Professor Patrick Copland (1748 -1822) was a natural philosopher of national repute, whose connection with Marischal College spanned 60 years.

A son of the manse, Copland was born in Fintray, Aberdeenshire, and graduated AM from Marischal in 1766. He studied under an array of Aberdeen Enlightenment figures, including James Beattie, professor of moral philosophy and logic, and co-founder of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society.

In 1775, Copland was appointed regent and professor of philosophy at Marischal College and there he remained, teaching continuously until a month before his death in 1822.

Over the course of his career, Copland taught over 2,000 students. He was a popular and dedicated teacher whose services were recognised in 1817 when he was awarded an honorary LLD by his college. But perhaps his greatest contribution to university education was the introduction of demonstration apparatus in teaching natural philosophy. He was passionate about mechanical science, and even ran and equipped his own workshop where skilled tradesmen and craftsmen were employed in the production of items in wood and metal. Many of these instruments survive to this day in the University’s Natural Philosophy and Marischal Museum collections.

Copland is also remembered as a pioneer of public education, introducing in 1785 a series of popular extra-mural classes in the city, classes which ran until 1813. These pre-dated the mechanics’ institute movement of the 1820s and have been credited with influencing the founding of London’s Royal Institution in 1800.

More information on the University’s demonstration equipment, including Copland’s, can be found on the web pages of the University of Aberdeen’s Natural Philosophy Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments and Marischal Museum.

For more on Copland’s life and career, see John S. Reid’s, ‘Patrick Copland, 1748–1822: connections outside the college courtyard’, Aberdeen University Review, 51 (1985–6), 226–50; ‘Patrick Copland, 1748–1822: aspects of his life and times at Marischal College’, Aberdeen University Review, 50 (1983–4), 359–79; ‘The Castlehill observatory, Aberdeen’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 13 (1982), 84–96; ‘The remarkable Professor Copland’, Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, 24 (1990), 2–5.

University of Aberdeen Museums, ABDNP 200206Balancing cube, late 18th century

This late 18th century balancing cube comes from Professor Copland's cabinet. The wooden cube, with brass handles, balances beyond its edge with support under the centre of gravity of the whole shape. Copland was an educational innovator who introduced the extensive use of demonstration equipment in the teaching of this subject into universities. More examples of Copland’s demonstration equipment are held by the University of Aberdeen’s Natural Philosophy Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, one of the most diverse collections of scientific instruments in any British university.


MSM 392Petition to Professor Copland regarding examinations in Latin, 1776

In 1776, a petition was drawn up and signed by the entirety of Copland’s first year class, requesting that the public examination be carried out in “our native language” and not, as was the case at that time, in Latin: “The public examination we apprehend is intended to prove what proficiency we have made in Natural Philosophy, not in the Latin tongue”.

The main instigator was believed to be a Londoner, James Stephen, the grandfather of the founder of the Dictionary of National Biography and great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf. Stephen kept a memoir in which he surmised that as Copland himself was not proficient in Latin, the petition might in fact be welcomed. Whatever the reception, the students’ request was acceded to after deliberation by the principal and professors.

MSM 375Class ticket of James Simpson, 1812-13

Admission ticket to a private course of tuition in natural philosophy offered by Copland in 1812–13. These Mechanical Philosophy classes, which included practical experiments, ran three nights a week and were offered by Copland “chiefly with a view to the practical application of those branches of science to the Arts, & the common purposes of Life”.

George Birkbeck, (1776–1841), is widely credited as the founding father of the mechanics’ institute movement. However, Copland’s popular classes for artisans pre-dated Birkbeck’s, running from 1785 to 1813.



Notice for popular classes on Mechanical Philosophy, 1809

MSM 375This course introduced the principles of mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, optics, electricity, and magnetism, alongside a programme of practical experiments. The classes ran three nights a week and were offered “chiefly with a view to the practical application of those branches of science to the Arts, & the common purposes of Life”.



Extract from William Milne’s Map of Aberdeen, 1789 in L mAa E Pla, Plans of the city of Aberdeen, 1661-1900The Castlehill Observatory

In 1780-81 Copland raised a subscription of almost £400 to construct and furnish with the most up-to-date equipment, the first publicly funded astronomical observatory in Scotland. It was erected on the south-east corner of the Castlehill and stood until 1796 when, under pressure from the Council to re-fortify the hill, it was removed to Marischal College.

MSM 174/1Lecture notes taken by William Corbet, 1814-15

Copland believed passionately in the practical application of physics. Such a utilitarian approach can be readily discerned in many of his lecture notes which survive in the University’s Archives. This description and illustration of a fire engine comes under the heading of ‘useful machines’. A more elegant illustration is also shown from a separate set of Copland lectures.

Music played an important part in Copland’s life. He was a manager of Aberdeen Musical Society and corresponded on the subject with local lairds. He even constructed his own pipe organ, which he had installed in his house in Fountainhall.