WHEN you learn that the Scottish Geology Trust claims for Scotland the title “home of geology”, you might think: “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”.

Yet when you consider the science of geology in its modern form that developed from the mid-18th century, you soon realise that “home of geology” is not a hyperbolic claim. For Scotland produced not only the man who is rightly hailed as the father of modern geology, James Hutton (1726-1797), but a long list of brilliant geologists, many of whom helped define the science.

On its website, the Scottish Geology Trust has 18 people it defines as “famous Scottish geologists”, and since the list includes the names of such luminaries as Hutton, Rev David Ure (1749-1798), John MacCulloch (1773-1835), Hugh Miller (1802-1856), Roderick Murchison (1792-1871), Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) and the first woman to be awarded a degree in geology, Dame Maria Ogilvie Gordon (1864-1939), then it can be seen that this country really is the home of geology.

Also on the list is one of Scotland’s many unsung geniuses – we really are rotten at talking up our historic talents. It was in this week in 1924 that Sir Archibald Geikie died. In my opinion, he is one of the greatest geologists that ever lived and he should be remembered, not least because he co-produced the first geological map of Scotland and was the first scientist to show that acid rain was a major force in the erosion of built stonework.

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He was well aware of the work of fellow Scot Robert Angus Smith, who in 1852 had conclusively proved that acid rain existed and was particularly damaging to human health in big cities. Geikie went much further, showing how acid rain acted against stonework. He was looking at gravestones in Edinburgh’s churchyards in 1880 when he made the connection between the erosion of the stones and carbonic acid in the rainfall caused by the pollution of the atmosphere.

Not for nothing was Edinburgh known as Auld Reekie, and having been inspired by the work of a couple of fellow scientists on the weathering of rocks, Geikie had a eureka moment in one graveyard – no one needed to do experiments to prove rock weathering, the gravestones themselves were all the evidence one needed to deduce how different types of stone eroded at a different pace.

It was an observation typical of the man, and geologists and environmental scientists still use gravestone measuring in their work today.

Geikie was born in Edinburgh on December 28, 1835, the son of wig shop owner, musician and music critic James Stuart Geikie and his wife Isabella nee Thom.

According to the Scottish Geology Trust’s website: “Geikie’s love of the countryside developed on family holidays in Scotland. But his interest in geology was sparked upon finding fossil fish in a limestone quarry at Burdiehouse”.

After school, he had a brief spell as a clerk before going to Edinburgh University, though he only stayed a year due to financial difficulties. He had already attracted attention due to his studies of geology and at the age of 19, he was appointed a mapping assistant at the British Geological Survey.

Sir Roderick Murchison was the Survey’s chief, and he mentored Geikie, the two men working closely together, so much so that Geikie became Murchison’s biographer.

Geikie was to become a prolific and popular author in the Victorian era of self-education, and he published his first book, The Story Of A Boulder; Or, Gleanings From The Note-Book Of A Geologist, in 1858.

It was his geological map of Scotland, co-authored with Murchison, which really made his name when it was published in 1862. This, in turn, led to him being commissioned to write the hugely influential The Scenery Of Scotland in 1865, two years before he became the first director of the Geological Survey of Scotland.

Four years after that, in 1871, he became the first Murchison professor of geology and mineralogy at Edinburgh University. In the same year, he married his wife Alice, and they would have a son and three daughters. All the time in Edinburgh, he was writing articles and contributing to the major scientific publications of the day, and with his influence growing, it was no surprise when Geikie was appointed director of the British Geological Survey in 1882.

Moving to London but always retaining his links to Scotland, he immediately set about reorganising its work and his success in doing so was recognised by a knighthood in 1891. He was President of the Royal Society and recipient of many honorary doctorates, and his extensive research work in the USA was commemorated many years later with the naming of a ridge after him on the Moon in 1976.

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Geikie suffered a terrible family tragedy in 1910 when his son Roderick was killed in an accident on the London Underground. Due to his observations in that Edinburgh cemetery all those years before, he insisted on a hard-wearing granite gravestone for his son.

After the First World War, he was still on that case, writing to The Times in 1919 a warning that in the rush to erect war memorials, stone should be used that would weather well. He wrote: “On no account should white statuary marble be employed in any structure in the open air. Even the purest air of the country contains carbonic acid, which, dissolved in falling rain, acts on the stone as a solvent.”

His own gravestone in the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s in Surrey was granite. It states: “To the dear memory of Archibald Geikie OM KCB Born in Edinburgh, 28 Dec 1835 Died at Haslemere, 10 Nov 1924. Wisdom is a treasure that never faileth, Which they that use become the friends of God.”

Nature magazine wrote in its obituary: “It is unnecessary to mention now his untiring activities in scientific fields or the many academic honours which came to him, but we are voicing the thought of the whole scientific world when we say that his death leaves a blank in the lives of all who are stimulated by human achievement”.