Patrick Geddes and the Scottish Generalist Tradition

Patrick Geddes and the Scottish Generalist Tradition


Murdo Macdonald


This paper has its origins a lecture given at the invitation of The Royal Town Planning Institute in Scotland at the Royal Society of Edinburgh in May 2009.[1] It reflects the thinking that finds fuller expression in my book Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). Details, including full contents, can be found here:


Geddes was one of the key thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His integrated ecological and cultural vision had international impact. Yet despite the fact that his Outlook Tower and Ramsay Garden are prominent and intriguing features of the Edinburgh skyline, the distinctively Scottish intellectual context of his thinking has not been understood. In this paper, which I have taken the opportunity of revise, I place Geddes with respect to his own intellectual background, a background which had interdisciplinarity at its heart. I explore the relevance of that generalist view for his achievements local, national and international.

Patrick Geddes was a pioneering ecologist, an influential botanist, a highly-original theorist of cities, an advocate of the importance of the arts to everyday life, a committed community activist, a publisher, a founder of town planning, and – of course – an educator. He was born in Ballater in 1854 and spent most of his childhood and youth in Perth, where he began to appreciate the geographical relationships between city and region that he would explore throughout his life. For the major part of his career the Outlook Tower in Edinburgh was the point of reference for his international activities, first in Europe and later in India and Palestine. He died at the Scots College he had founded at Montpellier in the South of France in 1932. He had a life of extraordinary vitality, variety and interest. In 1888 he was appointed as first professor of botany at University College, Dundee. Thirty years later he became the first professor of sociology and civics at the University of Bombay. As a student he studied evolution with T. H. Huxley in London, where he came into direct contact with Darwin. Later in that city he was one of the founders of the Sociological Society. Back in Edinburgh, in the 1880s he supported the conservation and development of Old Town communities through his founding of the Edinburgh Social Union, and in the 1890s, shifting to an educational role, he commissioned and subsequently worked from the iconic Arts and Crafts condominium of Ramsay Garden.[2] There he was a moving force behind the Celtic revival in Scotland. In his magazine,The Evergreen, Geddes advocated not just a Celtic revival but a Scottish renascence, an idea that the poet Hugh MacDiarmid adopted to great effect in the 1920s.


Geddes’s commitment to national revival was profoundly international in outlook. As a student, both from a scientific and a cultural perspective he was drawn to France where he studied biology and absorbed the sociology of Auguste Comte and the anarchist politics of the geographer Elisée Reclus. All this in the spirit of the Auld Alliance which had, as Geddes was well aware, remained as an active political and cultural force from the time of Joan of Arc until the nineteenth century. An example of that interest can be seen in an image of Joan of Arc and her Scots Guard, drawn for The Evergreenby John Duncan. Philip Boardman wrote of Geddes that he was an ardent Scot who was an equally loyal and intellectual son of France but also that ‘he placed himself no less convincingly in a third category, of world citizenship, without abandoning either France or Scotland’. That internationalism carried over into his approach to education, for example in Edinburgh in the 1890s at the Outlook Tower, Ramsay Garden and Riddle’s Court he pioneered some of the first international summer schools.


My aim is to deepen our understanding of Geddes’s diverse achievements by exploring his thinking from the perspective of the Scottish intellectual culture of which he was part. Such deeper analysis of the wellsprings of his thought illuminates his relevance. Not only with respect to the history of Scottish thinking in general but also with respect to the cultural benefits for us in the twenty-first century of understanding the powerful intellectual context from which Geddes’s thinking sprang. Thus I emphasise not just Geddes’s historical importance but the relevance of his vision for us here and now. For example: the current way that the global economy fails to relate to the reality of the planet is a reminder that it is not wise to define our needs as though money were more important than the life that the planet sustains. Geddes put it this way: ‘Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins’. That statement comes from one of the most remarkable of his interdisciplinary statements, his farewell lecture to University College Dundee given in 1919. The wider passage contains not just comment on global finance but a profound statement about planetary ecology. What Geddes says is this:

How many people think twice about a leaf? Yet the leaf is the chief product and phenomenon of Life: this is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent upon the leaves. By leaves we live. Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins. But the world is mainly a vast leaf-colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass: and we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests.[3]

What more apposite comment could there be with respect to the wider sustainable development of the planet? The issue is not money but life. In that same lecture Geddes reflects on the interdependence of arts and sciences and how each should inform the other. It is that interdisciplinary approach to thinking, that ‘generalism’ to use George Davie’s term, that I wish to consider here. For Geddes, the economist required the complementary insight of the ecologist and such opportunities for mutual illumination applied across all the arts and sciences.

That generalist view gives insight into Geddes’s approach. For example, with respect to planning, for Geddes it risked losing touch with the communities, cities and regions that it set out to serve, if it did not take a multiplicity of approaches into account. He summarized that philosophy in part of a 1915 report. It was written not in Scotland but in India: ‘Town-planning is not mere place-planning, nor even work-planning. If it is to be successful it must be folk-planning.’ What Geddes meant by this was that what was needed was a full appreciation of the cultural, historical and geographical antecedents of any community, and furthermore the capacity to enable that community to be fully aware of those antecedents. That is why cultural revival was at the heart of his Edinburgh planning activities. It was not an add-on extra, it was a condition of successful development. Geddes continues:

This means that [the task of town-planning] is not to coerce people into new places against their associations, wishes and interest – as we find bad schemes trying to do. Instead its task is to find the right places for each sort of people; places where they will really flourish. To give people in fact the same care that we give when transplanting flowers, instead of harsh evictions and arbitrary instructions to ‘move on’, delivered in the manner of officious amateur policemen.[4]


The architectural historian Norma Evenson wrote of Geddes that:


his common sense approach was . . . difficult to fault. He approached his investigations with receptivity to the local scene, seeking to understand the nature of the Indian settlement, and making no attempt to impose a foreign conception of urban environment.[5]


That exemplary approach can be seen in two contrasting images from one of his Indian reports which show Geddes’s plan for the development of an area of an Indian town versus the municipal plan. The municipal plan is based on imposing an alien grid of streets.[6] By contrast, Geddes’s plan is sensitive to the local building pattern, and it is centred on the planting of a tree in the centre of a human-scale, community-oriented space. Geddes knew how much difference a single tree could make. Back in Edinburgh every unoccupied site was an opportunity for him to develop a garden.


But what concerns me here is not Geddes’s achievements per se, but that his background helps us to understand those achievements. While Geddes’s influence as a pioneer of urban planning has received considerable attention over the years, the generalism that drove it, has not. So I want to complement other perspectives on Geddes by giving emphasis to the distinctive Scottish intellectual tradition of which he was part. When the distinguished Italian architect and urban planner Giancarlo De Carlo visited Edinburgh in 1994 he said:

‘Here in Scotland, in Scottish culture, from what I have read and I have studied, I think you have one educational pillar which is very important. It is what you call generalism . . . [and] . . .  you have a good grounding in this approach, not least because of the work of Patrick Geddes . . .’[7]

So what is this generalism? Geddes put it as follows in his 1919 Dundee lecture. He advocated that a general and educational point of view must be brought to bear on every specialism, and then he notes that the teacher’s outlook should include all viewpoints, and that ‘we must cease to think merely in terms of separated departments and faculties and must relate these in the living mind; in the social mind as well – indeed, this above all.’[8] My own awareness of that generalist current of Scottish thought stems from the teaching of the philosopher and historian of ideas George Davie at the University of Edinburgh. Davie was the author of that classic account of nineteenth-century Scottish thinking The Democratic Intellect published in 1961. So when I first encountered the work of Patrick Geddes, I saw his effortless bridging of the perceived gap between arts and sciences in relation to the wider intellectual tradition that George Davie describes. Davie’s account of the generalist educational legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment provides the essential context within which to appreciate the wide-ranging thinking we associate with Geddes. Indeed Davie himself notes Geddes’s teaching as representative of that Scottish approach.[9] It is important to stress this for it is all too easy to see Geddes’s breadth of interest as a kind of unique indicator of genius. What I argue in my book is that it was in fact part of a developed tradition, which we would do well to learn from today.

Traces of that generalism remain in Scotland for example the four-year undergraduate degree which enables a wider spread of subjects to be studied than in the three-year system south of the Border. The rationale is, of course, that one area of thought or expertise benefits from illumination by another and it is therefore culturally and educationally desirable to be able to place such areas in relation to one another. By extension, any aspect of knowledge, culture or society benefits from illumination by other aspects. For both George Davie and Patrick Geddes the task of the educator was to facilitate such processes.[10] The poet and essayist Hugh MacDiarmid, a generation younger than Patrick Geddes and a generation older than George Davie, and a friend of both men, wrote of Geddes in The Company I’ve Kept in these terms:

his constant effort was to help people to think for themselves, and to think round the whole circle, not in scraps and bits. He knew that watertight compartments are useful only to a sinking ship, and traversed all the boundaries of separate subjects.[11]

Philip Boardman puts it this way, noting that Geddes:

held constantly before both teachers and students the single goal of reuniting the separate studies of art, of literature, and of science into a related cultural whole which should serve as an example to the universities still mainly engaged in breaking knowledge up into particles unconnected with each other or with life.[12]

But while I emphasize the rootedness of Geddes’s thinking in a Scottish tradition, I also stress its international context. As Geddes’s American disciple Lewis Mumford said ‘Geddes’s Scotland embraced Europe and his Europe embraced the world’. Quite so. No one has better visualized that inclusive sentiment than Patrick Geddes’s son, Arthur, who drew a remarkable bird’s eye view of Scotland in its geographical context in the 1940s, as part of his survey of the Western Isles. Scotland, Europe and Africa fall into place within the curvature of the planet in an image that reflects the thinking both of Patrick Geddes and of his friend and mentor Elisée Reclus.[13] The advantages of the general view in conjunction with the carefully chosen viewpoint become immediately apparent. Not only that, but one can see immediately the intimate psychological relationship between thinking generally and thinking visually, and such visual thinking is also a key characteristic of Geddes’s work.

While Scotland may have insisted on fostering generalism at a time when other nations were headed down a more specialising route there is of course nothing exclusively Scottish about a generalist tradition of thinking. For example, from a central European perspective one of the great early modern generalists was the seventeenth century Moravian educator, Jan Amos Comenius, a thinker praised by Geddes in his book Cities in Evolution. Comenius put the rationale for generalism like this: ‘He deprives himself of light, of hand and regulation, who pushes away from him any shred of the knowable’.[14] Geddes was never one to push away from himself any shred of the knowable, and he may well have read that very quotation for it appears in a work by his older contemporary David Masson, Professor of English Literature and Rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. Comenius shares something else with Geddes. He was an advocate of visual methods, indeed in his book, Orbis Pictus, he developed for the modern era the notion of visual experience as integral to verbal explanation. In that work, according to another of Geddes’s older Scottish colleagues, the pioneering educationist Simon Somerville Laurie, ‘Comenius applies his principles more fully than in any other’.[15] I have noted the link between the visual and the general, and one of my aims here is to draw attention to the linkage in Geddes’s thinking, as in that of Comenius, between the ability to take a broad view of knowledge on the one hand and the ability to think visually on the other. It is important to note that such linkage is also important to understanding other generalist thinkers, whether we think of a fifteenth-century artist like Leonardo Da Vinci or a twentieth-century geneticist like C. H. Waddington.[16]It is not hard to see why that psychological linkage should exist, for there is a holism in a visual approach that is not evident in more linear methods of notation. There was, in Geddes’s Scotland, a cultural and intellectual understanding of this. In The Democratic Intellect George Davie makes explicit the link between generalism and visual thinking in his discussion of the tradition of Scottish mathematics, not least with respect to the achievement in geometry of Robert Simson. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, through Simson’s annotated editions of Euclid, that tradition had emphasized a metaphysically-informed, approach to mathematics of which Geddes was part. Further indication of the significance of that commitment to the visual and its concomitant generalism can be inferred from the fact that Geddes wrote the entry on ‘morphology’ for the ninth edition of that generalist Edinburgh publishing project the Encyclopaedia Britannica, while James Clerk Maxwell had written the entry on ‘diagrams’ a few years earlier.[17] Geddes’s friend and colleague at University College Dundee, the biologist D’Arcy Thompson, also contributed to the ninth edition and in due course wrote that classic of visual thinking about biology, On Growth and Form. That work followed a few years after Geddes’s own classic of visual thinking applied to the social, cultural and urban field, Cities in Evolution.[18] An understanding of Geddes must, therefore, take note of the Scottish generalist tradition for its visual as well as its interdisciplinary aspects. What flows from this is an appreciation of Geddes’s Scottish intellectual context as psychologically central to his wider achievement.

Geddes’s Outlook Tower in Edinburgh can be taken as a case study of such generalist visual thinking. The way Geddes developed the tower can be thought of as a kind of three-dimensional response to Comenius’s Orbis Pictus in so far as it is ‘not only a … treatment of things in general, but of things that appeal to the senses’.[19]  But whether it owed a direct debt to Comenius or not, the organization of the Outlook Tower was a physical expression of Geddes’s philosophy. It was both at the heart of the social spaces of Geddes’s halls of residence and central to the wider historical and geographical context of the city and the region. Something of its significance is reflected in the fact that in 1922 Lewis Mumford described the Outlook Tower as the point of origin of the Regional Survey Movement,[20] and as early as 1899 Charles Zueblin of Chicago University felt confident in describing it as the world’s first sociological laboratory.[21] In 1896 Geddes had emphasised the visual thinking inherent to the arrangement of the Tower, in these words: ‘While current education is mainly addressed to the ear (whether directly in saying and hearing, or indirectly in reading and writing), the appeal of this literal “Outlook Tower,” or Interpreter’s House, is primarily to the eye…’[22] The visitor to the Outlook Tower would be taken by Geddes to the top and would then see the city itself in two ways: an enclosed, painterly and magical view from within the camera obscura and a direct view, weather and all, from the terrace. With these already contrasting perceptual experiences of the city firmly in mind, the theoretical exploration, cultural and ecological, could begin floor-by-floor below, in rooms devoted to Edinburgh, Scotland, English-speaking nations, Europe and the world. The Outlook Tower thus enabled the visitor to unite the local, the regional, the national and the international as if they were a series of waves spreading from, and returning to, a central point. The starting point was the direct perception of a real city not an idea of it, and this perception was the basis for any further exploration. Geddes’ conception of the Outlook Tower was thus radically local – that is to say down to the level of individual perception – but that local quality became the context for the understanding of the regional, the national and the global.

The way Geddes used the tower, as a college, as a museum and as a laboratory is one of the most developed examples of his thinking. But we must remember that complementing the Outlook Tower is Ramsay Garden. That complex was another pioneering expression of generalist educational aims. By 1893 the old house of the poet Allan Ramsay had been transformed into Ramsay Lodge, a student residence capable of accommodating some forty students. This was the heart of the varied buildings, including Riddle’s Court, which Geddes developed at the heart of the Old Town to serve as ‘accommodation of graduates, extra-mural teachers, and others more or less connected with the University’.[23] Ramsay Garden is both traditional in ethos and modernist in implication[24] and at its core is that symbol and real expression of environmental sustainability, a tree.

The key teaching method that Geddes helped to pioneer in this complex of buildings was a further expression of his generalism. This was his annual international summer meeting, and for Geddes a crucial aspect of the summer meetings was the interplay of different areas of knowledge. For example the prospectus for August 1896 advertised Geddes himself teaching courses on ‘Contemporary Social Evolution’ and ‘Scotland: Historical and Actual’. Others teaching included the artist Helen Hay, giving a course on ‘Celtic Ornament and Design’, and the geographer Elisée Reclus lecturing on ‘The evolution of rivers and river civilizations’. Music was in the charge of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, at that time beginning her experiments with Gaelic song.[25] The inherent internationalism of the meeting is implied by the fact that Reclus’s course was advertised and delivered in French. In a weekly column that Geddes wrote to accompany these summer meeting studies, an intriguing glimpse is given of the interdisciplinary links being fostered. The writer addresses Helen Hay, asking her if she can find in her Celtic ornament ‘means for the pictorial representation and symbolism of current ideas’.[26] That generalist challenge to explore art and ideas must be seen in the context of Hay’s ongoing work for Geddes’s magazine, The Evergreen. The third part of The Evergreen had just been published and it begins with an almanac for the summer months by Helen Hay. These almanacs are conjunctions of art and ecological thinking and they give The Evergreen a visual identity to complement its overall description as ‘a northern seasonal’.


In Geddes’s mind also would have been Hay’s Celtic knotwork borders for a mural scheme in the student common room of Ramsay Lodge. Those borders can be seen in old photographs but sadly they are now for the most part destroyed. Geddes’s enthusiasm for their formal beauty and their diagrammatic and symbolic potential is clear: he wrote that ‘each device is a separate living thought’.[27] But while on the one hand Geddes was interested in how the interlace borders of these murals had the potential to convey ideas, on the other hand he used the content of the main panels, carried out by the artist John Duncan, to explore the history of Scottish ideas. So one can see him interested here in art as a generalist method of thinking in terms of the possibilities both of its form and its content. The content of those murals begins with Celtic myth, The Awakening of Cuchullin, a symbol of the Celtic cultural revival to which Geddes was committed. I hardly need stress that there was nothing inward looking about this, for Geddes’s re-evaluation of Celtic material was part of an international network of cultural revivals, which included India and Japan as well as much of Europe. [28] Bashabi Fraser[29] and Kiyoshi Okutsu[30] have helped to put understanding of Geddes’s links to India and Japan onto a secure research footing. Similarly, in helping to situate Geddes’s revival work from a European perspective the National Gallery of Finland’s major research project European Revivals has been important.[31]

The Awakening of Cuchullin is the anchor image of the series and leads on to The Combat of Fingal,[32] which shows a scene derived from Macpherson’s Ossian. The third panel moves us from Gaelic Celticism of Ossian, to the Brythonic Celticism of King Arthur in The Taking of Excalibur. This is set, typically for Geddes, in the local context of Duddingston Loch beneath Arthur Seat. The next panel continues that southern Scottish Brythonic theme with the image of The Journey of St Mungo, at the same time introducing quasi-historical Christianity into this visual exploration of Scottish legends and ideas. Following it is an image inspired by the writings of the great Gaelic-speaking theologian of the ninth century, The Vision of John Scotus Erigina. This dream is complemented in the next panel by the thinking of the mage and early scientist from Fife, Michael Scot, a figure renowned throughout Europe for his translations of Aristotle and his astrological insights. Note that these latter two figures show a significant transition in the series for they indicate the beginning, in the medieval period, of an intellectual tradition clearly continuous with the present. The final figure of the first set was The Admirable Crichton. Crichton was the sixteenth century Scottish and European Renaissance scholar par excellence, and his inclusion strikes a personal note for Geddes, for he was thought to have had his early education at Geddes’s old school, the Grammar School of Perth. And through figures including, John Napier, the inventor of logarithms, and James Watt, who is compared with Prometheus, Geddes, via John Duncan’s art, brings his students back to their present.[33] So these murals had a direct educational function with respect to the intellectual history of Scotland. They exemplify Geddes’s emphasis on cultural sustainability as the complement to environmental sustainability. And they are one more aspect of his wider view of Ramsay Garden and the Outlook Tower as a site of thinking guided in the first instance by the eye and then by a generalist philosophy of education.

Geddes underlined his visual generalism further when he described the Outlook Tower as a graphic encyclopaedia. In a letter written in 1905 he explains this in the following terms:

the Tower may be best explained as simply the latest development of our Edinburgh tradition of Encylopaedias, and hence arising in turn in the very same street where are all the others, Britannica, Chambers, and minor ones. It is in fact the Encylopaedia Graphica. The Encyclopaedia Graphica for each science and art in turn and in order . . .[34]

Of particular interest within this context of a graphic encylopaedia is the use of stained glass windows by Geddes for his generalist teaching purposes. In one of these windows in the Outlook Tower, the Arbor Saeculorum, or tree of the generations, what Geddes sees as the temporal and spiritual contexts of the Western tradition are presented in a historicist manner from ancient Egypt to the late nineteenth century. The basic point is that while the Arbor Saeculorum reflects on the content of cultural history, its complement, the Lapis Philosophorum encodes the essential relationship of the arts and sciences considered as methods of thought.[35] Geddes’s concern here is with public communication of the central generalist point that what we call arts and sciences are deeply intertwined with one another. A third window from the Outlook Tower is The Typical Region, better known as the valley section, Geddes’s tool for regional survey. Evident in this stained-glass image are Geddes’s categories of folk, work and place:  the quarry and the mine in the hill, the sheep and the forest on the hill, arable and cattle farming and crofting on the low ground, and the city with its industry, its trade and its shipping. But on another level this stained glass version of the valley section is a multiple representation of what the physical and social world is at the moment and could be in the future. Looking at the Latin wording which appears below this window – Microcosmos Naturae. Sedes Hominum. Theatrum Historiae. Eutopia Futuris – one sees Geddes insisting on a set of at first sight contrasting and yet mutually illuminating views of the valley. The valley is first and foremost ecology: a microcosm of nature, but it is also the ‘sedes hominum’, the seat of humanity, the place where human beings make their lives as part of that ecology. And linked to this it is the dramatic ‘theatrum historiae’, the theatre of history, the past experience that should inform the future. Finally, it is the ‘eutopia’ or ‘good place’ of the future, a place that Geddes believed could be achieved through local and international co-operation, and adoption of sustainable technologies. Geddes’s holistic cultural and ecological vision was thus given impetus and focus by the development of the Outlook Tower. Charles Zueblin’s characterization of the Tower as the world’s first sociological laboratory has been noted, but it can be emphasised here that Zueblin considered that the tower merited this description because it was ‘at once school, museum, atelier, and observatory’. So for the participants at Geddes’s summer meetings the Outlook Tower was not just the venue, it was the symbol and context of the thinking, within the wider social context of University Hall and of Edinburgh itself.

Geddes knew the value of specialisation: he was a biologist by training and he helped to bring into being the disciplines of sociology, geography, ecology and planning. But he understood that disciplines depend for their origin on interdisciplinary thinking. They emerge from the interaction of earlier formulations of study. They come from the spaces in between. The irony is that as they develop into disciplines, their interdisciplinary origins are often no longer seen as relevant and the significance of their relationship to other disciplines may no longer be perceived. Indeed, it will be in the interests both financial and professional of the practitioners of any new discipline to demarcate it clearly from other disciplines. Thus a historian of geography has referred to Geddes’s ‘diluted legacy’ in planning, geography and sociology and comments that too often it was ‘the bare bones, not the spirit’ of Geddes’ work that was taken up.[36] That lost spirit was, in large part, his generalism – his interdisciplinarity – and it is this that we must revisit in all our thinking about Geddes. We must, therefore, be inspired for the future by Geddes as a generalist thinker in a generalist tradition. If we value his cultural revivalism and his planning vision we must value where it comes from, and it comes from his intellectual generalism. In turn that generalism is rooted in the intellectual tradition of which he was part, in which one area of knowledge is honoured with respect to the way it relates to others and informs the whole. George Davie called that ‘the democratic intellect’ and Geddes is one of its great exponents.

Two industrialised wars fostered specialisation in the twentieth century and the second world war was a watershed for how Geddes was considered. Despite the best efforts of Lewis Mumford, after that war Geddes’s generalist view began to be seen as an eccentric quality, not of importance in its own right. Yet just as Geddes’s advocacy of interdisciplinarity was fading from public consciousness, south of the Border, C. P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ debate was proceeding as though there had been no previous thinking about the relationships between arts and sciences in the twentieth century. But by that time Geddes’s relevance to the debate was little noted. So it is important to explore Geddes’s life and career in such a way as to remember and advocate his generalism rather than to regard it as an inconvenient distraction from a specialised career. And it is crucial to remember that his generalism is founded on a developed Scottish tradition of major cultural value, which deserves to be properly valued again. As we stumble worldwide from financial to ecological crisis and back again, the value of such a comprehensive view could hardly be clearer, whether considered from national or international perspectives. Geddes’s generalism did not simply allow him to look widely for sustainable solutions it enabled him to see those solutions –cultural and ecological – as linked. Any sustainable place could only continue to be so if it took both its ecology and its heritage seriously. For Geddes, appropriate action in the present in the interests of the future, depended on an in-depth, interdisciplinary understanding of what had happened in the past. That was the essence of his thinking whether applied to ecology, cultural revival or planning: the crucial point being, of course, that – like George Davie – he saw all these activities as illuminating one another. Geddes himself put it this way:

Breadth of thought and a general direction are not opposed to specialised thought and detailed work. The clear thinker realises that they are complementary and mutually indispensible.[37]

In stressing the significance of the Scottish intellectual tradition of which Patrick Geddes was part I have drawn attention to the continuing relevance of that tradition of generalist thinking. In addition I have drawn attention to the significance of the tradition of visual thinking that accompanies it. Thus taking note of the interdisciplinary aspect of Geddes’s intellectual heritage can not only help us to understand Geddes, it can inspire us to look in a more informed and integrated way at the cultural, educational and environmental issues that face us today.



What I have discussed here finds more comprehensive expression in my book, Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins. Details can be found here:

And further context here:

Interview with Murdo Macdonald, author of Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins






[1] My thanks to Veronica Burbridge for that invitation to present the Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Lecture. A version was published by Lindsay Paterson in Scottish Affairs in 2009. A revised version was presented at a seminar organised by Cairns Craig at Ramsay Lodge, Edinburgh in November 2010 and published in the Journal of Scottish Thought in 2012. My thanks go to all concerned for helping it on its way. The current version has been prepared for Marion Geddes of the Association Patrick Geddes. It will be translated into French and published in due course.

[2] I owe that description to Kitty Michaelson.

[3] The full lecture was included by Amelia Defries in her book The Interpreter – Geddes: The Man and his Gospel (London; Routledge, 1927), pp. 172–190.

[4] Patrick Geddes, Report on the Towns in the Madras Presidency, 1915, Madura (1915), 91. Quoted by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt in Patrick Geddes in India, (London: Lund Humphries, 1947), 22.

[5] Norma Evenson,  The Indian Metropolis (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), 114–15. See also Michael Fry, The Scottish Empire (East Linton: Tuckwell, 2001), 229–30.

[6] Tyrwhitt, Geddes in India; 53–6. Excerpted from the ‘Madura’ material in Geddes, Report on the Towns in the Madras Presidency, 82.

[7] Interview with Giancarlo De Carlo by Peter Wilson, Newsletter No. 1 of the Edinburgh City of Architecture Bid (Edinburgh, 1994).

[8] Defries, Interpreter, 172–90.

[9] George Davie, The Democratic Intellect, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1961), 24.

[10] For further consideration see Murdo Macdonald (ed.), Edinburgh Review, No. 90 (1993), ‘Democracy and Curriculum Issue’, and Murdo Macdonald, ‘The significance of the Scottish generalist tradition’, in J. Crowther, I. Martin, and M. Shaw (eds), Popular Education and Social Movements in Scotland Today (Leicester, 1999).

[11] Hugh MacDiarmid, The Company I’ve Kept (London: Hutchinson, 1966).

[12] Philip Boardman, The Worlds of Patrick Geddes (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 129.

[13] Arthur Geddes, ‘The “Outer” Hebrides’, in The New Naturalist, Summer, 1948, 72–76. The map appears on page 73. A smaller and less-detailed version introduces Arthur Geddes’s book, The Isle of Lewis and Harris: A Study in British Community, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1955).

[14] Quoted by David Masson in The Life of Milton, vol. 3 (London: Macmillan, 1873), 213–14.

[15] Simon Somerville Laurie, John Amos Comenius (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and co., 1881), 191.

[16] See for example, C. H. Waddington, Behind Appearance (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1969), and Tools for Thought (London: Cape, 1977).

[17] Maxwell was until his death in 1879 also science editor of that edition.

[18] The two works were published in 1917 and 1915 respectively. A further indication of the interest of Patrick Geddes’s work from a visual-thinking perspective can be found in Volker Welter’s illumination of his place within the utopian–spiritual strand of European modernist architectural thinking in his Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life (Cambridge, Mass., 2002).

[19] Laurie, Comenius, 191.

[20] Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922).

[21] Charles Zueblin, ‘The world’s first sociological laboratory’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 4, no. 5, 1899,  577–91.

[22] Patrick Geddes, et al., The Evergreen Almanac (Edinburgh: Patrick Geddes and Colleagues, 1896).

[23] University Hall, Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1900), 10.

[24] Cf. ‘Geddes was emphatically not a conservationist, but a passionate moderniser. As his own interventions in the Edinburgh Old Town showed, he would happily demolish or alter old buildings at will if they stood in the way of his wider cultural vision of the future’. Miles Glendinning and David Page, Clone City: Crisis and Renewal in Contemporary Scottish Architecture (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1999), 35.

[25] Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, A Life of Song; (London: Oxford University Press, 1929), 120.

[26] The Interpreter, no. 8:10 (August 1896), 3.

[27] Quoted from page 13 of a proof copy of The Interpreter, dated April, 1896; Strathclyde University Archive, T GED 5/3/33.

[28] In due course Geddes was to have close links with those concerned with Indian cultural revival, in particular Sister Nivedita, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Rabindranath Tagore.

[29] Bashabi Fraser, ed., A Meeting of Two Minds: Geddes Tagore Letters, (Edinburgh: Word Power, 2005), and Bashabi Fraser, Tapati Mukherjee and Amrit Sen, eds. A Confluence of Minds: The Rabindranath Tagore and Patrick Geddes Reader on Education and Environment, (Edinburgh: Luath, 2018).

[30] Kiyoshi Okutsu, ‘Aesthetics of the Meiji Era and Geddesian Thought’, in Patrick Geddes: By Leaves We Live, (Yamaguchi: Yamaguchi Institute of Contemporary Art, 2005), pp. 11–28. See also Murdo Macdonald, Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 107–108.

[31] [accessed 10 May 2020]

[32] Given in the exhibition pamphlet as ‘Fingal’, but in The Interpreter as Fionn.

[33] The other figures pictured for their Edinburgh connections are Sir Walter Scott, Charles Darwin, and Joseph Lister.

[34] National Library of Scotland, Ms. 10511 f100. Geddes to Dr. Paton, 7 Feb. 1905, writing from 6 Christchurch Road, Hampstead. See also M.C. Boyer, The City of Collective Memory (1994), 221–3 for comment on Geddes’s inspiration in Diderot and d’Alembert’s approach to visual material.

[35] The Lapis image, this ‘philosopher’s stone’ is described in a guide to the Outlook Tower published in 1906 as an image of ‘an obelisk whereon is outlined in graphic notation a classification of the Arts and the Sciences’. Geddes, A First Visit to the Outlook Tower, 23.

[36] B. T. Robson, ‘Geography and Social Science: The Role of Patrick Geddes’ in D. R. Stoddart (ed.), Geography, Ideology and Social Concern(Oxford, 1981), 187–207.

[37] Tyrwhitt, Geddes in India, 66.