Patrick Geddes and Perth

Patrick Geddes and Perth


Version 2

[Published in: Fergus Purdie, A Botanist Looks at the World, Perth: Fergus Purdie Architects, 2016)


Murdo Macdonald





In 1857 when he was three years old Patrick Geddes’ family moved from Ballater to a cottage on a hillside overlooking the city of Perth. Geddes lived there until he was twenty, the formative years of his life. It was in and around Kinnoull Hill, complete with its tower-topped outlook crag, that he laid the basis of his life’s work. Throughout his life Geddes developed his understanding of place and Perth was the place where he began to formulate his ideas. Fundamental to his thinking was the relationship between cities and their regions ‘from snows to sea’. As he says himself ‘it must have been in the climbings and the ramblings over this fine valley landscape . . . that I got the feeling of the valley section which has been a main vision of geography in later years.’[1] His pioneering appreciation of the relations between city and region has often been presented in the context of Edinburgh and the Lothians, but the foundations of this thinking lie in his early appreciation of the interdependence of Perth, Strathearn, Strath Tay and Strathmore. His understanding of those inter-relationships was formed during boyhood rambles through the woods and among the crags, exploring in turn the ecology of the woodland and the viewpoints over the river and the city.


Reference back to the river Tay was a constant of Geddes’ life, a source of illumination. When, late in his career, he was involved in studies in India, the Ganges reminded him of ‘his own childhood river, the Tay, “which will always be for me my main impulse of the life-stream and of the cosmos”.’ [2] The Tay thus became for Geddes a way of modelling the essence of a river region as a geographically, historically and spiritually significant entity. Another example of the importance of the Tay for Geddes comes from Stewart Robertson: ‘when he spoke . . . on the interrelations of geography and history [Geddes] illustrated his thesis by reference to the Thames, with its English capital city, London, and its sacred place of coronation, Westminster, paralleled by the Tay with its Scottish capital, Perth, and its sacred place of coronation, Scone.’[3]


Perth’s location within that river system provided the young Patrick with a rich source for developing his geographical insight. The city lies on Tay between two tributaries separated by a few miles, the Earn and the Almond. The Tay at Perth is both navigable and tidal. It flows from north to south before taking a sharp turn to the east towards Dundee; the main body of Perth lies on the west bank. Geddes’ home overlooked this from the hills of east bank. To the north the river Almond flows from west to east. To the south the river Earn does the same. To the east, across the Tay is the beginning of the Sidlaw Hills that extend most of the way to Dundee and shelter the fertile fruit-growing plains of Strathmore and the Carse of Gowrie. Beyond the Earn rise the Ochils, which stretch southwards towards the river Forth. All three rivers, Almond, Earn and Tay, find their sources in the main mass of the central Highlands to the north and to the west, and between Perth and that Highland mass to the west lies the productive farmland of Strathearn. In the centre of these rivers and ridges Perth sits like a hub in a wheel of roads. To the north is the route to Dunkeld and, via Drumochter pass, to Inverness. To the north-northeast is the route through via Blairgowrie and Glen Shee through the Cairngorms to Ballater and Aberdeen. To the northeast are Montrose and Aberdeen via Strathmore, and more easterly and south of the Sidlaws is the road to Dundee, following the north bank of the Tay. To the southeast and south lie routes to Fife and Edinburgh, and to the southwest, via Strathallan, to Dunblane, Stirling and Glasgow. To the west is the road to the Highlands via Crieff and Crianlarich. Thus, although Perth is strongly defined by high ground and rivers, it is positioned in such a way that it is not cut off in any direction.


Considering this location it is not surprising that historically and prehistorically the region around Perth has been culturally significant from the time of the Picts and before to the present. This hub, with its harbour and its communications by land and sea, served the needs of its region through trade, industry and education. Perth was noted not only for its textile trade, but also, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, for its booksellers and publishers. Geddes’ childhood and youth coincided with the growth of Victorian museum culture, and Perth was developing collections of distinction. These included that of the Perthshire Society for Natural Science, founded in 1867.


From a historical perspective the Tay at Perth had been documented since Roman times. It had impressed the Romans in their periodical attempts to secure Caledonia. Agricola is reported to have greeted the Tay with the words ‘ecce Tiber’ – ‘behold the Tiber’ comparing its situation to that of Rome. Never a securely settled Roman area, the hinterland of Perth nevertheless has highly interesting military remains, including the roads and communications stations along the Gask ridge between Perth and the old strong point of Drummond Castle. But consideration of these Roman works draws one into an altogether older landscape of prehistory of which Geddes would have been aware. Even on foot, the young Geddes was prepared to explore up to fourteen miles from Perth and this gives some idea of his engagement with the region around his home.[4] Perth itself was also rich with possibilities for the youth curious about history. Here, in St John’s Kirk, John Knox had preached his sermon against idolatory, giving unintended impetus to the iconoclasm of the Scottish Reformation. Here cultural and linguistic difference between Highland and Lowland Scotland had been apparent for centuries. Here Walter Scott had set one of his great novels. Here Jacobites and Hanoverians had come and gone. Thus historically as well as geographically Perth was a congenial place for a child with a generalist turn of mind. It was in Perth that Geddes became aware of the languages and ideas – by turns complementary and contradictory – which gave Scotland its cultural identity.


In later years Geddes wrote of Perth:


‘From the corner of the hill nearest the city you could look down upon it, lying beautiful between its north and south ‘Inches.’ These were two large old parks, each (as the Gaelic name means) islanded between river and mill-streams, ascribed to Roman origin. Perth is still something of ‘the Fair City’ its folk have often called it, and from the rock-ridge across the river you look down on it, almost as on a map, say rather a relief-model in perspective. Below our hillside home the river mist would sometimes lie over and conceal it, in a long grey-white lake, with only the spires rising through – a scene the father would call us all out to see. And in scanning two aspects of my home-city again in memory, I realise that these were the best of preparations a town-planner could desire; at ordinary times the precise observation of the city in detail; yet at others the discernment of its old ideals, emergent above the mist of nature and the smoke of its working life.’[5]



In Perth further Scottish cultural and historical influences on Geddes came from a military source. Perth was the headquarters of the regiment of the British army known since its inception in 1740 as the Black Watch, and Geddes’ father, Alexander, spent his adult life as a soldier in that regiment. The regiment had very strong Highland roots, and in the eighteenth century had been composed of Gaelic speakers only. In the first half of the nineteenth century, a Gaelic speaker such as Geddes’ father would have found himself very much at home.[6] Indeed Patrick’s daughter Norah, in her memoir of her father, notes that Alexander Geddes served in the Black Watch at a time ‘to quote a Northern newspaper “. . . when its officers were Gaels who rose from the ranks to command that proud old regiment”’.[7] Alexander Geddes had joined up as a drummer at the age of fifteen, and after twenty-one years service he left with the rank of sergeant.[8] His career with the Black Watch affected his family in ways that can be seen from points of view both local and international. For example, Patrick’s elder sister was born in Corfu when the family was stationed there and Alexander Geddes spent more than half his service career abroad. On retirement he took his family to live close to his brother in Ballater in Aberdeenshire, where Patrick was born in 1854. During the Crimean war (1853-1856) Alexander Geddes was recalled and given a commission in the Perthshire Rifles, a volunteer regiment linked to the Black Watch.


When, in 1857, the family moved to Perth it may be that Alexander Geddes’ presence was required because of the Black Watch’s presence in India, where the regiment was engaged in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny. India would certainly have been a major topic of conversation in the Perth of Geddes’ childhood. The uprising of the indigenous regiments can be seen as part of the cultural paradox of the British Empire, and one can consider the history of the Black Watch from that perspective also. First mustered as a regiment in 1740 the Black Watch had itself in 1743 been involved in a rebellion engendered – like the Indian Mutiny – by cross-cultural suspicion; indeed a significant number of those who were involved in the mutiny were monoglot Gaelic speakers. Despite the relatively minor nature of that event, it resulted in executions and punishment postings to other regiments. In 1745 the regiment was held back in Kent rather than risk divided loyalties during the Jacobite uprising of that year. Ironically, the harsh treatment meted out to the Black Watch mutineers may have influenced the decision of several clans to support the Jacobite rising of 1745.[9] Yet between these dates the Black Watch had distinguished itself in Belgium at the Battle of Fontenoy. Thus a sense of the interplay of imperial power and indigenous cultures was woven into Geddes’ background and this gives context to his later interest in cultural revivals throughout the world. There is a further link to the Black Watch that should be noted here. During the early period of the Black Watch’s history the regiment’s chaplain was Adam Ferguson, subsequently Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, and a figure whose study of civil society was valued by Geddes in later life. Geddes helped to found the Sociological Society in the early twentieth century, but, as Donald MacRae has noted, ‘sociology begins with Ferguson’ in the eighteenth.[10] It is no coincidence that a pioneer of sociology should have served in the Black Watch during the period of the Jacobite war of 1745–6. What better insight could one have into the complexities of society than to be a Highlander in a Gaelic-speaking regiment sworn to serve the interests of those who in due course embarked on the cultural destruction of the Highlands? The most well known response to this culturally complex situation is James Macpherson’s Ossian, of which Ferguson was a defender and of which Geddes later published an edition.[11]


By the time it became part of Patrick Geddes’ cultural background, the Black Watch was well travelled and had a formidable reputation, adding to its battle honours, among others, Ticonderoga, Alexandria, Salamanca, Quatre Bras and Waterloo. However, the period of his father’s service coincided with the long peace after the defeat of Napoleon and before the outbreak of the Crimean War. This long period of peace is of interest. The Black Watch spent most of it either in Scotland or on station in various parts of the Mediterranean. One wonders how much his family’s reminiscences of the Ionian isles brought life to Geddes’ later classical studies. Intriguing in view of Geddes’ later commitment to pageantry is a comment with respect to this period that ‘as always in peace-time, considerable attention was paid to uniform detail. The first half of the nineteenth century was the era when military uniforms were at their most gorgeous, and correspondingly at their most impractical.’[12] In the case of the Highland regiments the whole process was boosted by Sir Walter Scott’s stage management of George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822 but it is important not to regard Highland dress as being merely the construction of that novelist’s imagination. The type of Highland dress often attributed to Scott’s influence was established well before he penned his first word about the Highlands; indeed the first major work of Scottish painting depicting full Highland dress dates from well over a century earlier.[13] Some of the earliest widely available images of Highland dress would have been the images of the Black Watch mutineers of 1743, long before Scott’s work. It was during the extended post-Waterloo period of peace that the long, ornamental sporran became popular. During the Napoleonic wars sporrans, if worn at all, were quite modest in size, but by the time of the Crimean war they extended well past the hem of the kilt.[14] The sporrans that the young Patrick Geddes is pictured wearing at the ages of ten and fifteen are very much part of this school of sporran development.[15] Other interesting examples can be found illustrated in R. R. McIan’s The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, published in 1845, and in Kenneth MacLeay’s Highlanders of Scotland, a commission from Queen Victoria which was published in 1870.[16] From this perspective Highland dress can be seen as a developing set of clothing and accessories which – in common with most other dress – has aspects of both practicality and display. It is not surprising that, during this period of peace, display dominated practicality; indeed the years around 1844 have been identified as the time of ‘the peak of sartorial magnificence’.[17]


The Highland dress aspect of the Black Watch was closely related to the development of the military pipe band. The Highland bagpipe – part of that family of Indo-European reed pipes which extends from Scotland to the Himalaya – was fundamental to the culture of the Black Watch, and Geddes as a child thus had an inside track on the appreciation of both pageantry and pipe music, subjects which he was to explore extensively in later life in his masques and mural schemes. Such pageantry and music were parts of a living tradition. The long sporran may have been a military fashion innovation, but it was a fashion innovation that related to a traditional culture. This can be noted with respect to Geddes’ later role as the central figure of the Celtic revival in Scotland. He valued the past but he was unafraid of change. Authenticity was for Geddes part of a lived experience, not an archaeological discovery. Geddes, in a section on tartan in an unpublished paper on Celtic art, notes the tartan of ‘the 42nd’ without further comment.[18] The reference is clear to anyone familiar with the Black Watch as the 42nd Regiment of Foot; to anyone else it is obscure. What this indicates is the degree to which Geddes took his own awareness of the Black Watch for granted. The Black Watch was an effective, if unstated, cultural mediator for the young Patrick Geddes.


