School of GeoSciences

A History of the School of GeoSciences

The School’s constituent parts have had a long history within the university, most dating back to the early nineteenth century.

On this page:

  • Natural History 
  • Geology
  • Geography
  • Geophysics
  • Geology and Geophysics
  • Meteorology 
  • The School of GeoSciences 

Natural History, 1770 to 1871

GeoScience was first taught in Edinburgh under the title of Natural History. Robert Ramsay was the first appointment to the Chair of that discipline in 1770. He was succeeded by John Walker, a Presbyterian minister, in 1779. Amongst Walker's pupils were Robert Jameson, John Playfair and James Hall. In 1804, Walker’s former pupil, the well-known mineralogist Jameson was appointed to the Chair and held it for fifty years. After Jameson's death, the post was held by Edward Forbes, the paleontologist and oceanographer, for one brief year before he was succeeded by Allman in 1855.

Geology, 1871-1989

In the University College minutes for 1870, there is a record of a letter written by Sir Roderick Murchison, Director of the Geological Survey of the United Kingdom. Murchison observed that as Allman was retiring, it was time for the Chair of Natural History to be divided, in order to create a separate Chair of Geology. To this end he offered to provide an endowment of £6,000. The next day, the University received a further letter from Murchison, in which he added that the endowment was conditional on him being the person to nominate the new Chair of Geology. The University then wrote to the Treasury asking for a grant of £200 per annum to make the Chair viable. The Treasury replied that they were prepared to provide this sum on condition that Murchison's clause regarding nomination be deleted.

In March 1871, Archibald Geikie presented his commission to the Senatus Academicus, as the holder of the first Regius Chair of Geology. At that time Archibald Geikie was the President of the Edinburgh Geological Society and, coincidentally, Sir Roderick Murchison was its patron. Undoubtedly, whatever the Treasury said, Murchison got his own way. Sir Archibald Geikie was succeeded by his younger brother James Geikie in 1882.

Regius Chairs have included:

  • Thomas Jehu, 1914 – 1943
  • Arthur Holmes, 1943 – 1956
  • Sir Frederick Stewart, 1956 – 1986
  • Geoffrey Boulton, 1986 – 2008
  • Dick Kroon, 2008 - the present

The Geology Department was located in Old College until 1932, when it moved to King's Buildings. Its new home was named The Grant Institute, in recognition of an endowment from Sir Alexander Grant and was opened by Prime Minister J.Ramsay Macdonald on 28 January, 1932. In the 1980s the John Murray Laboratories were annexed. The building houses staff and equipment involved in research in oceanography, climate change, fluid flow in porous media, pollution and similar environmental problems. Additional staff in these disciplines, are housed in the nearby Crew Building.

Geography, 1908-2002

2008 marked a centenary of formal teaching of Geography in the University of Edinburgh.

George Goudie Chisholm was appointed by the University Senate in 1907 to teach geography as a general subject beginning in academic year 1908-1909, his teaching effectively established the Department of Geography, albeit as a one-man affair with mere handfuls of students.

However, prior to 1908 Geography, in the form of chorographie, regional study, was part of the teaching remit of the first Principal of the University, Robert Rollok, upon his appointment in 1583. Lectures in geography were given as part of the teaching of philosophy from the 1620s onwards as part of concerns with 'cosmography' and, in the 1740s, geography featured as part of the mathematics teaching of the distinguished Newtonian, Colin Maclaurin. James Pillans, Professor of Humanity in Edinburgh between 1820 and 1863, included geography as part of his classes in ancient history. Pillans, who had earlier taught geography as a classics master at Edinburgh's High School, wrote geography books for his university students, including Outlines of Geography (1847) and First Steps in the Physical and Classical Geography of the Ancient World (1853).

So when in opening the first course in geography in October 1908, George Goudie Chisholm described himself as 'the first lecturer in geography appointed at any Scottish university', Chisholm was right but only in a strict sense. He and his department, 1908, 2008 should all be seen as significant moments in a longer history.

When George Chisholm began his teaching in October 1908, there were 48 students in his classes. The 'Graduation Course' as it was called consisted of seventy-five lectures and twenty-five hours' practical work. It included the scope of geography, cartography, the form of the Earth, meteorology and climatology, typical landforms, economic geography, attention to 'The modes in which the surface of the earth is modified directly and deliberately, as well as indirectly and unintentionally, by man's action', political geography, the history of geographical ideas, and the elementary principles of surveying. Chisholm taught it all. A further course, the 'Special Advanced Half-Course' was begun in 1910. This dealt 'in a fuller manner than in the Ordinary Course with the history of exploration and of geographical ideas, cartography, the distribution of typical landforms and distribution of plants, animals, and the races of mankind'. By 1912, 109 students were attending the geography classes. The curriculum was further changed in 1916 with additional lectures on cartography and the institution of a Diploma programme.

