotland’s greatest thinkers was launched this week – featuring a chapter penned by a University of Aberdeen lecturer.
Town planning, open-minded education, preservation of buildings of historical worth and community gardens are central to modern society – and all were first visualised by Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), one of the greatest forward thinkers in history.
On Wednesday (March 21) a pipe band processed from Victoria Hall in Ballater to Geddes' recently discovered birth-site as part of the launch of A Vigorous Instituation, a new collection of articles examining his enormous legacy.
Officially a biologist and botanist, Geddes also wrote scores of academic papers and treatises on history, arts, education and numerous other topics, drawing comparisons with Da Vinci in terms of his intensity of study. Admired by Darwin and Einstein, his progressive thinking laid the foundations for the sustainable development movement. However, despite an influence that extends across India, Israel, Japan and Europe, he remains better known outside his native country than in it.
The contributors to A Vigorous Institution include Aberdeen School of Law lecturer Anne-Michelle Slater, whose chapter focuses on the weeks that Geddes spent in Cowie, Kincardineshire in 1879, establishing a marine research station for the University of Aberdeen. She was encouraged to submit a chapter after meeting Geddes' granddaughter at a Stonehaven Heritage Society evening in 2005.
"I'd learnt about Patrick Geddes from visits to the Outlook Tower by Edinburgh Castle and staying in the Patrick Geddes Halls of Residence in Edinburgh during my teens," said Anne-Michelle, who specialises in planning and environmental law and runs the Sustainable Development and Law LLM programme at the University of Aberdeen.
"Geddes was pivotal in conserving the Old Town of Edinburgh by living there and encouraging others to do the same, and he was also influential in starting the town planning movement in Ireland.
"I'd been researching and publishing in the emerging area of marine spatial planning so when I discovered that Geddes had started a marine research station for the University of Aberdeen – the first in Britain - I had to investigate further."
The result is her chapter, the Light Before the Darkness, which refers to the summer Geddes spent at Cowie before being blinded during a trip to Mexico.
"The British Association for the Advancement of Science paid Geddes to go to Naples to ascertain what was required for a marine research station," explained Anne-Michelle.
"Later in 1879 he undertook a scientific exhibition to Mexico, where he lost his sight at the age of 25. It eventually returned, but he was never able to undertake the detailed microscope work again and so turned his interests to a wide range of other areas.
"My chapter considers the influences that the period at Cowie might have had on his future teaching, writing and beliefs."
The inauguration of the Scottish Zoological Station took place on Thursday, August 7, 1879. The opening ceremony was conducted by Mr G.J Romanes, FRS who is quoted in a newspaper at the time as saying,
"…..that it might appear a curious fact that although they in Great Britain pride themselves on being the ruler of the waves, they nevertheless displayed so little curiosity in ascertaining what those waves have to teach us about their inhabitants. When they looked upon that building they must feel that it is a remarkable thing that it is the only building of its kind in Great Britain, for although there are several zoological stations, large and well equipped in several parts of Europe, this is the first that has been the reared in this country. They must consider it a credit to Aberdeen University that it should have taken the initiative in founding such an institution…. The sea teams with life, in from more varied and more interesting than those to be found on land……… There can be no doubt that such establishments will be instituted in other part of the country, and that Aberdeen University will in time be imitated in other parts of Great Britain, but the fact will always remain in history that Aberdeen University was the first to found an institution of this kind".
The research station was dismantled later in 1879 and reinstated in subsequent years on the Moray Firth and elsewhere in Scotland, including Oban.
"Patrick Geddes's ideas are more relevant than ever with the growing recognition of the benefit of theories like 'live local, act global'," added Anne-Michelle.
"The University of Aberdeen of the twenty first century has strengths in marine research and sustainable development, and has permanent marine research stations on the Moray Firth and at Newburgh. Patrick Geddes started the ball rolling and I hope this book, and my contribution to it, help highlight the huge legacy he left behind."