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Radnorshire Society transactions


Vol. 69 1999

Geology and the border squires

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JB Sinclair and RWD Fenn t o
Depend on it, next to a good clergyman, the best benefactor of to
a country town is a country gentleman who will try to afford
the means to country people of learning what is about them1?
This paper is about the part played on the Welsh border by clergymen (c
and country gentlemen in furthering the sciences of geology and
botany in the two middle quarters of the last century. They were not
just the kindly benefactors of their fellow citizens but also actively assisted
the researches of scholars when they came to these parts. The most famous
of these visitors was Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, 1792-1871, said to have
been the most politically powerful geologist of the 19th century, whom David
Livingstone, 1813-1873, addressed as 'the best friend I ever had, true, warm,
abiding, he loved me more than I deserved.2'
Murchison was born at Tarrandale in Easter Ross. But he lived there for
only a few months, and, with the exception of two years in Edinburgh, spent
the rest of his life in England. Consequently, he spoke with an English
accent, but this never prevented him from dwelling upon his Highland
ancestry. The family motto was Impavido pectore: With a fearless heart, and
it was in this frame of mind that in 1825, with the careers of a soldier and a
country gentleman behind him, but still only 33, Murchison, influenced by
Sir Humphry Davy, embarked upon a new and fashionable career, that of a
geologist. His progress in his new profession was meteoric: he was admitted
as a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1825 and in 1826, he was elected a
Fellow of the Royal Society, though we are told that at this time, this was an
honour which 'indicated social position more than scientific distinction.' In
the same year he was appointed secretary of the Geological Society, and in
1827 was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society. Four years later, in 1831,
he became President of the Geological Society.
In June 1831, accompanied by his wife Charlotte, he set out in his carriage
from his London house at 3 Bryanston Place, to investigate the geology of
Wales and the Marches. As a result of this journey Murchison was to model
our understanding of the world's geology upon the rocks of the British Isles.
His advocacy of what he called the Silurian system, became a form of
cultural imperialism whereby English geological names were used
throughout the world to denote the presence of rocks which he had first
identified and named as a consequence of this journey to Wales in 1831.
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