While Patrick’s father linked him to the Celtic culture of the Black Watch on the one hand, on the other he was his first practical instructor in an art which Geddes was to value throughout his life: gardening – not just gardening in itself, but gardening as the psychological heart of a wider appreciation of human interaction with the natural environment. By the time he was being tutored in the beauties of geometry by Rector Miller at Perth Academy, Geddes’ practical training as a gardener was well under way. In his Talks from the Outlook Tower, he reflects on his early gardening experience in a way that enables us to begin to understand his motto vivendo discimus – ‘by living we learn’.


‘I can see that my main good fortune lay before school days in a home modest enough in ordinary ways, but with a large garden; – ample fruit-bushes, apples and great old wild cherry trees; with vegetables mainly cared for by my father, and a fair variety of flowers, to which my mother was devoted. I trotted in turns after both, and thus learned to help; as also to climb, to tame robins, to keep pets and so on.’[19]


As Norah Geddes points out, before attending Perth Academy at the age of eight, Patrick was predominantly educated by his father. ‘As soon as he could read, his father nurtured him on the Book of Proverbs whose exhortation “Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom and in all thy getting get understanding”, his son took to heart.’[20] However, Norah also notes that Patrick’s mother ‘had been schoolmistress to the children of the Regiment and always carried about with her a grave air of authority.’ That must also have been influential in his home education.


For Geddes the garden and the home were an ordered starting point for looking further:


‘A great landscape too from our hillside windows; of which the range ‘from Birnam Wood to Dunsinane’ was but a quarter, and even that not the finest; a landscape that stretched over city and river, plain and minor hills, to noble Highland peaks, clear-cut against the evening sky.’[21]


Here Geddes directs our view to the wider region, bringing it to mind through both geography and literature. These ‘peaks, clear-cut again the evening sky’ – in particular the sharp outline of Ben Vorlich accompanied by the serrated ridge of Stuc a Chroin – had become an integral part of the canon of British art during the time of Geddes’ childhood as portrayed in the background of John Everett Millais’ Autumn Leaves painted in 1855–6. Geddes then shifts our perspective back to the near at hand, beginning the journey out of the garden, conveying the beauties and opportunities of Corsie Hill and Kinnoull Hill:


‘Behind came fields, and a pool and ditch, rich in insect-life and wild flowers, a brook further away. Then a bit of moor with wild roses and golden gorse, and in this moor a large deep quarry in a basalt-dike. Then a nobly wooded hill, with fine old fir-masses and beech glades, and lovely birch here and there between.’ [22]


Geddes then takes a wider perspective again:

‘Soon, too, a really glorious hill-top, which, though only some 700 feet above the Tay and its rich alluvial plain widening downwards, broke into a long range of noble precipice, finer than any along the Rhine, and with a fresh southward hill-panorama, complemental to the westerly and northern one of home.’[23]


Finally he returns us to the immediacy of geological exploration and botany:


‘In the quarry there were quartz crystal masses to be found; and along the precipice and its screes of broken rock one could hunt for agates. . . . Ferns too, in variety, could be brought back for shady nooks and corners in the garden, and rockeries built from them with the beautiful stones of quarry and cliffs. Thus I made my first botanic garden!’ [24]


This passage, which begins and ends with a garden and between times ranges far and wide, epitomises Geddes’ ecological, regional, view and makes clear the opportunities he had to develop it as a youth. His father enhanced his education by organising classes in both art and cabinet making to complement his written studies. He then, as fathers do, did his best to prepare Patrick for a solid career, namely in banking. As a seventeen year old Patrick gave the National Bank of Scotland in Perth a fair trial from September 1871 for eighteen months. He left with an excellent reference, but by then his need for higher education was becoming pressing and, in Norah Geddes’ words, his father ‘let him go to study chemistry and geology in Dundee and Edinburgh.’ [25]


Geddes’ student days in Dundee in 1873 and 1874 deserve mention. This was the period during which Geddes began to teach others, if informally. Geddes was a senior student at the Dundee YMCA science laboratories and his friend and supporter R. C. Buist remembers coming under his influence at that time.[26] This was also the time when he began to make the scientific contacts in Dundee that would encourage him, in due course, to pursue an academic career in that city. His friends there included James Martin White, who was later to provide funds for a number of Geddes projects. At that time Dundee was developing its regional role as a higher education provider for Perthshire and Angus but it was still a decade before the establishment of University College Dundee, the institution that would provide Geddes with academic stability as Professor of Botany.


[1] Philip Boardman, The Worlds of Patrick Geddes; 277.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robertson, Moray Loon; 4.

[4] Geddes in Stalley, M., ed., Patrick Geddes: Spokesman for Man and the Environment; 370.


[5] Ibid., 369–70.

[6] It seems likely that it is due to Geddes’ father’s Gaelic speaking that Patrick’s name is recorded as ‘Peter’ on his birth certificate, for ‘Peter’ was a common Anglicization of the Gaelic ‘Padraig’. As Walter Steven has pointed out, he used both names as late as his teens. Stephen, W., 2007, ‘Where was Peter Geddes born’ in Stephen, W., ed., A Vigorous Institution; 85-87.

[7] Norah Geddes, memoir of Patrick Geddes, NLS Ms. 10508 f. 163.

[8] My thanks to Thomas Smyth, Archivist of the Black Watch Museum in Perth, for this information.

[9] Macphersons, Camerons, Stewarts, MacGregors, MacIntyres, Grants, Robertsons, MacDonalds and Frasers were among those executed or transported. ‘It is impossible to avoid a belief that the Hanoverian Government’s vindictive punishment of the mutineers did much to encourage, fortify, and enlarge the menace, to itself, of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745’, Linklater, E. & Linklater, A., 1977, The Black Watch: the History of the Royal Highland Regiment; 23.

[10] Donald MacRae, 1969, ‘Adam Ferguson’, in Timothy Raison, ed., The Founding Fathers of Social Science; 26.

[11] With respect to Ferguson’s view see Donald Meek’s chapter The Gaelic Ballads of Scotland: Creativity and Adaptation’ in Howard Gaskill, ed., 1991, Ossian Revisited; 19-48. For further context see H. Gaskill, ed., 2004, The Reception of Ossian in Europe.

[12] Charles Grant, 1971, The Black Watch; 24.

[13] John Michael Wright’s Lord Mungo Murray (Scottish National Portrait Gallery) dates from about 1680. See M. Macdonald, 2000, Scottish Art; 46-48.

[14] See, e.g., Joseph Cundall’s 1856 photograph of William Gardner, Donald McKenzie and George Glen (Scottish National Portrait Gallery).

[15] See, e.g,, Boardman, Worlds of Patrick Geddes; 11.

[16] Macleay’s full title is worth noting for the context it gives: Highlanders of Scotland: Portraits illustrative of the Principal Clans and Followings, and the retainers of the Royal Household at Balmoral, in the Reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. For an earlier and less sporran-orientated view see R. R. McIan, 1848, The Highlanders: at Home, on the Heath, the River and the Loch.

[17] C. Grant, 1971, The Black Watch; 39.

[18] SUA T GED 5/2/9 ‘Notes for Lecture to Celtic Society’, 22/10/97.

[19] Stalley, Patrick Geddes; 369.

[20] Norah Geddes, memoir of Patrick Geddes NLS Ms. 10508 f. 164 and 165.

[21] Stalley, Patrick Geddes, 369.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Norah Geddes, memoir of Patrick Geddes NLS Ms. 10508 f. 172. Geddes’ interest in geology was expressed in his friendship with James Geikie who would later succeed his brother Archibald as Murchison Professor of Geology at the University of Edinburgh. Geikie certainly inspired Geddes and may have taught him. He was not only an outstanding research scientist, he was also a great populariser of his subject. His attitude to the essential accessibility of science would have been have impressed the young Geddes.

[26] R. C. Buist,1928, ‘The Newest Scots College: Some Account of the Work of Patrick Geddes’ The Scots Magazine, vol. 8, 321–4; 322.