[ Skip to content]

Science and Engineering at The University of Edinburgh

School of GeoSciences

Institute of Geographyhttps://www.geos.ed.ac.uk/geography

[100 Years of Geography]

A Short History of Geography in Edinburgh 

Looking forward, looking back

As we mark the centenary of the teaching of Geography in the University of Edinburgh, it is appropriate that we take some account of the events that have distinguished the 100 years since its first formal establishment in Edinburgh. The words 'first formal establishment' are appropriate here, for when 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.
Much has changed in the century since. As I write this, and the Centenary is in train, there are 33 academic staff in what is now the Institute of Geography, to say nothing of postdoctoral and research staff, secretarial and technical staff, dozens of postgraduates and hundreds of undergraduates, each and all actively pursuing research and teaching in an engaging intellectual environment recognised the world over for its quality.
Yet Chisholm, 1908 and All That stands also at the end of a longer tradition rather than just as a foundation moment. 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.

Moments in a 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 the Great War 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.
Click Image to Enlarge
First Honours Class in Geography 1934
Picture 1. Graduates with Honours in Geography, June, 1934.
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 (Picture 1). 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.
Click Image to Enlarge
Teaching Staff from Foundation.
Picture 2. Teaching Staff from Foundation.
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 (Picture 2). 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.

 

Click Image to Enlarge
Student Geographical Society Syllabus from the 1930s.
Picture 3. Student Geographical Society Syllabus from the 1930s.
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 (Picture 3).
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 (Pictures 4 and 5). John was a graduate of the 1950 class in Edinburgh (see the pictures here from the 1950 Reunion held in August 2008).

 

 

 

 

Click Image to Enlarge
Cover of the first GE (1950)
Picture 4. Cover of the first GE (1950).
Click Image to Enlarge
Front sheet of the 1947 Geographical Society trip to France.
Picture 5. Front sheet of the 1947 Geographical Society trip to France.
Ge continued for several years after 1950, but did not survive longer (although variants have existed: as Edge, a sometime register of research published by Edinburgh geography staff; or as, simply, the Geographical Society Magazine, whose 1985 number has an account of the fifty years of the Society (Picture 6).
Click Image to Enlarge
Front cover of the 50th Anniversary Edition of the Student Geographical Society.
Picture 6. Front cover of the 50th Anniversary Edition of the Student Geographical Society.
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.
Click Image to Enlarge
Honours Graduating Class in 1958.
Picture 7. Honours Graduating Class in 1958.
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 1" (Picture 7).
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. Take just one year as an example. In 2001, the Department had 528 undergraduates, 82 postgraduates, was recognised (in 2001, as in 1996) as internationally excellent (5*) for its research and commended for its 'high standards in teaching'. In 2007 the Teaching Programme Review found 'a great deal to impress us' in this 'enthusiastic, welcoming, and engaging programme of study in Geography.'
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.

2008 and beyond: marking Geography's centenary

Those who have worked, studied and been part of geography in Edinburgh will have their own history of it, their own memories. But history is not simply a recovered past. The Centenary Programme has been planned not just that we might look back with pride upon a century of achievement. It is to look forward to the continuing strength of geography as a subject, to the shared vitality of a community of staff and students engaging in understanding how the world works and to achievements yet to be.
As a Geography community, we are hosting a number of events to mark the Centenary and, in launching the Centenary Research Fund, will be appealing to the geography staff and student body, past and present, for funds towards the support of postgraduates in order to advance further geographical research.
We hope that, as an Edinburgh geographer of one type or another and from one period or another, you will be able to keep in touch through the Centenary programme, perhaps attend one of our events, and support the Centenary Research Fund. We would love to hear from you, to learn of your time in Geography, to know of your successes and achievements.
The Centenary was formally opened by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor to the University, on 12 August 2008 accompanied by the University Principal, Professor Timothy O'Shea (for pictures of this formal opening click here )
We are delighted to have hosted the Centenary Drinks Reception on Friday 19 September in Playfair Library Hall, Old College. Attended by 105 alumni and guests, the Reception was hosted by the Principal of the University, Professor Timothy O'Shea. A convivial evening of recollection and reacquaintance was enjoyed by all (for pictures of the Centenary Reception click here )
On Saturday 20 September, the Centenary Alumni Open Day was enjoyed by over 125 former students and their guests. Lectures on human geography research, on physical geography research and on the history of gepgraphy at Edinburgh were given by Lynn Staeheli, David Sugden and Charles Withers, respectively. Year group photos (from 1934 - the late 1980s) were on display as were students' dissertations and displays of graudate students' work. Many former students brought along mementoes from their time in Geography - including photos from the 1945 - 46 Grauduation Class: we are delighted that so many alumni attended and look forward to being involved with year reunions and other alumni events.
On-line brochure
© School of GeoSciences --- Privacy & Cookies --- Last modified: 29 Sep, 2008 --- Page contact: