History of Geology


St Andrews



It could be argued that the first "geologists" in this area were the Mesolithic inhabitants of the Morton site at Tentsmuir, 10km NNW of St Andrews, who about 8000 years ago fashioned various types of stone into tools and other implements.

Archaeological investigation of the Morton site in 1969 identified 22 different varieties of stone. Among these were four types of flint - grey, brown, blue-grey and chert - most of which would have been found washed up on the beaches nearby. Other forms of silica were agate, opal, chalcedony, carnelian, jasper and amethyst, which are commonly found on the southern shores of the Tay Estuary. Other stones identified were quartz, quartzite, green mudstone, schistose grit, quartz-chlorite schist, silicified limestone and andesite, all of which could have been collected from local glacial deposits.

Middle Ages

Quarrying became established in the St Andrews area through the endeavours of the local stone masons who created the ecclesiastical buildings in and around St Andrews Cathedral. "St.Rule's" chapel and St. Mary's church, Kirkhill, were built in the 11th and 12th centuries respectively. These buildings incorporated sandstone from the Calciferous Sandstone Measures, probably from nearby Strathkinness. The stone from Strathkinness was recognised as a good building stone because of its well-cemented grains which produced a good grey cut facing stone. In contrast, the buff-coloured sandstone from the sea cliffs was of poorer quality and tended to be used for rubble infill. There is written evidence that Nydie quarries were working in the first half of the 13th C., supplying stone for building Balmerino Abbey in north Fife. In 1435, the Priory of St Andrews obtained permission to take stone from a quarry at Kinkell.

18th & 19th Centuries

Various men of learning in the early part of the 18th C. wrote about their observations of rocks, strata and fossils, but it is generally acknowledged that it was James Hutton who laid the foundations of modern geology when he presented his famous paper entitled Theory of the Earth to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1788. This rather ponderous work was made more popular by the publication of Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory in 1802 by John Playfair, a graduate in Theology at St.Andrews. Thus began the association of St Andrews with the science of geology, involving such learned men as Charles Lapworth and Robert Chambers, each of whom contributed to this embryonic science.

During these years geology was taught occasionally at the University under the umbrella of Natural History. At the unification of the colleges of St Salvator's and St Leonard's to form United College in 1747, a Professorship in Civil History had been established. By an Ordinance of the University Commissioners dated 25 November 1861, the Professor of Civil History took on the new title of Professor of Civil History and Natural History. His responsibility was to teach two distinct courses, Zoology and Geology & Palaeontology.

This change of title occurred during the incumbency of William Macdonald who had been appointed in 1850 and was already teaching geology. His course of lectures covered mineralogy and geology, physical geology, zoology and botany. No topic was ever given as a complete course. For example, in 1856 the first eight lectures were devoted to mineralogy, including special remarks on precious stones, the next 27 lectures were on zoology and the last five on geology. The textbook for the geology course was David Page's 'Introductory Textbook of Geology".

During the latter half of the 19th Century, the town of St Andrews was host to four learned men whose endeavours were very much focussed on the earth sciences:

Robert Chambers (1802 - 1871)
In 1844, he wrote a controversial book anonymously called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which pre-empted Darwin's Origin of Species. There was a public outcry at ideas which were then contrary to biblical doctine. Evolution, after all, implied that humans were descended from apes! He also carried out reserach on glacial features around Fife. He died on 17 March 1871 and is buried inside St Rule's church, within the grounds of St Andrews Catherdral.
Matthew Forster Heddle (1828 - 1897)
He became Professor of Chemistry in 1862, but he was primarily a mineralogist who used dynamite and sledge hammers to collect minerals from around Scotland. He worked diligently on his mineralogical studies and a monograph was published posthumously entitled The Mineralogy of Scotland.
Charles Lapworth (1842 - 1920)
Between 1875 and 1881 he was assistant English master at Madras College, the local secondary school. It was during this time that he dedicated himself to studies on Lower Palaeozoic graptolites from the Southern Uplands of Scotland. He published his famous paper on the Moffat Series, centred around his work at Dob's Linn, near Moffat. All later writings on graptolites were largely based upon the results obtained by Lapworth. In 1879 Lapworth suggested the insertion of a central division of the Lower Palaeozoic rocks and that it should be called the "Ordovician System. In this way a long-standing controversy was peacefully solved and the suggestion was generally accepted. He left St Andrews in 1881 to take up the Chair of Geology at Birmingham.
Professor H Alleyne Nicholson (1844 - 1899)
At the age of 31, he was appointed to the Chair of Natural History in 1875. He was primarily a palaeontologist who worked meticulously on the description of graptolites, corals, and stromatoporoids. In 1872 he produced a monograph on British Graptolites. He was later praised by Lapworth for being a pioneer in the study and understanding of the role of graptolites in geological research.

A museum had been established in 1838 by David Brewster, Principal of United College, as a joint venture between the University and the Literary and Philosophical Society of St Andrews. It was housed in the Upper and Lower College Halls in St Salvator's Quadrangle, and provided material for teaching. It was also open to the public. Principal Forbes donated a large cabinet of minerals, gems and fossils, and in 1852 Professor Heddle collected more Dura Den fishes which he contributed to the museum. This substantial geological collection formed a valuable adjunct to the nascent geology courses.

It was while surveying east Fife for the Geological Survey around the turn of the century that Sir Archibald Geikie recognised the potential of the local rocks for teaching the subject. He wrote in his own memoirs:

"While at St.Andrews, I was more than ever impressed with the almost unrivalled facilities offered by this centre and its surrounding district for demonstrating to students many of the fundamental principles of geology. Nevertheless, though in possession of such unusual educational advantages, the University has never made any provision for utilising them. Geology was not included as a distinct subject in its curriculum of study. I had often discussed this deficiency with some of the professors, and on this occasion, before leaving the place, I wrote a formal letter to Dr. Donaldson, the Principal, strongly urging that some steps should be taken to turn to account the unique facilities of the place for the practical teaching of geology. This letter met with a sympathetic reception, and two years afterwards a Lectureship in Geology was added to the teaching staff of the University. "

Department established

Following the advice of Sir Archibald Geikie, Dr. Thomas Jehu was appointed to the first Lectureship in Geology at the University of St Andrews in 1903 with a salary of 300 pounds per annum. There was no full degree course in Geology at that time and the subject formed part of a general science degree. The geology course comprised 100 lectures and 20 demonstrations.

Thomas Jehu, a Welshman by birth, came to St.Andrews with a background in medicine and science from Edinburgh and Cambridge respectively. At Edinburgh he won the geology class medal, having been introduced to geology by Professor James Geikie, brother of Sir Archibald. After leaving Edinburgh with M.B., C.M. and B.Sc. degrees, he continued his studies at St John's College, Cambridge, where geology formed part of his Natural Science Tripos in which he gained first class passes. He returned to Edinburgh as Heriot Research Fellow for two years and followed this with a tour of the Alps to study glaciation. After his appointment to St Andrews, he pursued his interest in glacial deposits with studies of Welsh glaciation, specifically those of Caernarvonshire and Pembrokeshire. Eventually he transferred his investigations to the Highland Border Series around Aberfoyle and was the first to discover fossils in those rocks.

At the time of his appointment the University comprised three colleges: United College, St.Mary's College and University College, Dundee. Lecturers in St.Andrews also had to teach courses in Dundee and in the first few years geology was taught alternate years at each site. In order to spread the teaching load between St Andrews and Dundee, an assistantship was created in 1906. The successful candidate was Samuel James Shand, a petrologist with a leaning towards chemistry.

Shand was replaced by Robert Craig in October 1907 as Assistant to Jehu. According to the University Calendars, Craig was alternately assigned to Dundee and St Andrews on a yearly basis. In October 1911 he was joined by David Balsillie, also as Assistant. When Jehu departed to take up the Regius Chair of Geology at Edinburgh in 1914, both Craig and Balsillie were promoted to Lecturer. Craig followed Jehu to Edinburgh to take up a Lectureship in Economic Geology and the two men turned their attention to the Lewisian, producing a seminal work on the Geology of the Outer Hebrides.

The First World War intervened, and geology was not taught in St.Andrews for the next five years. The subject re-awoke in 1920 when Donald Innes was appointed lecturer. This marked the beginning of mainstream teaching of geology and led to the establishment of a full degree course entitled Geology including Mineralogy, which consisted of 100 lectures and 125 practical sessions.

Throughout these early years, lectures and practicals were held in the rooms of United College in St Salvators quadrangle. Until 1911, the University museum had occupied Upper College Hall, adjacent to the teaching rooms. On completion of the Bute Medical Building, the natural history specimens were transferred to the Bell-Pettigrew museum but the geological specimens remained behind for geology teaching. Eventually the Department of Geology & Geography transferred to the Carnegie Building in 1933, occupying the northern wing which overlooks the lawns of St Mary's quadrangle. Here the Department expanded into more spacious rooms and was able to provide accommodation for its Honours students. It also boasted a workshop, library and its own lecture theatre.

Chair of Geology

A major advance in the recognition of Geology in St Andrews came when the University Court issued an Ordinance creating a Chair of Geology in the University. On the 3rd of October 1935, HM the King in Council approved the Ordinance and in 1936 Donald Innes was promoted to the Chair of Geology.

In 1938 Harald Drever was appointed as Assistant. Once at St Andrews he developed a research interest in mafic and ultramafic rocks from Greenland, a place he visited regularly throughout his career. The eskimos became his friends and in the frozen water of the Arctic he learned how to handle a kayak.

The Second World War disrupted activities in the Department. All teaching was suspended except for 1st year classes. Two bombs fell very close to the Department and caused serious damage, resulting in the temporary relocation of classes.

Life returned to normal after the War and the expansion of the Department of Geology (and Mineralogy) began in earnest with the promotion of Harald Drever to Lecturer in 1946, the appointment of John Currie as Assistant in 1946, Ted Patterson in 1947 and William Harry in 1948. Morgan Barber, a structural geologist, was appointed in 1950. He only stayed for three years and his departure in 1953 coincided with a "mass exodus" of staff from the Department. In that year, Ted Patterson resigned and left academia for a career in industry. The professor, Donald Innes, also departed. In a letter to Senate, Principal Knox refers to Innes's resignation and a "crisis" in Geology. The Principal raised the issue of Geology for discussion at a Senate meeting and broadened the debate to include the issue of teaching Geology and Geography in both St Andrews and Dundee. Principal Knox's favoured option was to unify Geology in St Andrews and Geography in Dundee. To help resolve the situation, he commissioned a report into the viability of sustaining the two subjects at both sites and called upon Professor Tilley from Cambridge and Dr William Pugh of the Geological Survey to investigate. The outcome of this was no change, since Senate did not wish to see Geology teaching removed from Dundee.

After a short period with no professor, the Chair was filled in 1955 by Charles Davidson, a graduate of St Andrews and an eminent economic geologist. Drever and his colleague Bob Johnston's experience of igneous textures in mafic rocks led to their being chosen as investigators of Moon rocks brought back by the Apollo 11 mission. The lunar project gave a welcome boost to the Department's reputation.

A major event in 1967 was the acquisition of University status by Queen's College, Dundee. The same year Professor Davidson died suddenly, having led the Department for 12 years. During his incumbency, the Department expanded at a rate never experienced before, reaching the unprecedented strength of seven academic staff.

The vacant Chair was filled a year later by E Ken Walton from Edinburgh, who brought to St Andrews a wealth of experience in clastic sedimentology acquired from his pioneering work on greywackes in the Southern Uplands.

At this stage it seems appropriate to introduce the subject of beer. Many geologists seem to have a predilection for fermented liquors (sometimes euphemistically described as "Study of Fluids in the Geological Environment"). At St Andrews a movement called TGIF, or "Thank God It's Friday", came into being around the time of Barry Dawson's appointment in 1964. (He was subsequently awarded a Personal Chair in 1975). TGIF manifested itself as a migration to the Criterion Bar in South Street every Friday evening at around 5 o'clock. Professors, lecturers, technicians, students - every stratum of academic life was represented. Every Friday gathering in the "Crit", as it was affectionately called, was a great social leveller and students who shared in the camaraderie felt they belonged to a friendly, close-knit Department. Within the academic echelons, many an intellectual discussion took place and research ideas were formulated, at least in the earlier part of the evening! The "Crit" remained the Department pub until 1989. Today Earth Scientists coalesce in the Whey Pat, opposite the West Port.

Increasing class sizes in the early 1970's resulted in overcrowding in the Carnegie Building and first year classes had to be held elsewhere. After lengthy negotiations, Geology was allocated three floors of one wing and an outbuilding at the Purdie Building on the North Haugh. The Chemistry Department, which occupied the whole of this building, had to contract and in the summer of 1975, the accommodation was ready to receive its new tenants. It was not before time. The honours class of 1974 had reached a record level of 14 students for which the old accommodation was never designed.

The move to the Purdie Building was completed in the summer of 1975 in time for the new session. One member of staff who had been reluctant to move was Harald Drever. As if in confirmation of his reluctance, he died unexpectedly on 4th October 1975 after a short illness. At that time he had been the longest serving member of the Department, giving 32 years service.

New staff brought new grants and the post-graduate population blossomed in the late 70's and early 80's. All this flourishing research activity, encouraged by the period of relative stability was soon to be overshadowed by external forces. In the early 1980's, rumours began to circulate that the Government was instigating an assessment of teaching and research activity in Higher Education. This led to speculation that small departments, like that of Geology at St Andrews, might be vulnerable to "rationalisation" or in current parlance, "down-sizing". The UGC review loomed large in 1987. For many months, staff time and energy were diverted from productive research to examination of a thousand minutiae associated with the Department's activities, from personal profiles through citation indexes to graduates' careers. The Department was fighting for its survival. Much midnight oil was burned by members of staff to prepare the 165-page document on which the Department's future would depend. A key concept in the submission for the future of geology was the development of Geoscience degrees which would emphasise the interaction between geology and other disciplines. The document was submitted in November 1987 and the following January, after an interview with the Scottish Earth Science Review Committee in Edinburgh, the Department was told that Geology at St Andrews had submitted a realistic document and that its future was secure.


As a result of this review, Dundee Geology closed and two of its staff transferred to St Andrews. In order to strengthen Geology, the University created a School of Geography & Geology in 1993. The establishment of Environmental Geology courses led to some collaboration in teaching between the two departments. Three new academic staff members were appointed in 1996. Further rationalisation in 1997 resulted in the creation of a new School of Geography & Geosciences.

(This history is a summary of a more detailed version available as an illustrated booklet entitled "Geology at St Andrews - a Historical Review". 64pp, A5 pbk. Available from rab@st-and.ac.uk, cost 2.50 pounds sterling including postage).

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