'Patrick Geddes's Intellectual Origins', by Murdo Macdonald (published by Edinburgh University Press)
'His words seem as relevant now as they were then.' 'Again, his words seem more to the point today, a century after he spoke them.' On these and other occasions in the course of this book, Murdo Macdonald convincingly makes the case for Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) being a thinker well ahead of his time. His chief aim, however, is to show how Geddes's ideas grew, in his own age, from sources that were both Scottish and international, both historical and contemporary.
In particular, Professor Macdonald reveals Geddes's debt to the generalist tradition in Scottish philosophy and education. While he was heavily influenced by French thinkers such as Comte and Reclus, his interdisciplinary approach to learning was rooted in the work of earlier Scottish thinkers and also, importantly, in the landscape of his own childhood in and around Perth. From the garden of the house in which he grew up he could see the River Tay on its way to the sea, the city, and beyond these the Highland hills: how human settlement was shaped by the movement of water from mountain to ocean, through what he called the 'valley section', became a central part of his thinking about human geography.
He constantly made connections between, on the one hand, landscape and, on the other, human activity and social structures, as well as between sciences and arts. He used drama, poetry and painting to examine and illuminate these connections. He was an ecologist, a botanist and biologist, a geographer, a sociologist, a town and city planner with a particular penchant for gardens and parks, a publisher, an educationalist, a cultural nationalist and an internationalist. The difficulty in writing about Geddes is trying to contain him. He seems to have been interested in absolutely everything.
Macdonald's study could hardly be improved on as a starting-point for further exploration of Geddes's multi-channelled mind. It draws together a mass of interconnected information about him and his associates, creating a fascinating and in places rather beautiful web. As I read each short but packed chapter, I often had to pause to check the extensive endnotes, to search the internet or a reference book for further details or to read more, for example, about Baha'ism or Theosophy and why Geddes engaged with them. To give an illustration of where the book has taken me, let me describe a journey.
At one point, Murdo Macdonald quotes two lines from a short poem about Iona attributed to St Columba. This led me to hunt down and reread the landmark essay, The Scots Renascence
, in which Geddes reproduces the whole poem. The essay was published in 1895 in the first number of his magazine, The Evergreen
, and from those lines on Iona, Geddes moves on to describe the tomb of John de Grahame, one of William Wallace's most valued knights, killed at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298. To my shame, I did not know that his resting-place is at Grahamston (the district and railway station are named after him), nor that it has been − as Geddes describes − repeatedly neglected and then saved from oblivion over the centuries. It was most recently restored within the last decade. It is now on my list of places to visit.
The journey continues. I did know that The Evergreen's
title was a conscious echo of Allan Ramsay's collection of ancient Scots poetry, The Ever Green
(1724), that in 1891 Geddes purchased Ramsay's house on Castlehill and that this became the hub of 'a new informal complex of flats, student accommodation and meeting rooms, in due course to be known as Ramsay Garden'. But I had not previously appreciated the fascinating small-press publishing activity of that period, in which Geddes was deeply involved, and which influenced the values of T N Foulis, an Edinburgh publishing house established in 1903-5.
T N Foulis produced more than 400 titles in the first quarter of the 20th century. Several of these beautiful but relatively inexpensive books − some of which were illustrated by the likes of D Y Cameron and Jessie M King, who were in the Geddes circle − are on the shelves behind me as I type. The publisher's 1913 catalogue declared: 'Each Foulis book is the particular outcome of much personal thought and consideration. The more mechanical methods of modern publishing, which pours out wholesale, indiscriminately bound, or with featureless uniformity, have no attraction for Mr Foulis and his fellow craftsmen'. Geddes, steeped as he was in the principles of the arts and crafts movement, would have been entirely in sympathy with these sentiments.
1913 was the year that T N Foulis published Ananda Coomaraswamy's ground-breaking book, Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon
. Geddes and Coomaraswamy were colleagues and friends: Macdonald records that Coomaraswamy wrote to Geddes from Geddes's own flat in Ramsay Garden in 1914, when the latter was en route to India, where he would live for several years and do hugely important work on town-planning. (It was there that he became a close friend of Rabindranath Tagore, who described him as having 'the precision of the scientist and the vision of a prophet; and at the same time the power of an artist to make his ideas visible'.)
Coomaraswamy, like Geddes, had a strong interest in geology. Macdonald notes that as a young man he had visited Tiree and Iona to investigate the composition of the marble found in these islands. While there, as someone already interested in Celtic culture, he would also have explored the legacy of Columba, especially as the 1,300th anniversary of the saint's death had occurred only three or four years before, in 1897. Which brings us back to the poem attributed to Columba:
In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love,
Instead of the voice of monks shall be lowing of cattle,
But ere the world come to an end
Iona shall be as it was.
Geddes saw human history as an evolutionary process, and one that would never end in perfection, even if he hoped to see it move towards a just, life-affirming, free, peaceful and ecologically balanced society. He could therefore happily combine Celtic revivalism and a profound respect for religious faith − here, his own Free Church upbringing, grounded in democracy and rigorous intellectual application, is significant − with scientific advances and a practical engagement with solving the problems of modern life in large conurbations (this last word is a Geddes coinage, first used in his 1915 work Cities in Evolution
This inclusive open-mindedness is seen in the way he designed and fitted out the Outlook Tower on Edinburgh's Castlehill in 1891, an 'index museum to the universe'. It has been described as the first sociological laboratory in the world and, in the Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland
, as 'the Victorian equivalent of a multi-media show'.
He also had a long association with Dundee, where he was professor of botany at University College for 30 years. Most of his plans for that city, such as a botanic garden (one was finally established in the 1970s), did not come to fruition in his lifetime, but his contribution to its intellectual life in terms of ecology, geography and botany was immense. His teaching practice was, according to George Davie (author of The Democratic Intellect
), one of the last examples of a consciously philosophical interpretation of the sciences in Scottish education.
In Dundee, too, he formed links with men and women − scientists, artists, educators, craftspeople, linguists, historians and others − who inspired him or whom he inspired with his enthusiasm for interdisciplinary co-operation. One of the almost overwhelming pleasures of Macdonald's book is following the lines of the networks Geddes created, which involved very many individuals. Some of the connections were academic, some were made through friendships and marriages, and some were both. It is one of the characteristics of a small country that this kind of 'natural' networking is almost inevitable: Geddes took full advantage of it.
In his farewell lecture at University College in 1919, he explicitly situated the social life of humans in the natural environment, employing a phrase which has since become a motto for ecological awareness: '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 on the leaves. By leaves we live'.
I feel that I have hardly scraped the surface of the rich ideas contained in this book, and that Patrick Geddes, nearly 90 years after his death, does indeed speak to us now with urgency and, as importantly, with hope.
James Robertson is a writer and poet