Unsurprisingly, additional staff were needed, and, in 1919, Miss Alice Lennie joined the department as a junior lecturer (she had been assistant to Chisholm since 1912). Lennie, perhaps surprisingly given Chisholm's reputation in commercial and economic geography, assumed responsibility for teaching in economic geography. In 1923 (the year in which Chisholm retired, the University recognising his work with the award of an Honorary LL.D.), Alan Ogilvie was appointed as Reader in geography.

Ogilvie, who had served with distinction in WW1 and represented Britain's geopolitical interests in the Versailles Peace Conference, instituted further changes to the geography courses. Regional geography assumed greater significance. A whole series of 'cognate courses' was further refined: political economy followed by economic history, geography and social ethics; geology, followed by geography or prehistoric archaeology.

By 1934, courses had expanded so much and student numbers were so strong that for the first time Geography could be taken as an Honours Degree. In 1931, in recognition of his own scholarship and international reputation, his promotion of the curriculum and his teaching, Ogilvie was appointed to the first Chair in Geography in Edinburgh. That year, the staff numbered three: Ogilvie, Mr David Linton (who went on to a professorship at Sheffield), and Mr Arthur Geddes, son of Sir Patrick Geddes, the influential urban sociologist and political ecologist. In that year too, Geography moved to accommodation in High School Yards, ironically to rooms where, years before, James Pillans had taught geography classes in the High School.

Under Ogilvie's leadership, the Department added 'Geography Laboratories', effectively a flume tank designed to 'model' fluvial processes and landform change and a Library and Reading Room for use of students in the honours classes. Although David Linton was on war service from 1940, the teaching courses in geography continued to expand principally with the addition of further regional geography courses.

By 1946, the staff had increased to four: Professor Ogilvie, Dr Geddes, Dr Catherine Snodgrass (who had completed her PhD on Scotland's agriculture in relation to its physiography in 1931 and who was later much involved in the Scottish National Party and in the Third Statistical Account of Scotland), and, lastly, Dr Ronald Miller.

But other staff came and went: Swanzie Agnew, for example, a student from one of the first Honours classes, who taught in the war years, and who later became a professor of geography in Malawi; Elizabeth Grieve, lecturer; T. Walter Freeman, later professor in Manchester and in Dublin. And further adjustments to the Honours curriculum appeared with the establishment of the Dissertation, whose focus then was the regional geography of a selected 100 square mile area of Britain. Student life in geography assumed greater presence from 1935 with the foundation by the undergraduates of the  Edinburgh University Geographical Society.

This was then, as it still is, a means to promote that collegial social activity that is such a distinguishing and welcome feature of departments of geography, in Edinburgh and elsewhere. The Freshers' Social began the year: the Society Dance, more formal then perhaps than now, usually ended the year. And the Society was always keen to promote academic discussions outwith the formal curriculum. To judge from the syllabus of the early years, distinguished speakers were called upon to address Edinburgh's undergraduates: D'Arcy Thompson, the pioneering zoologist (and President of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society,); H. J. Fleure, zoologist-geographer-ethnologist, and Gordon Manley, the leading ecologist.

In 1950, the student Geographical Society established Ge, the magazine of the Society, the first issue containing amongst other things a short piece on 'Geography and Art', a report on the Edinburgh University Geographical Society's 1949 excursion to the south of France and a first-hand account, from John Bartholomew (of the map-making and publishing firm) of geyser eruptions in Iceland. John was a graduate of the 1950 class in Edinburgh.

With the death of Alan Ogilvie in 1954, one era for the Department in terms of a direct connection with the years of foundation closed. With the appointment of his successor, James Wreford Watson, another period of expansion and development began.

Wreford Watson, a student in the Department under Ogilvie, where he had taken the lead in establishing the student Geographical Society in 1935, oversaw further growth in staff numbers and a stronger research culture as he also secured an international reputation for work in social geography, in Canadian studies and in cartography. He arrived in October 1954, one then of eight staff in total (an overall total of thirteen counting the servitor, a typist, the secretary, the cartographer and the technician), and had an annual grant of £455 to run the whole Department. By 1965, the department had 20 staff. Over the same period, student numbers rose from 271 students in 1954 (185 in first ordinary (first year in more recent parlance), 38 in second ordinary, 23 in third year (Junior Honours), and 24 in fourth or final year, with one postgraduate, to 530 students by 1965. As Wreford Watson noted in 1966, "The important changes are that today there are 83 'intending honours' students in the first year, compared with 30 ten years ago; and 32 post-graduates compared with one."

And so the Department has gone from strength to strength over the years, renewing itself through the shared achievements of dedicated heads such as Sandy Crosbie, David Sugden and others, energetic staff and committed students. Edinburgh Geography has been distinguished by changes in the undergraduate curriculum, developments in research, a thriving Geographical Society, new staff, distinctions in scholarship and challenges in teaching, field excursions, a long-running programme of research in Belize, pioneering research in Iceland, in the Antarctic, in the development of Geographical Information Science, in feminist geography, in social geography, in geomorphology.

Geography has changed much since 1908. The work of George Chisholm, Alice Lennie, Alan Ogilvie and others might not sit easily in the curriculum of the early twenty-first century with its classes in embodied geographies, the historical geography of geographical knowledge and in the geography of wine. Where students once did a 100-square mile regional dissertation, undergraduate dissertations now embrace interviews, the study of glacial processes, soil systems and biodiversity, employ sophisticated GIS and technologies and other techniques of geographical representation. But they would be delighted, surely, that Geography continues so well.

The Institute of Geography became part of the School of GeoSciences in 2002.

Geophysics, 1969-1989

The Department of Geophysics was inaugurated in 1969 with Alan H. Cook as the first Professor of Geophysics. He was succeeded by Ken Creer in 1973. Professor Kathy Whaler, the current holder of the Chair of Geophysics, joined the Department in 1994.

The Department of Geophysics was initially housed in a Victorian villa in South Oswald Road. From there it moved to the James Clerk Maxwell Building, which also housed the Departments of Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science, Meteorology and the University Computing Service.

Geology and Geophysics, 1989-2002

The formerly separate Departments of Geology and Geophysics amalgamated in 1989. In the same year the UGC Review of Earth Science designated the Department a Group 1 Mainstream Department and granted funds for major investment in new research equipment. A substantial new wing was added to the Grant Institute and opened on 20 May 1992 by HRH Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, who was at that time Chancellor of the University. The new wing allowed accommodation of all staff and research facilities in one building.

During the 1990s the Department of Geology and Geophysics was one of the largest Earth Science Departments in the United Kingdom. There were 34 full-time academic members of staff, 41 Research Fellows and Associates, 30 support staff and 38 full-time PhD students.

Meteorology, 1944-2002

Meteorology was studied and taught as part of Chemistry, Natural Philosophy and Natural History at the University of Edinburgh throughout the nineteenth century and for the first half of the twentieth century.  

James Paton was appointed the first Lecturer in Meteorology within the Department of Natural Philosophy in 1944, where he had been a Lecturer since 1928. The first undergraduate course in Meteorology at any British university was instituted the following year, followed by a short Honours level course in Atmospheric Physics. James Paton was the first Head of Department when the Department of Meteorology was created in 1964.

From 1965 - 1975 the Balfour Stewart Auroral Laboratory was based in Edinburgh together with a geophysical unit of the British Antarctic Survey. In 1973, Dr Douglas McIntosh was appointed Head of Department. He had been Deputy Chief Meteorological Officer for S-E Asia during WW2 before joining the University in 1955. He was co-author with Alasdair Thom of Essentials of Meteorology, which was for many years a standard teaching text, and his research interest was the physics and dynamics of the upper atmosphere, a tradition later continued by Prof Robert Harwood. In 1977 the one-year taught MSc was added to the undergraduate courses and strong PhD tradition.

In 1976 the Department moved from High School Yards (Drummond Street) to the top floors of the James Clerk Maxwell Building at the King's Buildings.

After Douglas McIntosh retired in 1982, the position of Head of Department was held by senior academic staff in three-yearly rotation. The last Head of Department was Prof Harwood, who relinquished the position on 1st August 2001 when the Department became the Institute for Meteorology.

From 1st August 2001 until 31st July 2002 the Institute was part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy within the University Faculty of Science and Engineering.

On 1st August 2002, the Institute for Meteorology became part of the new School of GeoSciences.


The School of  GeoSciences, 2002 Onwards

The School of GeoSciences was formed on 1 August 2002 when the Institute for Meteorology, the Institute of Ecology and Resource Management, the Department of Geography and the Department of Geology and Geophysics were merged into one school.

In September 2013 a new wing was opened at the High School Yards to house the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI).