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A Journey into Scotland in 1987 …Part 42


A Diversion into the History of Scottish Geology Part III


The photograph shows a large party of Victorian men and women on a grassy hillside. Some are dressed to impress; there are a number of top hats for the truly distinguished and a dapper straw boater or two. The women are perhaps more sensibly hatted. Their hats are lightweight, wide brimmed and, in many cases, fastened on, either with ribbon or with formidable hat pins. These hats are suitable to the outdoors in the north of Scotland where the sun shines brightly, when it shines at all, and the wind blows most of the time. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the photograph is the fact that there are women there at all; in fact women make up nearly half the party; for this is a group of geologists in Sutherland. The man at the centre is Charles Lapworth who has taken his place in the history of geology. When that history is told it tends to stick closely to the pronoun at the beginning of the noun. Geology is all too often told as HIStory. The story of the men who revealed the secrets of the rocks. In fact, women played a significant role from the outset. And did this despite being discouraged, disadvantaged and often denied the roles they deserved.

Charles Lapworth in the centre

These Victorians may surprise you if you share the belief of many, that they were a prim and proper bunch who had fixed roles for men, women and children. The men to go out and build factories and empires and to come home to a tidy house and soup served from a tureen. The women train to be the angel of the hearth; to busy themselves building a home and providing children for the man. The childrens’ job was to be seen and not heard. And, not seen until after supper when they’d be presented to their father like prefects to the headmaster on founders day.

Expectations were certainly there and social conventions were strong; and where this is the case you will often find strong women to defy the rules and to move outside their proscribed role. By strong women, I don’t mean the battle axe or the rottweiler that have made themselves prevalent in business, schools and politics since the time of Margaret Thatcher, by bullying their way to the top by confusing the word feisty for emotionally illiterate and praising their ability to see things clearly when in reality  they don’t see much at all.

By strong women I include the idea of capable women. Those who were both good at what they did, and determined to do it, despite enormous pressures to conform. Strong women, like genuinely strong men, tend to be pleasant, amiable, intelligent, determined and driven.

Such a woman was Mary Jane Donald. (Better known as Jane Donald Longstaff). Born in 1856, and denied by her gender from becoming a professional palaeontologist, she devoted her life to the study of fossils. Her amateur status meant that she never became connected with a museum or academic institution which in turn meant that she was denied access to the literature and study material she needed. She divided her time between field work and a systematic study which resulted in her gathering one of the more impressive collections of fossils (which are now an important part of the collection at the British Museum) and making a significant contribution to the classification of fossils into genera and families. Her work was at first centred in Cumberland but later travelled extensively around the world, including spending time in Scotland. By her thirties she was publishing papers with the Geological Society. She married an entomologist, G B Longstaff and continued to make accurate contributions to the fossil record until her death in 1935. The fossil record was the first accurate measurement of the age of rocks. The classification of rocks into different ages was the vital link in moving geology from a science of classification into a means of understanding the world around us.

torridon munros

She was a close friend of Elizabeth Anderson. (Elizabeth Anderson Gray). A true Scot and another woman who was happy collecting evidence and samples in the field. Like her friend, she found the active life led to a long life. She lived to be 92 and was still collecting fossils until shortly before her death. She is almost certainly in the photograph with Charles Lapworth though I am afraid I am unable to identify just which is she. She collaborated with the more famous geologist on his work which established that older rocks could be found on top of younger rocks. Lapworth was to establish how this came to be, but the fossil hunters were the people who established the age of the rocks. Anderson Gray was regarded by her peers as being among the foremost experts on Scottish fossils of her time. Her reputation in this field still stands.

Both she and Jane Donald Longstaff received grants from the Murchison Fund to extend their work. Both published extensively and accurately and both were recognised for their work by the leading geologists of the day. It was a great pity that neither were accepted into a university or museum to continue their work with all the benefits that that would have brought, but neither allowed it to slow them down or dampen their enthusiasm. We often (mistakenly in my opinion) regard the first to achieve something as the pioneers, the trailblazers, the archetype. Often overlooked, and all too often forgotten, are the people who constructed the path that allowed the breakthroughs to take place. By the early years of the twentieth century women were being allowed to study at university, women were taking up teaching posts and becoming fellows and dons. Women, in short were being allowed their own status and their owns rights to pursue a path in academic circles; to develop their talents to the full and to make a lasting contribution to their chosen field.

achnasheen 4

This didn’t suddenly happen. Women like Anderson Gray and Donald Longstaff never had the opportunities. Without them the opportunities may never have arrived or would have been delayed for yet another generation. Not only were they important figures in geology and palaeontology, but they were also key figures in the feminist movement. We may think of Victorian women as being the angel of the hearth. The fact that we no longer consider this to be the female role is down to those very Victorians.

Going a stage further with her work and receiving the recognition of degrees from the universities of Edinburgh, London and Munich (the latter two being doctorates) was Maria Ogilvie (Later  known as Dame Maria Ogilvie Gordon).

She was also a close friend and correspondent of Charles Lapworth and had contributed to field work that he had done in Sutherland. She  knew and worked with John Horne and Benjamin Peach. She may well be on the photograph but again I am unable to identify her.

Dame Maria Ogilvie Gordon receiving an honourary degree from the University of Sydney in 1938

Dame Maria Ogilvie Gordon receiving an honourary degree from the University of Sydney in 1938

She is described on the Scottish Geology website as having become a promising pianist. (At what point do you become promising?). She decided against music in favour of science and studied at Heriot-Watt University and at University College in London. Her main research work took place in central Europe, first in Germany and later in Italy and Austria. Access to the field sites was difficult and required her to learn how to climb. So she did. Starting with studies of fossils she went on to give new interpretations and insights into the tectonic structure of mountains. Independently of Lapworth she worked out that mountains had been subject to enormous sideways force that she referred to as thrust movements. She was quite simply a brilliant geologist and a true pioneer of science and of the place of women within that science. In 1883 her work led to her becoming the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D in Geology by London University. In 1900 she became the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D in any discipline from the University of Munich. She published more than thirty scientific papers during her career, was described by her biographer as “probably the most productive female geologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries” and was awarded the Lyell medal in 1932 by the Geological Society in recognition of her outstanding work.

Oh, and after leaving the climbing boots and geological hammer behind she became active in politics, standing as Liberal candidate in the 1923 Hastings by-election, she became president of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland, played a strong role in the negotiations that followed the First World War and in establishing the Council for the Recognition of Women at the League of Nations. For this she was made a Dame of the British Empire by King George V.

The role of women in the development of geology in Scotland has been immense. They haven’t always gained the recognition they deserve but that is hopefully changing. I’m enormously thankful. My geological knowledge has always been that of the interested layman but even at that level the pleasure of cycling through these remote parts of Sutherland is greatly enhanced. You can’t help being astonished at the landscape up here. You can’t help wondering how it came to be the way it is. Without these women we might still be wondering.