Patrick Geddes and Anarchism in Edinburgh [2009]





Patrick Geddes and Anarchism in Edinburgh.



Murdo Macdonald




It’s comin’ yet for a’ that.[1]


For Geddes every building was a potential educational manifesto. He was attracted to the traditional Scottish Reformation habit of engraving educative quotations and mottoes above doorways and on buildings. Beneath the windows of the Geddes family flat in Ramsay Garden is a sundial bordered by quotations in the Greek of Aeschylus and the Scots of Robert Burns. It dates from 1892. The Aeschylus has been translated thus: ‘Time refines all things that age with time’,[2] the Burns reads ‘Its comin yet for a that’. With these two statements from two poets, one originating in the folk/classical culture of ancient Athens, the other originating in the folk/neoclassical culture of Scotland, Geddes emphasises the mutual illumination – through similarity and difference – of alphabets, of languages, of poets and of periods of history. This sundial thus – as a sundial – evokes the present moment within the present day; and as a bearer of quotations it situates this moment with respect to both the Scottish past, and to a culture foundational to Europe, namely that of ancient Greece. When the meaning of the words is taken into account Geddes is seen to be making the political, cultural and historicist point, that we, in the Scottish poet’s words, are ‘comin yet’ to a better era, ‘for a that’. This phrase comes from Robert Burns’ song Is there, for Honest Poverty, an anthem in the cause of social justice. Published in 1795 it reflected the contemporary cry of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ in France.[3] Bringing the ancient Greek into play we find this historicist notion amplified. In a translation of the Aesychlus quotation by John Stuart Blackie it reads ‘Time, that smooths all things’: in this line from Eumenides we find Orestes caught up in a process of atonement and redemption. Such redemptive historicism resonates with the anarchist thinking of Kropotkin and Reclus, with which Geddes had such a close affinity.[4] Geddes’ mottoes are reminders that there is no such thing as historical neutrality in everyday life. The phrase ‘Ramsay Garden’ becomes itself one of Geddes’s mottoes. The name may have existed already, but Geddes saw its potential and realised it. ‘Ramsay’ focuses attention on the fact that these flats and residences have at their core the house of Allan Ramsay the eighteenth-century poet. ‘Garden’ emphasises the cultivation of nature as the complement of both poetry and architecture. Thus the name Ramsay Garden implies both culture and ecology, and it is the appropriate interplay between the two that Geddes believed gave quality of life in any urban – or indeed rural – situation. That cultural-ecological philosophy, which Geddes saw as the philosophy which should underlie all planning, spread out from this central point in the city, and manifested itself in the publication of books and the commissioning of art on the one hand and in the creation of gardens from wasteland and the rehabilitation of slums on the other.

The sundial provides a gloss on identities – notational, linguistic, national, political, moral, historical, ecological. It is Geddes’ intellectual and cultural signature on the exterior of Ramsay Garden. His friendship with Kropotkin helps us to appreciate the human presences which lie behind the sundial quotations. They had met when the Russian was in Edinburgh in late 1886 staying with John Stuart Blackie. Discussing this period, Kropotkin’s biographers note Blackie’s role as a classical scholar and translator of Aeschylus, indeed Blackie contributed the article on Aeschylus to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.[5] In Edinburgh Kropotkin ‘made the acquaintance of a number of men who were later to be his closest scientific friends.’[6] Along with Geddes, who is described as sharing Kropotkin’s views on many sociological matters, another was James Mavor.[7] In his autobiography, Mavor gives a valuable account of this network of cultural, political and scientific figures.[8] He recalls meeting Kropotkin one evening at a party at Geddes’s flat in James Court.[9] Among those present was a young Norwegian biologist studying with Geddes at the marine biological station at Granton. This was Fridtjof Nansen, who would in due course become one the best known of all polar explorers. His presence underlines that for Geddes a necessary part of cultural revival was geographical exploration. Another Edinburgh student of Geddes who became a polar explorer was William Spiers Bruce. Bruce sailed as scientific and medical officer on the Dundee whaler Balaena on its first foray to explore the possibilities of Antarctic whaling in 1892-3.[10] Although this Dundee expedition was primarily commercial rather than scientific the writings and lectures given by Bruce and his colleague (and fellow Geddes student) W.G. Burn Murdoch on their return ‘started an interest and led to Bruce’s further and purely scientific voyages which placed him in the forefront of naturalist navigators and explorers.’[11] Peter Speak, whose scholarship has done much to re-awaken interest in Bruce’s work, has credited this Dundee expedition with the reopening of Antarctic research after a break of some fifty years.[12] Such exploration was a contribution to knowing one’s place in the world, and for Geddes one could not know that, if one did not know the world. Exploration thus served not only curiosity about the exotic, but more importantly it served the properly comparative understanding of the local. Thus for Geddes exploration had little to do with imperialism and everything to do with an understanding of the human condition.

It must have been quite a party, for having introduced us to Nansen, in his next sentence Mavor notes the presence of Thomas Kirkup, author of the article on ‘socialism’ for the Encylopaedia Britannica.[13] He continues ‘Kropotkin and I alternately hammered Marx and Kirkup spoke up for him, and we had an excellent discussion.’ Mavor then walked back to John Stuart Blackie’s house with Kropotkin, laying the basis of a longstanding friendship.[14] It is in the context of such gatherings that Geddes’s pamphlet Co-operation versus Socialism published in 1888 must be seen. There Geddes acknowledges both Kirkup and Kropotkin, and he writes that ‘few people adequately realise how good a case can … be stated for socialism; still fewer know how an even better case can be stated for anarchism; while fewest of all yet recognise in those apparently strange developments of modern thought much of the oldest, commonest, and most enduring wisdom of the human race.’[15] Geddes and Mavor were close contemporaries and good friends. Kropotkin’s host John Stuart Blackie was their senior by about half a century but in several respects he set an example for Geddes in particular. Blackie was Professor of Greek at the University of Edinburgh, but in addition he was a strong proponent of Celtic revival. Like Geddes he mixed a romantic Celticism (and indeed Hellenism) with a cultural pragmatism and one crucial outcome of his efforts was the raising of funds for a chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh.[16] Furthermore he was a trenchant critic of the Highland Clearances, the enforced emigration of Highland Gaels in order to create sheep-farms or deer parks on their land, summing up the iniquities of Highland land use as follows: ‘the economical capacities of the Highlands are not to be understood by a few idle young gentlemen from the metropolis, who travel over the bare brown moors for ten days or a fortnight in the autumn, and then conceit themselves that they have seen the country.’[17] He was also an advocate of Robert Burns’ works and, as noted, a translator of Aeschylus. Geddes’ contact with Kropotkin while the latter was staying with Blackie thus provides a context for understanding the Ramsay Garden sundial. One might even consider the historicist quotations from Aeschylus and Burns as Geddes’ tribute to Blackie and Kropotkin. Blackie died in 1895 three years after the sundial was erected and Geddes’ regard for him is evident in a seminal essay, The Scots Renascence, that he published that year. This begins with an account of Blackie’s funeral as an expression of pluralistic cultural nationalism. A further tribute came in the naming of ‘Blackie House’ a newly converted tenement that became part of University Hall in 1897. That building was again given a kind of physical signature, not with a sundial but with an oriel window overlooking Princes Street Gardens. On it is carved a portrait of Blackie flanked by a Scottish thistle and a Celtic harp.

P. Reilly describes Geddes as ‘an Anarchist of the Chair’, that is to say ‘a professor who sympathized with many of the political and social goals of his friends Kropotkin and … Reclus, but who chose to achieve these ends by less direct and less attention-seeking means’.[18] Geddes’ anarchist sympathies led him to doubt the value of conventional politics in achieving cultural goals. Insight into Geddes’ view of the ambiguous association between cultural activity and the political establishment of the day, even that part of it concerned with reform, is to found in a letter written by him in November 1895. This shows that his commitment to cultural revival and the cause of home rule did not translate into a conventional political position in any easy sense. In a reply to Campbell of Barbreck, he declined to join the Home Rule Association and criticised its members for their failure of cultural engagement. ‘I am sorry’ he writes ‘to decline your invitation but I believe I can do best service to the cause by working at the realities of the Scots Renascence. I believe all the peers and members can do nothing real or permanent until the literary, the academic, the social, the industry movement of Renascence floats them on.’ Geddes thus makes very clear that for him political change follows cultural change, not vice versa.[19] He continues: ‘It is just in the interests of furthering Scottish literature and other realities that I feel bound to stay away. As an illustration of my total dissent from contemporary political methods I may say for instance that I similarly won’t go to temperance meetings not because I don’t want much greater temperance, but because I find in practice that the political teetotalers won’t come to a real temperance café when I build one and I must wait until I see members of the home rule association furthering Scottish literature, work for the Scottish Universities, Scottish Art, Scottish industries of a very greater extent before I could join them.’[20] This distrust of established political process provides a further indication of Geddes’s commitment to anarchist ideals.


[1] Robert Burns, quoted by Geddes on his Ramsay Garden sundial.

[2] Here given in Robert Fagles’ elegant translation. I note my debt here to Tom Schuller, who first translated this quotation for me, before I knew its source. It has been variously translated as ‘Time, that smooths all things’ (J. S. Blackie); ‘Time heals all things in ageing them’ (T. Schuller); ‘As a rule time purges everything’ (unattrib. in S. G. Leonard and J. M. Mackenzie Ramsay Gardens Edinburgh: Patrick Geddes Centre, 1989); ‘Ageing time wears all things away’ (Stevenson’s Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases; 2327). Its source is line 286 of Eumenides.

[3] For the radical context of this song see Andrew Noble & Patrick Scott Hogg, eds., 2001, The Canongate Burns; 512-516.

[4] An appreciation of the contemporary importance of Elisée Reclus’ ecological thought can be gleaned from Liberty, Equality, Geography: The Social Thought of Elisée Reclus, 1997, edited and translated by John Clark and Camille Martin. Geddes’ view is put in the major obituary essay he wrote for The Scottish Geographical Magazine, XXI, 1905, entitled ‘A Great Geographer, Elisée Reclus, (1830-1905)’. This appeared in two parts on pages 490-496 and pages 548-555. In 1901, in volume XVII of this same magazine Reclus had published his paper ‘The Teaching of Geography’ (pages 393-399), which includes reference of Geddes’ Outlook Tower. In 1896 he also published in Geddes’ interdisciplinary magazine The Evergreen. Work on Reclus as a radical anarchist freemason has been undertaken by Tom Steel at Glasgow University.

[5] In due course Kropotkin himself became an Encylopaedia Britannica contributor, writing the article on anarchism for volume one of the eleventh edition, published in 1910.

[6] According to Kropotkin’s biographers, Woodcock & Avakumovic, (Woodcock, G. & Avakumovic, I., 1950, The Anarchist Prince: A Biographical Study of Peter Kropotkin; 226-229), Kropotkin’s other Scottish friends included Keir Hardy, J.S. Keltie, assistant editor of Nature and later secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, and William Robertson Smith, who floated the idea that Kropotkin should be appointed to the chair of Geography at Cambridge. Mavor – who shared a Free Kirk background with Robertson Smith (and with Geddes) – sheds light on this relationship: ‘It was a matter of deep regret to me that I did not see Robertson Smith in later years …. I used to hear of him, however, from mutual friends. He was on very intimate terms with Prince Kropotkin, and different in many ways as were the two men, there sprang up a deep mutual regard. Robertson Smith was anxious to secure Kropotkin for Cambridge as Professor of Geography. Kropotkin told me that he did not care to compromise his freedom by accepting such a position; but that he felt very pleased that Robertson Smith’s friendship had prompted him to so generous a project.’ (Mavor, My Window on the Street of the World, vol. 1; 75).

[7] Boardman, Worlds of Patrick Geddes; 210-211.

[8] Note that Mavor is an important source for Kropotkin’s biographers.

[9] For the wider anarchist context of Geddes see Ward, C., 2004, Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction, in particular chapter 9, ‘The Federalist Agenda’.

[10] Another Geddes student in Edinburgh, W. G. Burn Murdoch, had accompanied Bruce. He recalls how during a lunch in the hall in Mound Place, Bruce suddenly invited him to go to the Antarctic. A week later they left from Dundee. Burn Murdoch writes: ‘This was away back in 1892. Fifty years previously to this Dundee expedition of 1892-3, Sir James Ross had reported having seen great numbers of right whales in the Antarctic regions and the Dundonians having whaling vessels almost idle owing to the scarcity of right whales in the Arctic, fitted out this expedition to get these whales in the South; and our scientific bodies selected promising scientists to go as doctors on board three of the vessels and supplied them with scientific equipment.’ W.G. Burn Murdoch in R.N. Rudmose Brown, 1923, A Naturalist at the Poles; 31. Burn Murdoch writes of the return of that first expedition to to Camperdown Dock in Dundee, noting that they were met by Geddes and his wife. Ibid., 57.

[11] Ibid., 31.

[12] P. Speak, 1992, introductory chapters to W.S.Bruce, The Log of the Scotia.

[13] Published in 1887.

[14] James Mavor, 1923, My Window, vol. 2; 91-92.

[15] Patrick Geddes (1888) Co-operation versus Socialism Manchester: Co-operative Printing Society; 20.

[16] For appreciation of Blackie’s efforts by Gaelic poets see Donald Meek (2003) Caran an t-Saoghail: The Wiles of the World; 219-221 and 218-221.

[17] Quoted in I. F. Grigor, 1979, Mightier than a Lord, Stornoway: Acair; 75.

[18] Reilly, Early Social Thought of Geddes; 200.

[19] Geddes would not have been surprised that the reconvening of the Scottish parliament in 1999 happened after two decades of intense activity in the arts..

[20] Patrick Geddes to J.A.C. Campbell of Barbreck, 1 Nov 1895. NLS MS 10508.   Quoted by Michael Cuthbert’s The Concept of the Outlook Tower in the Work of Patrick Geddes, an unpublished M. Phil thesis from the University of St. Andrews from 1987; 194-5.