Time held green

repeatsChapter three of ‘Repeats its love’: Time held green [1]

Just last week whilst in Edinburgh for a medical conference, the writer spent his lunchtime rather unsociably walking over the graves of the dead in St John’s Church, Princes Street, Edinburgh. Perhaps he is less humane than he likes to consider, yet there existed a need to divert his mind from lectures mediocre rather than good, and in the words of Leon Eisenberg, more mindless than brainless.[2] This should never be interpreted as debunking of science – for science is the branch of human endeavour that has achieved most. Yet it is impossible not to sigh at the grotesque exaggeration of the extent to which we understand our nervous systems.[3]

Thus irritated, the thoughts of this writer returned in the churchyard, and to the brother of his great-great-grandfather. Dr John Stewart Rutherfoord was, one crucial to several medical student gangs, who helped resurrect fresh corpses for the one-eyed doctor of charisma, Dr Robert Knox, emeritus of Anatomy.[4] For Mavisbank and this narrative, the resurrecting business of 2009, required neither brawn nor guile, for awakening the largely forgotten, yet enlightened minds of Edinburgh past, could never be improper.

It did not take long to find the Arbuthnot memorial, indeed even in late September it was crowned with a scrambling blush rose that carried gloriously in the Arbuthnot family motto – innocent and true. George Clerk Arbuthnot circled our Isles in antiquarian pursuits, and as leader of this fraternity, collected most avidly. However Arbuthnot was not simply a man of artefact, he was also an impassioned gardener, and most certainly nursed a horticultural flourish back into Mavisbank; the otium that had vacated in the years that were Graeme Mercer the farmer.

Arbuthnot became my favourite cat of all time 
and I do not think I shall ever have a cat so wonderful again.”

Anne Widdecombe MP

Ann Widdecombe, a Conservative MP, and briefly Speaker elect, and the wonderfully eccentric lover of cats, we have, through the media, come to know. She is one of very few politicians, who have held their own amidst the spontaneous satire of Hyslop and Merton; managing to hold-her-own with her spinsterial authority. Widdecombe apparently named her beloved cat after James Arbuthnot Esquire, Conservative MP and the man described as ‘so desiccated as having a voice like a speaking-clock’! Indeed it was this, today’s most public embodiment of Arbuthnot that unconsciously surfaced in the mind of this writer as he viewed the memorial to George Clerk Arbuthnot of Mavisbank, recalling the reporter’s description of Arbuthnot MP: “like winter sunshine upon a coffin lid!”[5]

George Clerk Arbuthnot was born in Edinburgh’s New Town in October 1803, the middle son of the five boys sired by Sir William Arbuthnot the Provost. On a state visit to Edinburgh, King George IV, regent in reign of his father’s madness, yet more debauched by far, partook voraciously – true to his spoiling – in a splendid banquet laid on by Arbuthnot. Much that was liquid, distilled or fermented, was consumed by the portly King, and so ‘rendered,’ placed a bet with Arbuthnot (who had drunk comparatively little) that he ‘could not walk round the table without support.’  In doing so, the equivalent of today’s one-foot-in-front-of-another roadside test for intoxication, Arbuthnot gained his Baronetcy!

George Clerk Arbuthnot was named after the Penicuik family, in honour of his mother’s sister, who was married to Robert Clerk of Mavisbank. A rather horrid, but satirical, broadside survives from this time.[6] Written by a radical poet, it is entitled George Clerk’s Last Speech and recreates the suicide of Lord Castlereagh as the abominable act of a selfish Tory. In words fictitious it repeats the pleading words of George Clerk upon the scaffold at Pennycuik to his friend Viscount Dundas. To reformers, especially in Scotland, Dundas epitomised all that was unjust about the political system. Voted Member of Parliament for Edinburgh by an electorate that represented a fraction of the population, Dundas generally protected landed interests and held such huge political influence that he was nicknamed the ‘Uncrowned King of Scotland‘.

Castlereagh was a contemporary of Baron Clerk the polish’d mind of Mavisbank, but it was from Londonderry that he set sail to tour Europe. An exceptionally handsome man highly educated and cultured, his charming countenance did not save him from political abyss. In 1817 Britain endured an economic recession (that sounds familiar!) The Napoleonic wash brought mass unemployment, was compounded by a bad harvest and the resultant high prices precipitated riots. As leader of the House of Commons, Castlereagh in November, 1817, introduced the bill for the suspension of Habeas Corpus (the ancient legal write protecting individual freedom from arbitrary state action.) Protest was universal, and came to a head with the Peterloo Massacre in Liverpool, with the bloody realization that the British government would sanction war upon its own people just as they had against Napoleon and the French Army. Castlereagh found this loss of popularity very painful and became depressed with his doctor suggesting that he retire to his estate in Kent. At the time, he said “My mind is, as it were, gone.” On the 12th August 1822, although his wife had succeeded in removing razors from his possession, Castlereagh managed to find a sharp letter opener with which he cut his own throat. The following inquest concluded that the act had been committed while insane, avoiding the harsh strictures of a felo de se verdict. This allowed church burial. Castlereagh’s funeral was greeted with jeering and insults along the processional route to Westminster Abbey where he was buried alongside his mentor William Pitt. Sometime after Castlereagh’s death, Lord Byron wrote a savage and cruel quip about his grave:

Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:

Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:

Stop, traveller, and piss.[7]


Figure 1: Castlereagh suspends Habeas Corpus and the Peterloo massacre. Castlereagh’s commits suicide

Whilst Liverpool was death to Castlereagh, it was the making of George Clerk Arbuthnot. It was from Liverpool that Arbuthnot administered his trade empire, for after serving as Captain in the Navy for the East India Company he became a partner in Gillanders, Arbuthnot and Company, “the oldest merchant house in Calcutta.” In 1828 Arbuthnot was in Liverpool when he heard that his elderly business partner Thomas Gillanders was unwell, and on the 9th February that year he set sail for Bengal, taking command himself of the 1333 ton vessel, the ‘Hythe’ which was owned by his father’s friend ex-Provost Marjoribanks. Simple arithmetic conveys the sad truth that Arbuthnot did not make India in time, for his vessel was 22 days afloat and Gillanders was buried on the 23rd of February. This year was pivotally bad in the career of Arbuthnot, for acting as an agent for Mauritius he signed a contract with 75 ‘Dhangar tribals of India who were indentured from 1834.

It seems that in helping to bring about the end of one form of slavery, the Abolition Act of 1807 gave birth to another. Emancipation inevitably caused an acute labour shortage on plantations throughout the British colonies. A new labour force was required, and one was soon found, not this time in Africa, but in the Asian Continent. These labourers were not considered slaves but rather ‘indentured’; that is, they were contracted to work on the plantations for a certain number of years, typically five, after which they could stay and farm independently, or else return home, with their fares paid. Yet an inquiry in 1859 demonstrated that 99 per cent of the Indians being transported on a voyage from Calcutta to Trinidad knew neither their destination nor why they were being taken there. Confined to the lower deck, they ate, sat and slept in unsanitary conditions; if they died en route—and due to cholera, typhoid, dysentery, measles, venereal diseases, putrid food and lack of milk for infants, around 17 per cent did—their remains were thrown overboard. In 1836, the Calcutta merchants Gillanders, and Arbuthnot reported to Parliament what the other local Indians said about the Dhangurs: “The Hill tribes, known by the name of Dhangurs, are looked down upon by the more cunning natives of the plains, and they are always spoken of as more akin to the monkey than the man. They have no religion, no education, and, in their present state, no wants beyond eating, drinking, and sleeping; and to procure which they are willing to labour.”

Accurately representing the past is not as straightforward as it may appear, for mostly we lack first-hand testimony, and the scant archive that haphazardly finds its way, often relays the unwitting agendas of those that followed. Arbuthnot is yet another good example, for he left no first hand testimony, and the only written personal account by his daughter-in-law Evelyn, touches upon Arbuthnot so briefly that perhaps it is not unreasonable to wonder what has not been said? Much is hidden by us all. Evelyn certainly reveals her father-in-law as a rigorous businessman, devout – but less so than his wife, and a mariner impassioned. However it is that pivotal year, 1828, that seems to crystallises from such little surviving precipitate of his life. That was the year he indentured slaves, lost his founding business partner, and returned home to find that his father had suddenly died. It would appear that this put an end to high sea trade for Arbuthnot, and that he affirmed to settle in Liverpool, and from there administer his flourishing Indian trade.

“My father-in-law had an objection to be photographed,
and the only photographs of him were taken by Aunt Kitty, 

who was very expert in the old ‘wet-plate’ days of the art.”[8]


There is only one surviving image of George Clerk Arbuthnot, an early photograph taken by his niece in the late 1860’s. It is not the most flattering, as he appears heavy browed, broad, befuskered, and seemingly grumpy: however an image is just that, a captured moment, and certainly not to be generalized beyond. The photograph, in gold medallion and case, is kept by his great-great grandson, Peter Geoffrey Arbuthnot, retired Director of Christie’s Auction House.[9] Peter also kindly supplied a photographic copy of a rather fine watercolour of Mavisbank painted around the same time.


Figure 3: Mavisbank watercolour painted for George Clerk Arbuthnot c1860 (courtesy of Peter G. Arbuthnot [10])

Much now that follows has been taken from the written diary of Arbuthnot’s wife, Caroline Ramsay Hay, who apart from a year here or there, kept her diary going for 56 years, and lived herself for 92 years. The opening sentence starts, naturally enough with Mavisbank, and records simply: 15th January 1845. “George and I were married at Linden Lodge by the Rev. E. B. Ramsay.”[11]

In considering the history of Mavisbank the responsibility of Linden and its chatelaine Lady Hay (mother of Arbuthnot’s wife) must not be overlooked. Lady Hay, sister of Earl Dalhousie, had been widowed young when her husband James died suddenly in Calcutta. On her death bed in 1866 her thoughts returned to Colliepriest in Devon, her marital home a gorgeous white mansion, river, and park which time had so wonderfully held green. Those were the days when a handsome James Hay had cut a dashing sway with four horses on one rein and so happy before a ghastly succession of infant losses (babies Lucy, Jemima and James) and certainly before the family fortune dissipated through the Master’s untimely death.


Figure 4: Mrs Caroline Arbuthnot in front of Mavisbank c1860 (RCHAMS)

Between 1846 and 1856 George Clerk Arbuthnot and family enjoyed summertime transhumance in Mavisbank (April to November) before returning to Liverpool for winter and spring. In Liverpool they rented properties, initially in Abercromby Square (number 26) and afterwards at Dingle Cottage which was secured on a five year lease for £50 per annum. Three of the Arbuthnot children were born at Mavisbank: George in 1846, Mary in 1847 and Jamie in 1855. All were baptised at Mavisbank by Reverend Dean Ramsay followed the day after by a service in St John’s Church, Princes Street, Edinburgh.

In Liverpool, Arbuthnot was a close friend of Thomas Steuart Gladstone, cousin of the future Prime Minister. He was a wise head and business-minded like Arbuthnot, and together they acquired tracts of pastoral land in Melbourne and in Sydney, but finally settled chiefly upon Port Phillip because they regarded it ‘a Scotch settlement!’

At Mavisbank the hospitality of Arbuthnot was legendary, with Christmas and New Year opportunity to invite home family at large. In 1855 the fun of New Year charades is recorded in the diary and the following day, as they did every New Year day, the children started out on the vigorous walk of 7 miles to St   John’s in Edinburgh’s heart. On a couple of years the diary recalls this being through snow. It is difficult to imagine children of less than ten walking that distance now, let alone for it to be to church? On Boxing Day 1861 the Mavisbank canal (lochan) was iced over, and as the weather was ‘rather seasonable’ the ‘boys’ all took to ice skates rather than the usual curling match![12]


Figure 5: Beach house, Skelmorie, built by George Clerk Arbuthnot in 1844 and his yacht the ‘mavis’

Arbuthnot was no amateur sailor – indeed we must recall that his profession and trade were based upon his Captaincy. In 1850 he commissioned a yacht, and by July the following year it was built and sailed up the Clyde to be berthed at Wemyss Bay. It was here that Arbuthnot had built Beach House and had prepared harbour and moorings (this year 2009, arsonists burned Beach House to the ground). Arbuthnot named his elegant yacht ‘Mavis.’ Having survived an explosion – Dennett rescue rockets – in its first month, Captain Arbuthnot took ‘Mavis’ to reaches both far and beautiful. Such adventures he shared with his family, and some wonderful holidays are recorded to Staffa, Iona, Campbeltown, Mull, Crinan, Dunstaffnage, Isle of Wight, and somehow even to Glencoe! An oil picture held at the Maritime Museum portrays the storming of the Forts of Bomarsund which includes the ‘Mavis’ in July 1854, on its only Baltic foray.[13]


Figure 6: George Clerk Arbuthnot, his daughter Mary, wife Caroline, daughter Emily and son ‘Dodo’ (c1860)

In August 1866 Mavisbank had a dark moment; for young Mary, Arbuthnot’s only daughter, accidentally set herself on fire from a candle whilst dressing. Her chest was severely burnt, and the shock so severe that she never recovered. Her decline into a reclusive and protracted captivity tortured all to see. She died four years later. Her brother George (known as ‘Dodo’) who was thirty years Minister in Shakespeare’s church, used to say his desire for Holy Orders dated from his sister Mary’s death

14thNovember 1870 Mavisbank:
“Dr. Hutton came and had Communion in Mary’s room.”

“Dear Mary fell asleep in Jesus about
6 o’clock.”[14]

‘Dodo’ Arbuthnot, unlike his father and two younger brothers, was not a sailor and suffered from sea-sickness. Admiral he was certainly not but as minister of God he served most true. For most of his ministry ‘Dodo’ served as rector to Stratford-upon-Avon where he wrote the definitive parish history, including that of a certain ‘Will. Shakespeare.’

Dodo and his wife lived in a house called ‘The Firs,’ but this vicarage was ordinarily plain and by the late twentieth century, slumped grey and peeling, had  long ceased to have any architectural standing. It haphazardly acquired a strange cooperative of retail outlets and digs – a DrivingSchool: Don’t Pass Us Because We’ll Pass You!; a Private Detective in a mack and a hippy Coffee shop. The only signal devout was of the collapsed gazebo draped with bramble thorn that only with a neck squinted could be seen from the uppermost dormer.  It was in this top-floor flat that a young hippy, now without hair, recalled horrifying somnambulation.[15]

The old house was also haunted, very haunted. And when all those crazy people had gone home and the place was empty it began to creek and moan like some old ship at sea. And in the early hours of the morning you could actually smell the sea, and hear the masts straining, and the sails stretching and screeching against the wind; and sometimes, very occasionally, you could hear distant voices, and shouted commands.

After a particularly stormy crossing one night I mentioned the noises to one of the guys who owned Coffee Books, who told me that most of the timbers used to build The Firs had come from the remnants of Nelson’s Navy!

So perhaps in his somnambulation – that ungoverned territory of the mind asleep – Dodo joined his father, Captain George Clerk Arbuthnot, and his Admiral brothers, on the far seas.

Dodo Arbuthnot was spiritual guide to many Mavisbank farewells. He records the sad duty of burying Graeme Mercer of Tulchan (nephew of Mavisbank) who was the Perthshire poet of his day and who, as a rigorous Conservative, had inscribed on a drainpipe: “like Johnnie Bright, spouts nastiness by day and night!”[16] Mercer, dressed in tweed with tache, was undoubtedly a soak, and like Dalrymple gout-racked for that. However he was not an unreasonable poet. Tulchan’s cirrhotic decline was both premature and rapid, and in October 1886, he was buried alongside his father of Dryden and his uncle of Mavisbank in Glenalmond. After the funeral, Dodo wrote to his wife: “I feel very sad at thinking this is my last visit to dear Tulchan. I have spent many happy days here, and it was the first place we visited after our engagement.”[17]


Figure 7: Glentulchan: the Mercer family burial ground. Buried here: Graeme of Mavisbank & George of Dryden

1901 was equally sad for Dodo Arbuthnot; yes of course, Queen Victoria had died at the year’s beginning after nearly 64 years on the throne, but for Dodo, the loss within his own family was double. At Castle Wemyss his elder sister Emily Arbuthnot died. It was a tragic but romantic end. When Emily’s husband became unconscious on February 12th, she was led from his room, and after she was told that the end had come, she spoke not again, and died two hours later. Emily Arbuthnot (Lady Inverclyde), was indefatigable in all good works and practised true philanthropy.


The newspapers reported that the Inverclydes were In death not divided[18], and Dodo ministered the occasion on a bright sunny day, with the coffins escorted along the Clyde by a cortege of 80 sailors to rest together side-by-side, at Dodo’s feet, as if to take their marriage vows again. In fact Dodo would have recalled as a young boy, the marriage of his elder sister Emily in the drawing-room of Mavisbank in November 1860. Her husband John Burns, Baron Inverclyde had with Samuel Cunard and others founded the Cunard Steamship Company. George Arbuthnot Burns, 2nd Baron Inverclyde took a leading part in the application of turbine engines to ocean liners. Once again then, the canal at Mavisbank reflected Scotland’s seafaring brilliance.


Figure 8: Wemyss Castle where Emily Arbuthnot lived with husband Lord Inverclyde. In death not divided

The Arbuthnot family did celebrate one great man who was the Baron’s contemporary. Dr John Arbuthnot was Queen Anne’s personal physician and a close friend of Jonathan Swift. He was a polymath: as well as holding MDs from Edinburgh and Cambridge, he was a classical scholar and mathematician. He was a pioneer not only of medicine but of political science. Arbuthnot was an amiable individual, and Swift said that the only fault an enemy could lay upon him was a slight waddle in his walk. Scholarly understanding suggests that ‘Arbuthnot understood the way of the world so well that one of his works might serve as a guide to modern life.’[19]

George Clerk Arbuthnot may have preferred the sea to land, but he was not idle to the latter, and certainly not an armchair horticulturalist. Indeed it is recorded in A History of Kitchen Gardens, ‘that as late as 1853, a Mr Arbuthnot of Mavisbank, Lasswade, is said to have had a kitchen garden made to exactly the same size and shape as the Coliseum in Rome, with an Italianate Villa to match.’[20] As so ascribed, one has to be somewhat suspicious of accurate reportage, particularly as this book does not offer source; however sales of plants from the walled garden of Mavisbank, under Esquire Arbuthnot, appear advertised regularly in the Scotsman through his later years.

In December 1871, not many months after the death of Arbuthnot’s daughter Mary, the family nurse also died. A tombstone in Lasswade was erected by Arbuthnot recalling the tender care she had given the family for 26 years.[21] The Mavisbank housekeeper, Marjory Bowman was from remote Aberdeenshire and a tiny and most secret glen (Glen Girnoc) that was home to this writer’s family (indeed we may well be related). Marjory the housekeeper was the domestic fulcrum of Mavisbank when it rejoiced heartily with young family. In the decade before Mavisbank, she had served Lord Nairn in Brodie House. After Mavisbank – Marjory had moved on by 1871 – she served as the only Housekeeper to Lady Ruthven of Winton Castle, East Lothian.[22] The latter was a remarkable woman who lived 96 years, and who as Patron of the Arts in Scotland, was one of the last surviving friends of Sir Walter Scott. One of the first photographs ever taken in Scotland, and curious not just for that, was taken of Lady Ruthven by David Octavius Hill. In the calotype Lady Ruthven is posing with her back to the camera and the resulting image is extraordinary and mysterious. It was said of Lady Ruthven: ‘She was not only the friend of Walter Scott, but she held relations more or less close with nearly everyone famous in art and literature, during the greater part of the nineteenth century.’


Figure 9: Lady Ruthven: an unusual pose for Octavius-Hill in one of Scotland’s earliest portrait photographs

Between the years 1798 to 1803 as a young advocate Walter Scott rented from James Clerk of Mavisbank a small cottage in Lasswade, as his country residence. Rented at the rate of thirty pounds a year, the cottage was fairly basic. Downstairs there was a spacious dining room and a small room that Scott called his oratory, upstairs under the thatched roof was the newly-weds bedroom. As well as commanding a beautiful view of the Esk Valley, the allotment included paddocks for Scott’s mare and cow, and came with a vegetable and flower garden. Of the Esk, where the mavis so marvellously still sings, Scott said: “No stream in Scotland can boast such a varied succession of the most interesting objects as well as of the most romantic and beautiful scenery.”[23] In the five years that Walter spent there, he blossomed as both a scholar and a poet. Here he was to discover his artistic voice, which was later to make him one of the most successful authors of his day.

The parallel that Scott has with Baron Clerk is a revelation, strangely not identified by scholars past and present. The house Scott had built for his family, 39 North Castle Street, was only to be his home during the term time of the Court of Session. For about four to five months of the year the Scottish Courts did not sit – as has been exposed in Clerks dedication to Honestium Otium. This gave Walter Scott, like Baron Clerk before, the chance to get away from the legal world of Edinburgh and gave opportunity to develop his talents as a scholar and writer. Whilst hardly any of us can match Walter Scott, let alone our Baron, this is a reminder for the modern day, of the creative promise of sabbaticals.

According to Scott’s biographer and son-in-law, the terse John Lockhart, he also became a keen gardener while at Lasswade: “Scott delighted to train his flowers and creeper. Never, I have heard him say, was he prouder of his handiwork than when he had completed the fashioning of a rustic archway, now overgrown with heavy ivy, by way of ornament to the entrance from the Edinburgh road.”[24] One of the advantages of the Lasswade cottage was that it brought him into close contact with neighbours who were highly influential in the Scottish political and legal establishment and this included Mavisbank. While Scott had used the cottage at Lasswade to pursue his legal career and business, it was his artistic career that really benefited from his time there. At Lasswade he had sown the seeds of his future fame.

Two years after he left Lasswade, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”, which had its genesis in the Lasswade years, had propelled Scott into artistic celebrity. By 1815 the poem had sold 27,000 copies and continued to sell well throughout his life. John Gibson Lockhart was not exaggerating when he wrote that in his little cottage in Lasswade, Sir Walter Scott, “did produce the pieces which had laid the imperishable foundations of his fame. It was here, that in the ripened glow of manhood he seems to have first felt something of his real strength, and poured himself out in those splendid original ballads which were at once to fix his name.”


Figure 10: Walter Scott. It was here (on the Esk, in Clerk’s cottage), that in the ripened glow of manhood he seems to have first felt something of his real strength

George Clerk Arbuthnot died in his study at Mavisbank on the evening of the 21st February 1876. He was 72 years of age. He had only just finished playing chess with his sister-in-law Kitty Mercer and was apparently very much pleased to be the winner – particularly as she was much the better player of the two! On retiring to bed, Kitty left Arbuthnot reading before the fire, as he always did, but just minutes later the housemaid rang the bell with ‘great alarm.’ The family in shock, carried disbelief, as Arbuthnot was found still sitting in his armchair, peaceful, unruffled and with his spectacles still in place. Nobody was sure if had ‘passed.’ A young servant was set at once on horseback to fetch their doctor, only a few miles off, but he was out and did not make Mavisbank till 3 a.m. It was of course, a simple act of confirmation, for as the doctor said ‘it all had been over for some hours.”[25]

Arbuthnot’s funeral took place in St John’s the following Saturday –it was recorded in the diary as “most trying;’ snow had been falling all night and the roads were blocked by drifts and the temperature sub-zero. The service at St. John’s was taken by Archdeacon Sandford, an old friend of Arbuthnot, and despite the awful weather there was a large attendance, as Arbuthnot was “well-known and appreciated by many friends.”

Today’s congregation of St John’s would not recognise the name Arbuthnot. Yet life of those gone, such as Arbuthnot, Mercer, Clerk, can cast curious reminders for today. In St John’s, the one reminder, in stone, is in the form of a Flaxman carved sculpture surmounted on the south wall above the chancel (Flaxman being the celebrated sculptor and Master of the Purest Line.) The tablet has survived fire, ravage, and decay, but for all its beauty, the onlooker today would not register any emotion for the unknown (to him) woman it commemorates. She was the mother of George Clerk Arbuthnot. [26]


Figure 11: St   John’s Church – the purest line.

The adjacent Edinburgh graveyards of St John’s and St Cuthbert’s, despite their association with Burke and Hare, hold no simple grisly fascination.[27] [28] Inert architectural memorials they may be, but somehow, to this writer they stand symbolic of lost consciousness that science cannot capture.[29] This I say as a scientist and doctor and certainly not, as I have mistakenly been accused, as a sceptic. Indeed it was C. P. Snow who in a Lecture given 50 years ago in Cambridge, who warned of the gap that had opened up between scientists and the ‘literary intellectuals’ wishing the seemingly impossible: for the two groups to communicate. In his talk, the ‘Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’[30] C.P Snow came down upon the side of the scientist, concluding that literary intellectuals – representing the humanities – had only held back society; indeed for Snow it was only the scientists who had the ‘future in their bones.’ Today in the graveyards, beyond Arbuthnot, I was to step over familiar names from Edinburgh’s enlightened past: De Quincey, John Napier, De Morvo and Archibald Alison, all to name but a few.

There could be no accident that Mavisbank has presented to us the ‘Two Cultures’ – no accident at all: for its creation and its existence – even in crumbling decline – has been carried by both pillars. This is a conclusion that in 1959 would have escaped C.P. Snow, for beyond educational reform, he believed that attachment to our past only undermines society’s ability to change. This is surely wrong: for science – our greatest endeavour – needs as Mathew Arnold said in 1882 a ‘cultural fulcrum of moral understanding.’[31] That is why F.R. Leavis, beyond constipated vitriol, and omnescience, was correct to say that science has no inherent moral resource: it tells us how best to do things that we have already decided to do, not why we should do them.

It was Thomas De Quincey, that brilliant and original writer, who wrote a personal favourite romantic line that has comforted this writer in the mismatch felt between his observations as a doctor and science of the mind which for rather too long has been so absurdly reduced. The unwaveringly debased account of humanity, led this writer to reach across disciplines and to study Social Sciences.

“Solitude, though it may be silent as light, is like light, the mightiest of agencies”

The De Quincey memorial is utterly plain and carries unaffecting remembrance of a dear wife. Yet if you have read De Quincey’s book, ‘The Household Wreck’ written in 1838 the year after his wife’s death, you will understand the desperation of his loss. It was after this that De Quincey’s family found him a cottage to retire to and an idyll from which to write; that cottage was Mavisbush on the hedgerow-side of Mavisbank. It is curious to consider the symbolism of De Quincey’s 1837 book in light of Mavisbank: for when it opened as an Asylum in 1878 (see the next chapter) most of the patients admitted to Mavisbank, were themselves ‘Household wrecks.’ Now of course the house itself is a wreck. Furthermore, can we not say that De Quincey, the honest opium-eater of nearly two centuries back, could be commentator on today’s addictions (in what ever form) and their growing medicalisation?

Behind the De Quincey tomb, was the sootened memorial to the brothers Combe choked with writing. The brothers, with combined reach in Medicine and Law, became the champions of Spurzheim’s phrenology, the ‘science’ that in the nineteenth century was inculcated by the elite as the truth of the mind. Combe lectured and demonstrated that by feeling the bumps on one’s skull, you could determine from the size and distribution of obtuberances, the personality of the individual, whether alive or dead! The bumps were then crudely categorised into a classification of most flowery and invented words (here it should be considered that in my profession such language disorder is considered cardinal of ‘schizophrenia’ – whether that says more of phrenology or the limitations of ‘psychopathology’ is left for you to consider.)[32]


Figure 12: George Combe, young and old. Between the bumps he talked rather than listened!

Dr Andrew Combe and his brother George, although the latter was not medically trained, were attracted to phrenology because of the promise of superlative intellectual authority – it is no wonder then that they soon assembled an admiring audience that in 1820 formed the Edinburgh Phrenological Society.[33] It was comprised mostly of young middle-class professionals eager to join a scientific society, many of whom had also been converted by Spurzheim. As a commentator who holds no religion and only a materialist view of life, it seems this exemplifies that science too can stray ‘religious’ – at least in the sense of attraction to a determined belief. In my profession ‘delusions’ are always regarded pathological – but religion is allowed sway. [34]

George Combe purchased a hall in Edinburgh for the Phrenological Society’s meetings and especially to house their growing museum of casts and skulls. The good, the great, the bad, and the ugly, all had their bumps read. Rabbie Burns grave was disinterred to read his skull, a fragment of Darnley’s skull stirred even greater fascination as of course was the bony vault of the murderer, and body-snatcher, Burke.[35] Many who knew George Combe remarked that once he set into opinions he was not easily shifted out of them and that he had little time for the opinions of others. This of course returns us to the thesis that Theodore Dalrymple opened at the beginning of this piece.

“I was a listener. Mr. Combe did the most of the talking, and did it so well that nobody felt like interposing a word, except so far as to draw him on. …His manner was remarkably quiet, and he spoke as not expecting opposition to his views. Phrenology explained everything to him, from the finite to the infinite.”

Biographers of George Combe[36] have rightly noted the phrenologist’s remembrance of his childhood: George never felt he received the attention he deserved as a child; he was born midship amongst a hefty brood and seems to have turned ‘on its head,’ if you forgive the pun, his feeling of limited self-worth, into a narcissistic defence.  “I was born on 21st October 1788, a day subsequently rendered memorable by being that on which the victory of Trafalgar was gained.”


Figure 13: The Combe memorial in St Cuthbert’s: all talk

George Combe’s nephew Sir James Cox later recalled that Combe had a “strong desire for posthumous fame”. It was this I considered, noting that the wordiest of all family tombstones, carried inscription of every child Combe except George!

In 1828, George Combe published The Constitution of Man. This mighty phrenological Lexicon sold approximately 350,000 copies between 1828 and 1900; an astounding number at the time, and it should be noted, outsold Darwin’s On the Origin of Species seven-fold! As historically fascinating as phrenology is, it surely reminds us, even in an age of great technological advance, that pathological constructions of the mind should be considered with great care. Indeed it was a forebear of mine, John Gordon, an Edinburgh anatomist who was the first to challenge the cause that was phrenology, with his bristling 1815 assault that concluded Combe had written ‘a piece of thorough quackery from beginning to end.’[37]

Buried in St John’s there is a follower of Baron Clerk that time has perhaps overlooked: Rev Archibald Alison 1758-1839 – an Edinburgh philosopher who having studied under Thomas Reid became the ‘literary Nestor’ of the day. His true life-long friend was Dugald Stewart. Reverend Alison gathered recognition for his essays on ‘Taste,’ but alas only after death.[38] The fear of this writer, is that Alison’s posthumous recognition might be allegory for Mavisbank’s fate.

Mavisbank has brought us to consider taste. It is far more complex than what the eye beholds but should not be reduced to ‘cultural fluff’.[39] The Enlightenment emblem that is Mavisbank returns time and again to a central theme of this discourse – that culture of science and the culture of humanities should not sit apart – whatever the age or discomfort felt on either side. Thus we return to Reverend Alison, perhaps Edinburgh’s last Enlightenment figure who delighted in fully embracing ‘a different walk of intellect.’ Had Alison chosen two ‘best men’ as this writer did for his marriage, he would have chosen alongside Dugald Stewart, Mr. Thomas Telford, the celebrated engineer. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to visit Alison and Telford together in Edinburgh to witness the zeal of the venerable pair, with Telford unfolding his scientific plans before his friend for the improvement of Scotland.

The diary first started at Mavisbank, by Arbuthnot’s wife Caroline, records plainly for November 13th 1876: “left dear Mavisbank.” The sadness in this moment carries still but should be offset by the consideration that a beloved family home was to become, through the next century’s turn, a ‘healing landscape.’ If Baron Clerk truly believed in ‘honestium otium,’ as we must feel he did, then his approval for such would surely have been heartfelt.

“The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage, and disinterested love of the truth of the most gifted thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel. Their age is one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the life of mankind”[40] 

Isaiah Berlin: ‘The Age of Enlightenment.’

[1] Thomas, Dylan M. (Sept 1945) A line, adapted from Fern Hill: ‘Time held me green and dying.’

[2] Eisenberg, Leon (Jan 1986) Mindlessness and brainlessness in psychiatry; The Eli Lilly Lecture, Winter Quarterly Meeting. RoyalCollege of Psychiatrists, London, 21 January 1986. British Journal of Psychiatry; 148: 497-508.

[3] Tallis, Raymond (July 2008) Neuroscientism; The Lancet “In short, neuroaesthetics bypasses everything that art criticism is about.”

[4] The Lancet (Dec 1862) Obituary to Dr Robert Knox; The Lancet (Dec 1870) Reviews and notices: Robert Knox, the Anatomist.

[5] The Guardian (Sept 2009) A world without men? I’m all for that; by Rod Liddle

[6] Edinburgh Broadside (19th century) George Clerk’s Speech; SCRAN Library Archive

[7] Byron, Lord: Epitaph given to Castlereagh: Stop, traveller, and piss

[8] Arbuthnot, Margaret Evelyn (November 1937) A short Story of a long life: Caroline Hay Arbuthnot nee Ramsay; Private print. Original held by Sir William Arbuthnot

[9] Photograph of George Clerk Arbuthnot (c1865); Original silver mounted and cased locket held by Peter Geoffrey Arbuthnot; pgarbuthnot@yahoo.co.uk

[10] Watercolour of Mavisbank (c1860) Unknown artist; Photograph of the original held by Peter Geoffrey Arbuthnot; pgarbuthnot@yahoo.co.uk

[11] Arbuthnot, Margaret Evelyn (November 1937) A short Story of a long life: Caroline Hay Arbuthnot nee Ramsay; Private print. Original held by Sir William Arbuthnot

[12] Arbuthnot, Margaret Evelyn (November 1937) A short Story of a long life: Caroline Hay Arbuthnot nee Ramsay; Private print. Original held by Sir William Arbuthnot

[13] National Maritime Museum (1854) Oil painting of The English & French fleets in the Baltic, 1854. (Plate No.8). Bomarsund. Combined attack on the forts. August 15, 1854. (Shows Mavis yacht) PAH8364

[14] Arbuthnot, Margaret Evelyn (November 1937) A short Story of a long life: Caroline Hay Arbuthnot nee Ramsay; Private print. Original held by Sir William Arbuthnot

[15] Newman, Steve (Aug 2009) A Stratford Ghost Story; Authspot

[16] Mercer, Major William Lindsay of Huntingtower: “The Mercer Pedigree” compiled from various sources

[17] Arbuthnot, Margaret Evelyn (November 1937) A short Story of a long life: Caroline Hay Arbuthnot nee Ramsay; Private print. Original held by Sir William Arbuthnot

[18] Glasgow Herald (Feb 1901) In death not Divided; Lord and Lady Inverclyde

[19] Anderson, William, (1867) John Arbuthnot, M.D., in The Scottish Nation, Edinburgh, vol.1, pps:146-151.

[20] Campbell, Susan (2005) A history of kitchen Gardens; Frances Lincoln Ltd

[21] Lasswade tombstone (inserted in wall) As found by Dr Peter J. Gordon 2009; “Sacred to the memory of Agnes Bain, widow of James Bain, and for 26 years a faithful nurse in the family of G. C Arbuthnot of Mavisbank; By whom this stone is erected as a tribute of affection and respect; She died at Loanhead December 1871”

[22] Twyford, Bob (Sept 2009) E-mail correspondence on Marjory Bowman, Housekeeper at Mavisbank; bobtwy@hotmail.com

[23] Johnson, Alistair (Nov 2003) Walter Scott in Kevock; Transcript of a lecture given to Bonnyrigg & Lasswade Local History Society

[24] Lockhart, John Gibson: Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott

[25] Arbuthnot, Margaret Evelyn (November 1937) A short Story of a long life: Caroline Hay Arbuthnot nee Ramsay; Private print. Original held by Sir William Arbuthnot

[26] Flaxman, John (Sculptor) Tablet in Chancel of St John’s Church, Princes   Street, Edinburgh: “Sacred to the memory of Mrs Mary Arbuthnot, who by the uniform piety of her life, and her conscientious discharge of her duties as a wife and mother, left an example worthy of imitation. Her surviving sons, William and George, erected this monument as a tribute of affection for a mother who was deeply loved when living, and lamented when removed from them by death on the 14th day of May 1818, aged 73 years.”

[27] Roughead, William (1921) Burke and Hare; William Hodge & Co.

[28] Scotsman Newspaper (Jan 1829) Public Feeling- Medical Science – Burke and his Accomplices

[29] Sperry, Roger W. (1994) The riddle of consciousness and the changing scientific worldview; California Institute of Technology

[30] Snow, C.P. (May 1959) The Rede lecture: The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution; talk given by Snow at the Senate House, Cambridge.

[31] Corbett, Rory J. (2009) What is Beauty? Consultant dermatologist, Belfast; Ulster Medical Journal; 78(2):84-89

[32] Curtis, Perry (Sept 1993) Piraeus’s prison: Thomas De Quincey and the failure of autobiography;

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900

[33] Phrenological Society (1833) Dr Elliotson: President’s reply to Anti-Phrenologists

[34] Littlewood, Roland (1991) Against Pathology: The New Psychiatry and Its Critics; British Journal of Psychiatry: My argument up to this point is unexceptional; it would simply seem to argue for a more restricted definition of ‘pathology’, away from the problematic social arena to situations where we find relatively invariate biological abnormalities, perhaps to what our translation of Kurt Schneider (1959) terms ‘coarse brain disease’ or at least to constitute the characteristics [that] can be defined without recourse to social phenomena (Wing, 1978).”

[35] The Scotsman (1829) Phrenological observations on the head of William Burke: by the Phrenological Correspondent

[36] Stack, David (2008) Queen Victoria’s Skull: George Combe and the Mid-Victorian Mind; Hambledon Continuum

[37] Gordon, John (June 1815) The Doctrines of Gall and Spurzheim; Edinburgh Review; p227-268

[38] Alison, Archibald (1790) Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste

[39] Peterson, Ivars (Dec 1990) Poetry lessons: bridging the chasm between the sciences and the humanities – engineering and science professors at CornellUniversity take a poetry course; Science News

[40] American Philosophical Society (2003) Isaiah Berlin‘s Counter-Enlightenment; Edited by Joseph Mai and Robert Wokler

2 Replies to “Time held green”

  1. You need to re-read your sources regarding what Gillanders and Arbuthnot said about the Dhangurs people. What you have written is grossly disingenuous and potentially libelous. The full quote can be found in the ‘Parliamentary Papers, LII No.232, 1837-38. MF41.413-14’ and states, “The Hill tribes, known by the name of Dhangurs, are looked down upon by the more cunning natives of the plains, and they are always spoken of as more akin to the monkey than the man. They have no religion, no education, and, in their present state, no wants beyond eating, drinking, and sleeping; and to procure which they are willing to labour.” G&A were only reporting on what the other local Indians say about the Dhangurs, nowhere is their personal opinion of these people even mentioned.


    1. Thank you for this. I will ensure that the full quote that you have provided from the Parlamentary papers replaces what is currently there. My apologies.

      I note that you have not given your name and also your general tone, ending by calling a genuine error “Disgraceful!”

      Yours sincerely
      Dr Peter J Gordon

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