Mavisbank: “On Esca’s Flow’ry Bank”

This is the talk I gave to the Civic Trust Conference on the 29th October 2014. The Conference was entitled “FEELING GOOD: Wellbeing & the built Environment”.

Feeling Good

The Civic Trust Conference for 2014 was held in Maryhill Burgh Halls. This was a wonderful and inspiring venue:


I presented on Mavisbank House. I argued that heritage can matter for our collective wellbeing.

I had to follow Sir Harry Burns, recent Chief Medical Officer for Scotland.

Sir Harry carries the same view as I do: that the social determinants of health must be included in our understanding of “wellbeing”


My talk follows. It was the last of the day.

Slide 1: My name is Peter Gordon. Thank you for inviting me to give a talk. I doubt I can follow the wonderful speakers so far. But I will do my best. I will try to keep to 20 minutes. I have attempted to keep my slides uncluttered as this is the last talk of the day and if your mind is anything like mine you may be getting tired.

croppercapture3 copy


Slide 2: I am here today to give you a short story of a long life. My talk will be about a ruined early 18th century house called Mavisbank seven miles out of Edinburgh and on the banks of the river Esk


Slide 3: Buildings and spaces play an inescapable role in shaping the quality of our lives; they have the power to restore and promote civic pride, community resilience, mental and physical health and be a source of happiness.

Slide 4: The title of this talk comes from the epic poem THE COUNTRY SEAT by John Clerk of Mavisbank


SLIDE 5: John Clerk of Penicuik was one of the fathers of the Scottish Enlightenment, which was to bring the Age of Reason, the Age of Improvement and the Agricultural Revolution, an explosion of interest in science and nature, the Industrial Revolution, the growth of trade and the foundation of the British Empire


John Clerk was a polymath. Born in 1676, he studied at Leyden under the great Hermann Bouerhaave, went on the most ambitious Grand Tour of his generation, learning languages, mathematics, law, architecture and music – including composition under Corelli. He became an advocate, a member of the Scottish Parliament and, in 1703, a member of a committee to examine the public accounts of Scotland. In 1707 he was one of the Scottish Commissioners who negotiated the Union with England.

SLIDE 6: Adam, on the other hand, was a tradesman, the son of a mason in Kirkcaldy, a town on the north shore of the Forth which was also the birthplace of Adam Smith, more recently associated with linoleum and Prime Minister Gordon Brown! He was to become, in that famous description: ‘the Universal Architect of his Country’.


SLIDE 7: Here we have Mavisbank as recorded in Vitruvius Scoticus


SLIDE 8: Here is Mavisbank in a watercolour dated around 1850 or so


SLIDE 9: Here is Mavisbank in 1989 as featured in the Scotsman. The scrapyard belonged to the notorious rogue and friend of the Bay City Rollers, Archie Stevenson. 16 years before this photograph Archie Stevenson had set Mavisbank ablaze. He never got the Insurance money and so from then on Mavisbank was roofless and its degradation accelerated.


SLIDE 10: Upon Mavisbank John Clerk had these words inscribed in Latin. They will be difficult if not impossible for you to read. Translated, the words end as follows:



“and grow old either never or late
May the decay of great age be restored intact,
So that the older you become,
The more beautiful you may shine”


SLIDE 12: As a doctor in medicine for our older generations I fell in love with this closing passage. As an artist I thus made a sculpture carrying this inscription on a simple block of stone of the exact proportions of Mavisbank. I called this “The Ageing Stone”. It is perhaps an expression that ageing is real and that we must be careful in simplifying “disease”


SLIDE 13: Last week I attended a Conference in Glasgow for Alzheimer’s Europe. Here, our Health Secretary for Health & Wellbeing, Alex Neil, spoke passionately about rights and dignity for those living with dementia.


SLIDE 14: One of the talks was about the language we used when referring to dementia and indeed ageing. “Timebomb” “Explosion” “all out fight back” “epidemic” … as I read all these metaphors of loss my mind returned to my sculpture and the lessons I have taken from Mavisbank’s rich history.CropperCapture[15]

SLIDE 15: At the same Conference. We were given this “toolbox” (not a term I like as I associate tools with mechanics and machinery not human beings). Do not try to read all this slide but look at the bottom of the list where it says “it is estimated that 2/3rds of current UK prescriptions of antipsychotics for people with dementia are inappropriate”

These are very strong medications with many potential adverse effects. The question that came to my mind, and a question that I raised at the Conference, was how we came to this harmful approach in our most elderly and perhaps most vulnerable?


SLIDE 16: Another slide from last week’s conference that made me think of today’s conference. Here we have the consideration of an Italian nurse in 2014:

“Cure does not mean always heal, but to take care of”


SLIDE 17: So why on earth might Mavisbank and its designed landscape help us here? I hope to explain how Mavisbank has a very important lesson for health and wellbeing today.


SLIDE 18: The 18th century designed landscape of Mavisbank is a forgotten gem of Scotland: with its alleles, goosefoot, admixing the formal with the informal, and nature with man.


SLIDE 19: Here in Holland we find a project called Demen Talent where individuals living with dementia are involved in restoring and maintaining a landscape around a modern cathedral.


SLIDE 20: It is an inspiring project that has brought wellbeing beyond any medications and has empowered the individuals, brought a sense of renewed worth and reminded the world that we should not see those with mental or physical illnesses as somehow “others”


SLIDE 21: back to Mavisbank in its decline. How might it help us in Scotland?


SLIDE 22: My view is that it could, in a new enlightened age, help all ages to find health wellbeingCropperCapture[23]

SLIDE 23: Here we need take the broad view in addition to the microsope of the scientific lens. Indeed a fully pluralistic approach that is necessary for health & wellbeing. An approach that does not artificially divide the Arts from the Sciences.


SLIDE 24: Scotland can be rightfully proud of its role in the so-termed Enlightenment. But we must be wary of any overly simplified revisionist history.


SLIDE 25: Hippocratic medicine you will all know of: the oath that doctors take and the basis on four humours. However you may not have heard of the Aesculpian doctors. They re-flourished in the time of Mavisbank. This approach advocated that healing was an art as well as a science. The Aesculpian club began in Edinburgh and it was here that the doctors re-visioned a future for Mavisbank as a retreat for those with nervous complaints.


SLIDE 26: In 1878 the new Mavisbank Asylum opened. It remained a hospital until the years that the NHS began.


SLIDE 27: One of the doctors crucially involved with Mavisbank was Dr Joseph bell. You may have heard of him? If not I will give you a clue!


SLIDE 28: Dr Jospeh Bell was the boyishly good looking Edinburgh physician who so impressed the doctor in training, Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle later confirmed that his fictional character, Sherlock Holmes, was based on Dr Joseph bell.


SLIDE 29: One of the other doctors who pioneered Mavisbank as a retreat was Professor Charteris. This Edinburgh doctor discovered that aspirin was useful in treating fever. He thus ushered in modern therapeutics.

A host of other Mavisbank doctors considered and wrote up emerging medications f the time. Here Dr Keay considers Chlorobrom for mental diseases. The potential beneficial effects of this antihistamine for nervous complaints was later debunked.


SLIDE 30: At the turn of the 20th century Mavisbank was renamed “New Saughton Hall” after Sir John Batty Tuke moved his patients from Gorgie in Edinburgh.


SLIDE 31: Mavisbank had at least eight different Superintendents in its 75 year span as a hospital.


SLIDE 32: In its time Mavisbank was operating in medical misogyny. So it is rather wonderful to make clear who REALLY ran Mavisbank. This was Mary Elizabeth Burton (1865-1944) who can lay claim to being the first woman in Scotland to obtain a post as head gardener and in a career that spanned over four decades. It was her professionalism and horticultural expertise encouraged a growing acceptance of women gardeners in the first half of the twentieth century.


SLIDE 33: Mary Burton arrived in Mavisbank in 1896, the gardens and policies extended to 120 acres. She worked hard in her new position and proved to be just as capable as her male colleagues. After a short period, Mary was promoted to head gardener, becoming the first woman in Scotland to hold such a position.


SLIDE 34: I am currently one of the Trustees of Mavisbank along with many far more able than I am. One of my fellow trustees is David Harrowes. This is a picture of his father, Dr William Harrowes, or “Dr Bill” as he was affectionately known.


SLIDE 35: Dr Bill loved Mavisbank and set about its restoration to its former glory. At the same time he carried on in his job as a psychiatrist. He also wrote this book “Human Personality and its Minor Disorders”. I can tell you its stands up very well in time and has many reminders important for health & well-being today.


SLIDE 36: In my span as a doctor (I have been practising  for 23 years now) the predominant paradigm for mental disorders has been a biological one. This has brought forward symptomatic treatments of some effect but has not really helped us understand mental disorders in a pluralistic way to science. In recent years I have seen a change in scientific discourse to include us in the world we live in and not apart. Isolated brain research is important but taken out of context understandings can go awry.

So here is an article about the value of therapeutic space in the latest Journal of British Psychiatry. It is my view however that my profession must try harder to see the healing value of the world we live in. Sometimes I think the Victorians understood this better than us. Mavisbank is a case in point.


SLIDE 37: For the next few slides, with the backdrop of Mavisbank I am going to share a few short quotes from my book on Mavisbank called “Repeats its Love”


SLIDE 38:Dr Bill was trained under Dr Meyer who kept reminding mankind, that despite all our wonderful advances, that we must not be understood simply as biology gone wrong


SLIDE 39: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert EinsteinCropperCapture[38]

SLIDE 40: “I forecast that psychiatry’s presently one-sided neurobiological and pharmacological model will gradually return to the midpoint of Engel’s model – when the former discovers that drugs are not panaceas and that there is more to the human being than the brain”  Edwin Wallace, 2007


Slide 41: ‘The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease’ Sir William Osler


SLIDE 42: “We study the whole man and his setting, and not only the parts of man.” Dr Bill often quoted this remark of Dr Meyer


SLIDE 43: Here is the great-great grandson of John Clerk who built Mavisbank as his county villa. You may recognise him? Yes this is James Clerk Maxwell who Einstein regaled. It was James Clerk Maxwell who “saw” the invisible energy in fields around atoms that exists in waves. Clerk-Maxwell punctured a hole in materialism. Today, worldwide communications and technology are based on James Clerk Maxwell. He was also a poet. He is a hero of mine.


SLIDE 44: Mary Burton a heroine. She stood for understanding, respect, level playing fields and full inclusion.


SLIDE 45: And John Clerk himself. A polymath who resisted artificial boundaries between arts, culture, science and well-being.

Surely these good Scottish folk are telling us something from today’s collapsing ruin – of what many understand as Scotland’s – finest early 18th century house.


SLIDE 46: And here is James Simpson, who is an example for today. It was James who saved Mavisbank from the bull-dozer and who asked me today to present to you. James, like me, can see a new future for Mavisbank.


SLIDE 47: The restoration of Mavisbank has proved exceptionally difficult for reasons too many to explain just now. But the Trust does have a Vision that it is most passionate about and which is entirely in keeping with the theme of today:

The Scottish Government aims to ‘focus on the contribution that culture can make to improve the health, wellbeing, confidence and quality of life for our communities’


SLIDE 48: Following this approach, with Mavisbank is a place of retreat from a busy life, a place of inspiration and in turn a place of growth which offers an opportunity to address needs in the local community and bring public benefit to individuals and the wider community.

It is difficult to develop a form of words that explains the vision better than Clerks…

Would you unbend your thoughts, and thus acquire fresh oyl to lighten up the vital flame?

This might be translated for today as ‘Mavisbank – a sanctuary of inspiration and restoration’?

SLIDE 49: My determination is to fuse my two careers to bring Mavisbank to the attention of all those who seek a healing landscape and true community place for creativity and renewal. My profession is beginning to take a broader approach to well-being and I welcome this. As you can see from this recently advertised conference; “Environment, Society and Psychiatry”


SLIDE 50: I want to finish with our vision for Mavisbank. I hope you might help the Mavisbank Trust in supporting this vision and talking about Mavisbank with as many folk as you can. We have 6 categories that comprise our vision


The Ageing Stone

(This sculpture is by Dr Peter J. Gordon as an artist. It is one of a series of artworks for DSMworks:

The Ageing Stone represents more than just DSM-IV-TR diagnosis of ‘294.1x Dementia of an Alzheimer’s Type.’

Today’s scientific progress has informed a prevailing understanding that such a diagnosis could not be represented in Art. Dementia of an Alzheimer’s Type is, after all the most scientific of diseases, and with so much research effort behind it, that we simply just ‘ken’ (in Scottish vernacular) that it is beyond dispute. We are collectively now so sure about this diagnosis that in public, and indeed in professional discourse, we have felt able to shorten it to one word “Alzheimer’s.”


Yet why does this doctor still find, that in his surgery, the first question generally asked about “Alzheimer’s” is how does it relate to dementia? The majority of the medical profession (it seems to this artist) consider this a silly question. Yet, Brayne and Hatch, like the Ageing Stone, ask with an open mind in their British Medical Journal Editorial of 2010[1]: ‘What do we mean by Alzheimer’s Disease?”


The Ageing Stone has seen the 100 year old concept of Alzheimer’s disease grow from a disease that once only referred to younger patients to a worldwide “epidemic” in our elderly[2]. The “burden” of this “epidemic” seems now so great that in 2012, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, demanded that Britain undertook an “all out fight back” against this disease[3].


The Ageing Stone has witnessed fifty years of brain research into this disease at a molecular level. Based on the results, the leading UK expert in Alzheimer’s Disease, Prof Clive Ballard, concluded in his recent lancet Editorial [4] that “the paradigmatic brain pathology of Alzheimer’s disease – plaques and tangles – is only a post-mortem finding of limited explanatory value in the expression of dementia in the population.”


The DSM-IV-TR diagnosis of ‘294.1x Dementia of an Alzheimer’s Type’ requires “significant” impairment in an affected person’s overall function. The seemingly universal imperative for “early diagnosis”, well-intended as it may be, appears to be currently re-defining what scientists, doctors and indeed the whole western world considers “significant”. The Ageing Stone is helplessly inanimate to the re-definition of what we mean by “significant.” The Ageing Stone, were it able, would express concern about departure from evidence based science. One word can indeed matter even to biological science.

Evidence that is robust and repeated many times over has fully established[5] (through intensive pharmaceutical industry research) that, at the very most, no more than 50% of our elders with mild memory loss will ever progress to what DSM-IV-TR refers to as a diagnosis of 294.1x Dementia of an Alzheimer’s Type.’

The Ageing Stone understands the importance of scientific research: in this case, that at least one-half of our elderly with mild memory loss (due to a whole host of unscientific reasons) risk being labelled as suffering from “Alzheimer’s”. Some sociologists[6] concerned about this cultural shift have coined the term “Alzheimerisation.” Reasons for this cultural shift may include existential fear, disease mongering, the marketing opportunity for potential interventions and indeed the very reality of dementia and an ageing demographic.

Paul Higgs and Ian Rees-Jones, the sociologists behind the term ‘Alzheimerisation’, also referred to this as the death of old age’. The Ageing Stone  might be sub-titled the ‘death of old age’ as it reflects in stone the beauty of natural ageing: ageing that naturally leads to our death.


The Ageing Stone asks if biological reductionism (fundamental as our biology is to our basis) may be sufficient to be the only definition of mankind? Our approach to dementia would be a WORLD (spelled) backwards if we did not at least consider this question. [7]  We must properly appreciate that isolated tests of cognition (important as they are) do not alone represent our elderly as the living breathing windfall of experienced individuals of whom we should value, whether they live with, or without, dementia.


The Latin inscription carved on the front of the Ageing Stone is taken from the last four lines of a poem of 1724 enlightened Edinburgh and is carved still on the now ruinous William Adam house of Mavisbank, 6 miles outside Edinburgh.

Concedatque Deus, Nunquam Vel Sero Senescas
Seroque Terrenas Experiare Vices
Integra Reddantur. Que Plurima Saecula Rodant
Delui Et Ut Serio Pulchrior Eniteas.

And may God concede that you grow old either never or late,
and that you experience earthly changes late.
And may what the numerous ages erode be restored intact,
and may it be granted that the older you are,
the more beautiful you may shine.

The Ageing Stone is simply a 1:20 scale representation of Mavisbank in its exact proportions. This is a house, whilst a ruin today, is still considered by many as Scotland’s, and possibly Europe’s, finest small house of this period[8].


Embodied in the story of Mavisbank house is a beautiful blended narrative of two cultures’ – science and art. C.P Snow was surely correct to fear the potential consequences of their division? The Ageing Stone, in the beautiful, but simple proportions of Mavisbank, reminds us of the need for proportional inclusion between these ‘cultures’ and for the folly of one imagined to linger without the other[9].

Carved on the top of the Ageing Stone is Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Antiquary” a name he latterly employed as his pen-name[10]. Walter Scott started his writing career in a cottage on the land nestling next to Mavisbank’s 18th century designed landscape. The Antiquary is preoccupied with time. The Antiquary, like Under Milk Wood[11], reminds us that “time passes. Listen. Time passes.” The DSM-IV-TR diagnosis of ‘294.1x Dementia of an Alzheimer’s Type’ seems to completely ignore passing time.


“The Antiquary has been perhaps the most persistently underestimated work of our most persistently underestimated major writer . . . The Antiquary is preoccupied on every level by the relation between past and present.”  Nicola J. Watson


The last child to grow up in Mavisbank house before it became a ruin is now a 70 year old man and a friend of this artist. David Hume Stewart Harrowes was born in Edinburgh on 6th April 1943. The Artist would like you to engage with the Ageing Stone (we do not need science to tell us that we age) and so if you so wish, each year on the anniversary of 6th April 1943 you are most welcome to come and take your photograph beside the Ageing Stone. A gallery of photos at the end of your life may help us all remember that whether as stone or being we pass through time, and that we are more than the diagnostic sum of any classification absurdly free of narrative.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.



Dr Peter J. Gordon
27th June 2013

For films that include the Ageing Stone:

For words that include the Ageing Stone:

[1] Richards, M & Brayne, C. “What do we mean by Alzheimer’s disease?British Medical Journal BMJ2010;341:c4670,

[2] George, D. R., Whitehouse, P. J. and Ballenger, J. The Evolving Classification of Dementia: Placing the DSM-V in a Meaningful Historical and Cultural Context and Pondering the Future of ‘‘Alzheimer’s’’ Cult Med Psychiatry, DOI 10.1007/s11013-011-9219-x Published 2011

[3] Cameron, David. Policy paper: Prime Minister’s challenge on dementia, 26 March 2012.

[4] Ballard, C. et al Alzheimer’s Disease. The Lancet 19;377(9770):1019-31 Published March 2011

[5] Palmer, K., Backman, L., Winblad, B., Fratiglioni, L Mild cognitive impairment in the general population: occurrence and progression to Alzheimer disease. Am. J. Geriatr. Psychiatry 16, 603–611. Published 2008

[6] Higgs, P & Rees-Jones, Medical Sociology and Old Age: Towards a sociology of health in later life. Published by Routledge, March 2013

[7] Until recent copyright a cognitive test, devised by Folstein in 1987, was used universally. It is known as the MMSE (Mini-Mental State Examination) and one of its questions was to spell the word ‘WORLD’ backwards.

[9] Whelan, R. Two Cultures is available here:

[10] Scott, W. The Antiquary first published 1816

[11] Thomas, D. Under Milk Wood a 1954 radio drama

Mavisbank: Repeats its Love


Opening Chapter of ‘Repeats its Love’

Ventures into our past may sometimes seem without place – but with Mavisbank, the early 18th century villa of Baron Clerk, whose beauty transcends horrific neglect, the crumbling and subsiding stone has impassioned many in love and some in awe. How ‘disproportionable’ this may sound, to coin Baron Clerk’s quaint neologism, for stone, inanimate, cannot broker emotion. That may be, and whilst such feelings may be both misguided and misunderstood, others may still choose to dismiss Mavisbank as no more than an ornament or ‘dolls house.’ This essay will argue that such an outlook misses not just the beauty but the significance of Mavisbank.

When in 1987, Midlothian Council brought at late hour, the lead cannons of the wreckers to the courtyard of Mavisbank, they were only stopped by the man that is James Simpson. It is unclear how, but James Simpson, surrounded by commissioned slayers of history, personally pleaded to the Secretary of State to issue an Emergency Section 97 Order. Given the story that is to follow, this pivotal moment must never be forgotten. I am certain that John Clerk (1676-1755), the polymath and man of taste, could never have imagined that he would return to Mavisbank in the form of the man that is James Simpson OBE.

Mavisbank5 (2)

Mavisbank repeats its love; and perhaps like James, you too can still hear the mavis sing in the long abandoned park, where Clerk’s beautiful house of 1724 still sits. Such survival, is all the more remarkable given the necessary expansion of Edinburgh into its skirt still green, and despite (and surely more evidently) past mitotic undermining of the shafts of the now redundant collieries of Bilston. It is a sad irony that the settlement within the body of Clerk’s villa was most certainly the result of the mines; the mines, minerals from which had brought his family stupendous wealth. It is necessary though to remember here the horrid, slave-like conditions of the miners of the 17th and 18th centuries (where work death was routine.) In stone then, and fabric, Mavisbank also symbolises a heinous incongruity of ‘taste’, which should serve as humble remembrance, that we all shape history – one way or another.

When James Simpson recently spoke at the World Heritage & Science Conference, he offered modestly: “I am neither a scientist, nor a historian of science, nor even an expert on the Scottish Enlightenment. I am a practising architect with a strong interest in architectural history, particularly of the first half of the 18th century.” Indeed; this writer is not even an architect! Let the confession reveal: I work by day for the NHS, as a doctor in elderly medicine in Stirling, specializing in mental health. In 1993 I graduated at Edinburgh University with distinction in Landscape Architecture.

It was Dr A. Meyer , long dead and mostly forgotten, that offered a one-man renaissance in the understanding of mental health. Dr Bill Harrowes, the last Superintendent of Mavisbank were he alive today, would have urged us to embrace the common sense philosophy of Meyer in a field still yet bedevilled by misunderstandings and compounded by over-reaching assertions. Meyer was a modest man whose notes, he insisted, in his lifetime, were never to be published. He explained this simply: that he ‘always hoped that he would have time for second thoughts.’ Perhaps Mankind would do better to reveal uncertainty, for beyond didactic education, even fairly light philosophical consideration, should remind us how much there is still to know! That is the wonder that is science – but science, as Mavisbank has come to symbolise must be embraced within the arms of the humanities. It was Theodore Dalrymple (that gout-racked soak who writes weekly for the British Medical Journal) who commented that ‘Doctors have to know so much these days that there doesn’t seem room for anything else. ‘ In the following discourse this limit should perhaps be kept in mind.

The aim of this essay is to bring back the ‘personhood’ of Mavisbank; the men and women of every sort in it’s shaping – acknowledging those beyond the gentrified gold-thread that Clerk so marvellously wove. In this respect, there is a medical history, for between 1878 and 1946, Mavisbank was an Asylum, then of course termed ‘Lunatic.’ Though little archive of this period survives (and certainly none that has been archived) endeavour will be made to narrate – however imperfectly from the unsorted jigsaw pieces – the lives of patients and doctors alike.


The authoritative papers on Sir John Clerk, Baron, and 2nd Baronet of Penicuik (1676-1755) and William Adam (1689-1748), respectively by, Dr Iain G. Brown and Dr William Kay , must be read; for what is captured here is different – a magpie collection stitched together through time. The desire is that this paper may carry all those who shaped Mavisbank, in the days before and after Baron Clerk. There is the obvious recurrent theme; the balance between man and nature, but not just, for Mavisbank survives, most incredibly, as a symbol of enlightened thought. This is important to us all, even today. Perhaps even, especially for today. Indeed philosophers now talk of the 100 odd years of ‘endarkenment’ since Darwin and the need for the world to stop entirely splitting humanities from science. In Mavisbank we see the shining whole.

“The future will be interesting at least if not tragic”
James Simpson – to the Inspector of Ancient Monuments – May 1976

To form some structure the following will be divided into sub-headings. In such a way, the ‘bundle of ideas’ – ideas that Hume may have recognised and hopefully chuckled at, will hopefully flow. David Hume is raised deliberately as words that follow will necessarily stumble philosophical, and David Hume, the most enlightened yet humblest of men, was the seat of common sense in the time when Baron Clerk built his wonderful Country Seat. It is worth noting that James Simpson is his family.

This is the opening to the book I have written on Mavisbank. The book can be purchased here:

All profits (which amount to around £2 per book) go to the Mavisbank Trust. I am one of the Trustees:

A film about Mavisbank:

An emblem of thy polish’d mind

Chapter one of ‘Repeats its love’: An emblem of thy polish’d mind [1]

Mavisbank survives as emblem of the polished mind. It should be a marvel to us all that ‘time past’ (as T.S. Eliot called it[2]) should survive in guises many – whether that guise represents everyday Scotland – such as the scattered stones of pre-improvement farming now mostly hidden as ankle-high history[3], or the folly on the hill that has lost its meaning. There is life in the stones of our past, not literally of course, but recreated in mind! Experience must teach us wariness of generalised history, and endeavour must be to return to the unique personhood lost, of which the stones, such as Mavisbank, might partly reveal.


Figure 1: Mavisbank as in Vitruvius Scoticus (1812) & Baron Clerk (1676-1755)

With Mavisbank we need reach back only a few hundred years; enough to gasp marvellously at the incredible scientific advance of man. As herald to such advance, Baron John Clerk (1676-1755) stands out from the catalogue of those gone. Iain G. Brown has listened (as scholar of Clerk’s diaries) to the Baron’s voice, captured in his words and surviving as an epiphany of individual enlightened thought. Yet Mavisbank is arguably emblem for what words alone cannot carry – the ephemeral nature of being – that we must live our life in the moment with as much joy and creativeness allowed by chance, shaping and nature.

In Baron Clerk, did we have that rare thing: the grounded polymath? His qualifications for the latter are certainly beyond dispute: advocate, politician, antiquary, architect, landscaper, man of letters, cultural virtuoso, scientific dilettante and all-round arbiter of taste. Clerk was, as argued by Iain G. Brown, the torch of enlightened Edinburgh – a torch that literally glowed in the minds of a world beyond. As to the grounded, John Clerk’s own words certainly reveal compassion, and sense of the everyday, reflected innately in his will for the common good. There has been a lot of drivel written about creative genius, which the likes of the aforementioned Dalrymple likes to expose! However much as we may enjoy Dalrymplian thought (he says what most will not), his overall take on humanity is surely rather too cynical to share ground with our Baron. Yet in shedding his pen-name, the retired doctor Dalrymple, (actually A. Daniels,) affirmed in a most eloquent summary, the ability to realise genius: the retired doctor of science and humanities that is Raymond Tallis.[4] He is mentioned only in connection with Mavisbank as today’s epitome of the grounded polymath.

The origins of Mavisbank, John Clerk’s ‘Country Seat,’ Scotland’s crucible of enlightened expression, go back to his father the first Baronet, who acquired the lands of Mossyhill (or Mossiehill) in Lasswade in 1694. The first Baronet had the Parisian flair of his grandparents, but was constrained by his native Calvinism. The Penicuik estate had been in the family since 1654, and by the time the Baronetcy was awarded by King Charles II in 1679, the house at Penicuik, known as Newbiggin was awash with continental art and artefact. Newbiggin always held a warm and sentimental place in the heart of John Clerk, our polymath and 2nd Baronet; it was after all his grandfather’s home, and had garnered all the culture since his family had left its ancient seat in Killihuntly (south of Inverness). When his father died in 1722, John said of Newbiggin ‘It shows an aged and wrinkled brow…’ Yet together with his father he had transformed the Penicuik estate into a magnificent park, planting over 3 million trees, all of which had been grown on the estate by their own hands. Clerk (as our polymath shall be referred to from now on) never really left Penicuik, but desperate to express inspiration continental, both in landscape and in stone, he bought in 1710, the estate of Cammo. Upon this Edinburgh estate, over the following decade, he designed a new landscape with ash and plane avenues, shaped banks and parterres and a grove laid out to the doocot. He also planted an orchard, embedded a Portuguese garden, and finished the whole by a canal leading outwards by allee to the summer house that he had himself built.


Figure 2: Newbiggin, Penicuik: ‘it shows a wrinkled brow.’

Today Cammo is once again a park but the house, so badly destroyed in fire before last century, is now only stub and doorway. However one only needs to return to 1976, when the house survived, roofless yes, but otherwise complete, as depicted in a special series of Scotsman photographs. That same year James Simpson wrote to Sarah Seymour of SAVE BRITAIN’S HERITAGE: “Cammo – another house incidentally in which you might be interested, is in a disastrous, possibly terminal condition, and previously on offer to the National trust of Scotland to whom it is a great embarrassment.”[5] Incidentally Robert Louis Stevenson based ‘House of Shaws,’ in his novel Kidnapped, on Cammo.

It is good to appreciate that Clerk was not pushed from home to learn, and that his school years were spent locally in the school at Penicuik under the Dominie Alexander Strachan, and it was only after such grounding did he leave home for Leyden where he studied Law. It was here he met Dr Herman Boerhaave, who became a lifelong friend, and who having first instilled medical pursuit in Clerk, subsequently trained two of Clerk’s sons. Indeed when Boerhaave died he left his entire library to Clerk much of which is still housed in Penicuik.

Clerk, for reasons not clear, was ‘passed over more than once for the office of Lord Chief Baron’ and this despite being one of the influential pursuers of the Union. Various explanations of such ‘pause’ have been given, but should be reserved to the field of pathography. However we can acknowledge the most obvious consequence: Clerk was then to serve 47 years as ‘Baron’ Exchequer for Court. This was a part-time job, 2 or 3 days a week at most, and paid handsomely for all that. This arrangement, whatever its basis, allowed Clerk to pursue his tastes. Of that we should be glad. It is in this vein that we must understand that Clerk pursued a highly elaborated neo-Roman lifestyle of Pliny – honestum otium.[6]

It was the time spent in Rome that most influenced Clerk, and along with Alexander Gordon (the mysterious man who was known as ‘Singing Sandie’) he became the greatest antiquarian of his epoch. The hot-bed of genius that flourished in his company circled in antiquarian pursuit, and it has been rather marvellous to discover that the circle drawn was around Mavisbank (but more of that later.) In 1725, Alexander Gordon, antiquary and humanist, regaled Clerk as Scotland’s Maecenas`. Classical scholars will know that Gaius Cilnius Maecenas 70BC – 8BC was a confidante and political advisor to Octavian who became the first Emperor of Rome as Caesar Augustus. As patron for the new generation of Augustan poets the name Maecenas became a byword for a wealthy, generous, and enlightened patron of the arts. Yes, this was indeed Clerk.

John-ClerkFigure 3: Baron, Sir John Clerk (1676-1755)

Clerk explained in 1727 that his readings of ‘the Classicks` had taught him that ‘the ancient Greek and Roman structures, or the designs of them by Palladio and others, ought to be standards fit for the imitation of our modern architects.’ Such realization was laid bare in a long poem that he compiled that very year; The Country Seat,’ [7]which set out all of his ideas on country house architecture and landscaping. The central argument of Clerk’s poem was that landed status and activity, must be expressed through a much more specialised graduation of house sizes than hitherto – in all cases, based on ‘how the ancients formed their rural Seats.’ There should, he argued, be four distinct types of house: the ‘Royal Palace,’ the ‘House of State,’ the ‘Useful House,’ and the ‘Villa.’

On one of the piers of Mavisbank’s principal façade, Clerk had ‘villa’ inscribed – a lovely understated touch that cannot presently be seen from the security fence that now encircles so forlornly.[8] Mavisbank was Clerk’s summer retreat – his villa suburbana – nearer to the city than Penicuik House, and nearer to his place of public duty. The analogy that Kay draws in his essay, that Mavisbank was always ‘somewhat akin to Clerk’s mistress’, carries a certain truth, but others might suggest that honestum otium was to Clerk more a way of life rather than an indulgent affair.  Clerk was surely guided by the precepts of Horace and Pliny: at Mavisbank Clerk wanted to retire and enjoy; to read his classical texts, and to display – a musaeum – his unrivalled antiquarian collection. Yes, undoubtedly an indulgence, but one in which Clerk never lost sight of taste simplified and the precept that this was his expression of the villa ideal; in Kay’s rather fine words:  ‘a place of the heart and the mind as much as it is finely cut stone, carved ornament and well-mixed lime mortar.’[9] Thus the argument is made, that Mavisbank survives not just as a beautiful building, a building that represents continentally revived taste, but more still, it survives as an idea and a way of life.


Figure 4: William Adam (1689-1748) the ‘Universal Architect of his Country’ and his tomb in Greyfriar’s, Edinburgh

Much has now been written about the working relationship between Clerk and William Adam ‘the Universal Architect of his Country’ and on this subject one must return to William Kay and Iain G. Brown. Whilst primary records, particularly the diaries of Clerk, have shed new light, it does seem quite clear that Clerk, whilst never an architect, had an unshakeable vision for his villa, and for much of the build, and as patron, his expression was dominant over his architect William Adam. Indeed at outset, he provided Adam with a copy of Palladio and the works of Jones. What Clerk most feared was the sort of ‘ideal’ that prevailed commonly in his country’s midst – the laird’s tower – typified indeed in a sketch by his father in an early 1696 design. In a carefully worded surmise, Adam described his Master’s initial design of Mavisbank as ‘a very small Box, and Genteel too,’ surely as a softening leader to his request to raise the house a further storey. However Clerk was adamant: ‘If I had complied, the fabrick wou`d have lookt like a Touer, and been quite spoiled, but however, the Architecture may please or displease, it is oueing chiefly to my self.’[10]

Adair-mapFigure 5: John Adair and his map of 1735

Correspondence reveals early debate between patron and commissioned architect. Clerk, a composer and virtuoso, privately taught by Corelli, was a very fine musician particularly on the harpsichord, and was said to hold his own in the finest musical circles of Europe. Eheu! quam diris hominis, for example, was written following a bout of smallpox, and Clerk fearing death, asked his doctor – Boerhaave – to write the words. Such musical gift is mentioned here most specifically, for in realms of proportion, musically, architecturally, or otherwise, Clerk had the finest measure.  Mavisbank as depicted in Vitruvius Scoticus[11] has, for many, the visual appeal of balance, proportion and simplicity, with the window-rhythm of 1-3-1, composed symmetrically within embracing pavilions, and ‘musically’ demoted through a downward scroll of the tied cornice. It should be clear that Clerk never intended to build the pavilions: this was on the insistence of Adam, and indeed interesting debate over this continued throughout the spring of 1725, with counter-arguments given on building aesthetics, landscape placement, and views out-with. Such debate between Adam and Clerk, should establish that ‘the polish’d mind’ should perhaps not be singular as expressed.

If you have walked its park, you will appreciate Mavisbank has a deliberate, yet unusual placing within its landscape: as it is sited on a platform at the foot of a hill looking north-east down the Esk valley. Clerk was determined on such placing, for he wanted his salon view to rest beside the tumulus that he had identified as a Roman Station. The tumulus, now covered by Rhododendrons most rampant, is still fun to climb, but if H.G. Wells, the exponent of degeneration[12], jumped upon his time-machine, he would chose to return to 1750 (in the years short of Clerk’s death) to help the old man take the “winding ascent up to (the tumulus), with hedges planted from the bottome to the top.” And then to look down upon the central avenue of the goosefoot, and beyond to the canal, and the doocot’ resting upon the horizon’s ridge.

The allees were planted by Clerk as avenues of elm or lime with the gliding angles between planted as wildernesses. This all sounds rather wonderful: a fresh admixture of nature, constrained through sophisticated manipulation of eye; contrasting soft wilderness with tapered restraining edge. Today, no such designed landscape survives in Scotland and for appeal alone, let alone historical significance, it would be lovely to see such planting recreated, complete with Clerk’s “winding path studded with inscribed pedestals through the wilderness” connecting, as it once did, the walled garden to Mavisbank House.

The central allee was formed for part of its length by a long narrow canal that much later was softened into a small lochan. The canal appears on the Strathtyrum painting (see page), though this romanticised picture is, of course, of too late a date to include Clerk’s son John – later the artist John of Eldin – playing boats in the canal. It is rather wonderful to consider that such innocent boyhood play, upon a designed canal long since forgotten, was to be pivotal to our empire. This is no flimsy exaggeration. Had that ‘very perfect gentle knight[13] been alive today, Commodore Clerk (10th of Penicuik) would have delighted in handing to us the ‘cork and wax models of ships’ with which his forefather played on Mavisbank canal, and from which came that brilliant Naval tactic of ‘breaking the line,’ a tactic that contributed, in no small degree, to the winning of battles from Dominica to Trafalgar. All the more remarkable in that John of Eldin was never a mariner!


Figure 6: The fire of 1899 that gutted Sir James Clerk’s Palladian House; John Adair’s map of Penicuik estate

Certainly it is no misapprehension that Edinburgh is understood as of Greek influence – long has our capital been celebrated as the Athens of the North!’ Mavisbank though was unquestionably epiphany of enlightened expression of Roman culture. In 1739 a visitor to Mavisbank, Roger Gale, remarked that:

 “We went for two days to Mavisbank, four miles distant from the City to the south. It is a seat of Baron Clerk’s built by himself . . . one of the most elegant villas I ever saw for structure, situation, woods and waters. Behind it on the top of a small steep hill was an ancient trench or agger not big enough for a town or camp but probably a place for Druid worship. This he has enclosed and made a winding ascent up to it with hedges planted from the bottom to the top. The kitchen garden is a great circle walled-in the bottom of a steep valley, surrounded with a fine rapid river, and gives a most beautiful prospect to the house and other gardens above it. You would think yourself rather in a valley rival Tivoli than Edenborough!”[14]

Of the two walled gardens the large oval plan garden has survived and contains two yew trees believed to have been planted by Clerk. The outer walls were built at the same time as the original house, using the same stone from Penicuik quarry. ‘Windows’ made in the east side of the wall were said to have been made to view the adjacent cricket ground! The oval walled garden must have been spectacular with its ponds, fountain and bronze statuary, particularly as looked down upon from the house and explaining perhaps why Roy depicted it as a perfect circle, when most clearly it is oval. Clerk’s surviving yews, emblems of longevity, carry a story about the hospitality of the mind’, the phrase Singing Sandie gave to our Baron. This story will be rehearsed in a later chapter.


Figure 7: General Roy’s map: Mavisbank, walled garden & goose-foot

Every artist, of any persuasion or creative lean, will carry doubts. Yet such candour is not easy to reveal, and rarely carries in time, let alone record; and so to discover that Clerk documented his doubts within his diary, may for some, add delicacy to his polish’d mind. Humanity, then or now, does not like to accommodate such uncertainty. In retrospect, Clerk held that Mavisbank had been too densely sculptural in its ornamentation; hard to consider now given the restrained beauty of the surviving building. Long before the build, Clerk a wealthy man, worried rather openly about the indulgence of his villa and ferme ornee. Neither Kay nor Brown, in their respective manuscripts, could decide the true basis of this conscience. It may simply have been straightforward concern for cost – for an example of the escalation of such; we only need consider the parliament built a decade ago! Cost was always at the fore in Baron Clerk’s letters to Adam, but it should not be forgotten that Clerk had an extended family to support, all his children and 13 siblings.


Figure 8: In 2003 Mavisbank appeared on BBC Television series ‘Restoration’ and came second.[15]

In the courtyard, embraced by Adam’s pavilions, Sir John Clerk penned a design for a formal garden of parterres though it is unclear whether this was ever realised. This leads to speculation: did Clerk retract his parterre hoping not to lose the balance of ‘nature enhanced by art?’ Today the only ‘ornamentation’ is the lingering iron debris from the cars brokered by the nasty rogue that was Archie Stevenson, who in the months following the (deliberate) fire of 1973 started a hopeless insurance claim for a new roof.[16] The photographs that cover the three decades of Archie and Caravan, with the courtyard of Mavisbank littered by wrecks, are now thanks to the BBC program ‘Restoration 2003’ starkly ingrained upon the consciousness of our nation.

Mavisbank-Archie's-wayFigure 9: Under the ownership of Archie Stevenson, Mavisbank is to be the roofless backdrop to his scrap-yard

The simple rhythm of the square that forms Mavisbank, divided by pediment, is beautifully restrained. Here again we must thank Adam, for he persuaded Clerk to abandon the idea of mounting within the rising, the coat of arms, advising that this would be better placed above the main door. Adam suggested a single oculus in the centre of the pediment, as it ‘will have the best Effect with a large piece of ffoliage On each syde, & that all the Leaff’s fflowers or ffruits be very Large as being farr from ye Eye, And for that end 6 inches of Rough stone be left Swelling without ye plain of the Pediment for Mr Silverstynes to work upon ffor the more the ffoliage rises and the darker the shades are, so much the better at that distance’.[17] Even in decay, Adam’s vision of the pediment retains a beauty that is lovely to behold though now added to by nature with crows perched and nesting, within the lead clock of the cracked oculus.

More-seedheads-(2)Figure 10: Oculus, crows and seed-heads (2009)

This year, 2009, preservation started upon the shell of Penicuik House, which has somehow survived roofless since the fire of 1899. Thomas Addyman has undertaken the task of revealing the lost designed landscape that, though long overgrown, must have been in its day one of Scotland’s 18th century glories. The scale of the Clerk Policies stretching through and beyond the North Esk is still something to marvel. One feature, currently being revealed, is Clerk’s 1751 folly Knights Law which crowns a wooded hillock within a copse of most ancient yews. It was designed by Clerk not just as skyline ornament, but as a useful place for rearing doves: the original doocot which was nearer the house ‘being much infested with hawks and gleds.’ Clerk’s ingenious feal-dykes maintain the view to countryside beyond yet still, most effectively, retain livestock.


Figure 11: Itinerarium Septentrionale: the 1726 guide to our Roman antiquities by Alexander Gordon [18]

The 11th Baronet now lives in the steading block converted many years back. This is no ordinary steading and has steeple tower, clock and O’on. Surely every visitor over two centuries has mused over the function of the stone dome (O’on) that dissects so beautifully the steepled steading. Many no doubt, like this writer, have ignorantly considered it as a stone observatory, appreciating of course the Clerk family’s special reach into science. This of course is not so, as any reader of Walter Scott’s first novel ‘The Antiquarian’ might just appreciate. Johnathon Oldbuck, the antiquarian in this novel was of course Alexander Gordon ‘Singing Sandie,’ the great friend of Clerk. He was a frequent guest at Old Penicuik House, where he had access to the splendid museum of antiquities, and accompanied Clerk on many Northumbrian explorations, as well as on others nearer home. The O’on at Penicuik was a replica of Arthur’s O’on at Stenhousemuir, the discovery that encouraged Alexander Gordon to form the ‘Equites Romani’ or the Roman Knights. This group, including Clerk and Gale, attempted to record all the Roman antiquities in Scotland. From this Alexander Gordon eventually published his Itinerarium Septentrionale but in the course of doing so betrayed his antiquarian friends by publishing private letters without asking. In 1741, Alexander Gordon left for Carolina. He was a mysterious man, notoriously haphazard in his affairs and incriminated in fraud. The traditions of the Penicuik family represent him as ‘a grave man, of formal habits, tall, lean, and usually taciturn.’ He died the year before Clerk, in North Carolina. Alexander Gordon to death, kept secret his true family of origin. He was born before 1692 in Aberdeenshire and studied Classics at MarischalCollege in Aberdeen before leaving to tour the continent as tutor in music and languages. It was probably on the continent where he first met Clerk.

HawthorndenFigure 12: Hawthornden castle, where Ian Rankin now writes and William Drummond

This section on Sir John Clerk ends with the words of his great-grandfather, the poet William Drummond (1585-1649) of Hawthornden:

Ye who so curiously do paint your thoughts,
Enlight’ning ev’ry line in such a guise,

That they seem rather to have fall’n from skies [19]

[1] Pringle, Dr John (1737) Sir John Clerk and Mavisbank: The Patron, his Family, his Cultural World and his Dream; National Archives of Scotland; GD18/5096/3; 24 December 1737

[2] T.S. Eliot (1936) Burnt Norton: (No. 1 of ‘Four Quartets’); Collected Poems 1909–1935

[3] BBC Radio Scotland (2009) Ankle high history: Rochteth, Jock’s Road, Glen Clova; the group led by Flora Davidson for Scotland’s Rural Past. Peter J. Gordon was an enthusiastic member of this group and wrote ‘I shall not want’ for the Leopard Magazine. Gordon, Peter J. (March 2008) Deeside Tales: the stories of a small glen; a book not published

[4] Daniels, Anthony (June 2009) Underrated: Raymond Tallis; Standpoint magazine

[5] Simpson, James OBE (2March 1976) Handwritten letter to SAVE BRITAIN’S HERITAGE. Original in Archive of Simpson & Brown, Architects

[6] Pliny – and his cultivation of honestum otium; the discovery of the ‘interior life’ through prolonged reflection, both in nature and culture

[7] National Archives of Scotland (1727) ‘The Country Seat’, a poem by Sir John Clerk; Reference GD18/4404

[8] National Archives of Scotland (18th century) Copy inscription on the front pedestal of Mavisbank House. GD18/4432

[9] Kay, Dr William (2004) William Adam and Mavisbank. A paper compiled for the Mavisbank Trust

[10] National Archives of Scotland; Papers of Clerk family of Penicuik, Midlothian 1373-1966; GD18

[11] Adam, W (1812) Vitruvius Scoticus: being a collection of plans, elevations, and sections of public buildings, noblemen’s and gentlemen’s houses in Scotland: principally from the designs of the late William Adam Esq., architect, Edinburgh

[12] Barnett, Richard (May 2005) Education or degeneration: E. Ray Lankester, H. G. Wells and The outline of history; Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. This paper uses the friendship and collaboration of Edwin Ray Lankester (1847–1929), zoologist, and Herbert George Wells (1866–1946), novelist and journalist, to challenge the current interpretation of late Victorian concern over degeneration as essentially an intellectual movement with little influence in contemporary debates over social and political problems. Degeneration theory provided for Lankester and Wells the basis both for a personal bond and for an active programme of social and educational reform.

[13] Brown, Dr Iain Gordon (2002) Commodore Sir John Dutton Clerk of Penicuik (1917-2002), 10th Baronet; National Archives of Scotland; ‘The tenth baronet of Penicuik was truly ‘a very perfect gentle knight.’

[14] Bodleian Library; Correspondence and Papers of Roger Gale (1672-1744), antiquary

[15] BBC History Magazine Restoration (2003) A special preview Britain‘s historic buildings are at risk, London. Held at RCAHMS F.9.5.RES.P British Broadcasting Company; Restoration 2003; Presented by Gryff Rhys Jones; Mavisbank supported by Kirsty Wark.

[16] When the last owner, Archie, died, the house was left to four named people said to be living in the United States. But following an extensive search, it is now thought that Mr. Stevenson fabricated these names. The house is safeguarded by Historic Scotland under its designation as a ScheduledAncientMonument until the issue of ownership can be resolved.

[17] National Archives of Scotland (1723): The cartouche at the entry door. It is to support the coat of arms. Letter to Sir John Clerk from William Adam, architect, to introduce Mr Silverstyne, the carver, who is to do the work; GD 18/4726

[18] Gordon, Alexander (1726) Itinerarium Septentrionale: A journey through most of the Counties of Scotland and those in the North of England

[19] Drummond, William (1656) Ye who so curiously do paint your thoughts; as edited by Edward Philips, Drummond’s nephew

Strange Tales and Stranger Truths

Chapter two of ‘Repeats its love’: Strange Tales and Stranger Truths [1]

Sir John Clerk, Baron of Taste died on the 4th October 1755 aged 78 years. In his last years he had affirmed to his family that he did not wish Mavisbank to become the family seat, for this, his villa, was for honestum otium. After his death, it would appear that despite a handful of good and honest chatelaines – in the most part devoted gardeners – otium faded from Mavisbank, and in particular from its park. Ambition must be that we can, in the 21st century, restore what we see here, on Roy’s Military map,[2] drawn around the time of Clerk’s death.

On his death Clerk passed his villa to his son James who not so many years earlier had returned from residence in Italy, where true to family tradition he had studied classics. James Clerk was also keen to express himself architecturally as his father had done so many decades before, and to present to Scotland his new Clerk seat. So in 1761, in the year following his mother’s death, Sir James resolved to sell Mavisbank, demolish the ‘wrinkled’ Newbiggin, and build his own Penicuik House. Like his father he prepared drawings, but this time under the guidance of John Baxter senior. It is recalled by family that James felt never better than when truly hands-on, and his craftsmanship was such that he carved for New Penicuik House, not just the family Coat of Arms, but all of the ornamental vases on the top of the house. As these words are now written, scattered around the pedicles of Penicuik House, Sir James’s vases spill upon the grass, broken, crumbling, and willing for restoration.

The sale of Mavisbank was completed in November 1761 between Sir James Clerk and his cousin Robert Clerk (1722-1814).[3] There had been timely death within the family, in that Robert’s father, Hugh Clerk, a wealthy Edinburgh Merchant had died in April of that year, and as first born son, Robert inherited a fortune. A Minute of sale survives between the cousins, outlining that Mavisbank was, apart from the ‘paintings’, sold complete for the principal sum of £5000 which would carry as an equivalent of over £7 million today. What is worthy of note, is that Mavisbank was in the continuing possession of Robert Clerk for 53 years up until his death aged 92 years in May 1814.

Only the barest details of Robert Clerk of Mavisbank survive. His father Hugh was of course the younger brother of the Baron and there appears to have been a rather close bond between them, and certainly a shared craving of culture wide. A series of letters survive between Hugh and John Clerk, discussing the training of Hugh in Holland, a minuet composed by John in 1734, the purchase of a painting called the ‘Dutch General,’ and their shared concern over Alexander, their younger brother, who had taken a sulk and was planning to set sail for Jamaica as his ‘paintings were not selling!’

Mavisbank was the first and only marital home of Robert Clerk and was purchased in July 1761 in the months before his marriage to Margaret Urquhart which took place at Craigston Castle – the Aberdeenshire seat of the Urquhart family. Beyond such matrimonial bond, Robert and Margaret have very little archival record, other than the sad fact that Mavisbank was not to enjoy the fun and laughter of children, with the couple ultimately dying childless. It is recorded that Robert Clerk’s coachman, Andrew Campbell,[4] died at Mavisbank in 1792, but as to the management of the house and ferme ornee we are left to speculate from faded landscape footprints (see Tom Addyman’s Conservation Plan 2005.[5]) One other clue survives: an oil painting of Mavisbank that hangs in Strathtyrum House in St Andrews. This painting was left to Robert’s nephew, James Cheape of Strathtyrum, and is accredited on its gilded frame to be the work of J.B. Ibbetson. Thomas Addyman, amongst others, has cast doubt over such accreditation. There is good reason for such reservation, particularly as the frame date is fifty years out, and more especially as the accredited artist, Julius Caesar Ibbetson (our Baron would have liked that name) died in 1817. Furthermore Ibbetson’s paintings were prized for their delicacy and sureness of line.’ The Strathtyrum painting is a fine picture, but the characters so romantically placed by the Mavisbank canal, lack proportion both bodily, and within, the landscape.


Figure 1: Mavisbank and its canal as depicted in the painting now hanging in Strathtyrum House, St Andrews

So the date of the Strathtyrum picture may remain obscure, but most certainly it was painted for Robert Clerk before his death in May 1814. It is worthy of note that Robert Clerk died in  his ‘town’ home on the North side of George Street, where all his servants had been relocated, and where he kept his money and all his wearing apparel. It would be reasonable then to consider that Robert Clerk, old and widowed, had retired to the city for ease of care, and had given over Mavisbank to the care of Graeme Mercer Esquire. There is some evidence for this, in that the National Archives retain a 134 page notebook belonging to Graeme Mercer, which outlines his administration as farmer of Mavisbank, complete with accounts, wages, and list of cows, between 1799 and 1819.[6] It is still not clear when Robert Clerk was widowed, but the impression given from his testamentary deed was that his Margaret (Urquhart) had died many years before. All this detail is given only to try and help date the Strathtyrum picture, the only surviving image of the period, and most particularly to help establish when the landscape was romanticised. It is tempting to speculate that Robert Clerk had the painting commissioned to take with him to his George Street House, and if so, the century’s turn would be a crude estimate. This leaves a conclusion almost tangible: was it in Robert Clerk’s tenure that the alleles were softened, the goose-foot demoted, the wilderness removed, yet the canal retained?

All three nephew benefactors of Robert Clerk did well, but none quite as gloriously as James Cheape of Strathtyrum, who in addition to the greatest third, was also bequeathed by his uncle ‘all the family pictures, and all other pictures and paintings, and all prints and books; rings, watches, seals and trinkets; carriage, horses, and harnesses.’ Alas wealth alone protects not from fickle mortality, and James Cheape survived his uncle by just a handful of years, leaving behind one of the largest testamentary instructions in Scottish Archival history.[7] Some readers may have been to the Open Golf Championships at St Andrews but are unlikely to have been guest of Strathtyrum, the house that sits alongside our world famous championship course. It was in 1821 that James Cheape bought the St Andrews links, infuriated at the rabbits destroying his lawns! Since then the Cheape family have held tight to the Royal tailcoat. Our current Prince William, who from youth has struck a national chord for his caring and sensible manner, spent his four student years in St Andrews, not in digs, but at Strathtyrum House rented from the Cheape family for £56,000 per month.  It is difficult not to see irony here, and to forgo the obvious pun on the name Cheape!

The sub-title for this section was drawn from a book of last year by Manoshi Bhattacharya ‘The Royal Rajputs.[8] Perhaps surprisingly, this carries forward our journey to Graeme Mercer Esquire, a forgotten surgeon, who having served in India in the ‘theatre of the Empire,’ returned to Scotland, to live out his life as farmer at Mavisbank. The posthumous search for pathology of mind, narrated most often by those who never lived within the lifespan of the departed, may be a field that fascinates us all, but should always be considered at risk of misinterpretation.[9] Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank, long dead, has little record, and certainly neither from diaries nor through family recall. Without some representation of consciousness (of thought) much that is recorded in history can only be abstraction of personhood.

That all said, Graeme Mercer did leave footprints upon continents afar, muddy in parts they may be, and forensically crude, they have revealed strange tales and stranger truths which like an Agatha Christie plot return us to Mavisbank where we find an old man dying yet wrestling with his past.

The first strange truth that emerged: Graeme Mercer was great-grandson of Charles II. His grandfather, George Swan (1658-1830), was one of the twelve illegitimate children the King sired by seven different mistresses! Ironically, given the Strathtyrum connection, Prince William, through his mother Diana, will become the first King descended directly from Charles II.

The seepage of Mercer’s blue blood through such scant history is indeed strange. It emerged back whilst researching into Edinburgh’s Victorian lunatic asylums.[10] This is the story. On Christmas day 1902 Elizabeth Silley was found by her daughter Evelyn dead in her bath; she was still wearing her nightdress, and the cause of death was said to be accidental drowning. Despite being the granddaughter of King Charles II, Elizabeth Silley was buried in a pauper’s grave along with ‘eight vagrants’ by the back of Kensington railway-yard. Her daughter Evelyn blamed her father, the architect George Michael Silley for her mother’s death, and despite her protestations, incarcerated by him for ‘uttering nonsense.’ Research by Miss Goldie-Scott in the asylum case notes for Edinburgh has turned the Christmas death of Elizabeth to murder and, in her words, released her grandmother from the ‘taint’ of madness. [11]Indeed letters survive in the case notes that indicate that Evelyn was of sound mind, but apparently on her father’s instructions they were never posted. “I have had an interview with Dr Moore this morning. He himself doesn’t think me insane, but he said my father did.” Evelyn was then discharged by the Commissioners of Lunacy who concluded that her admission “was irregular by reason of the fact that the certificates failed to disclose any indication of insanity.” Naturally perturbed by this, Goldie-Scot tracked down a distant aunt she had never met. “She was held down in the bath by her husband,” was the shocking disclosure, “It was very clever of him and he deliberately sent Evelyn up to find her.” Offering corroboration, necessarily coloured, a stained-glass window in St Barnabas Chapel was raised by friends of Elizabeth Silley. It depicts St Cecilia, who was sentenced by the Roman emperor to be stifled to death in her own bathroom!

Strangely, it was this bathroom murder that led to the hidden world of Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank, for the strangled swan – Elizabeth Silley, was Mercer’s cousin. It all goes back to Charles II and his son George Swan, who very late in life had two daughters. These two beautiful cygnets, Hannah and Elizabeth, were raised in Edinburgh and the latter was to be mother of Graeme Mercer. The other sister Hannah lived into great old-age in Little Lochend Close on the Royal Mile, who till her death, sat on the right of the Jacobite chief. Unusually tall in stature, and beautiful even in old age, her figure, with black velvet capuchin and cane, was long familiar in the streets of Edinburgh. Her grace it seems matched her adopted family name.

Graeme Mercer was born at Potterhill, Perth on the 4th July 1764. Twelve years later that date would finally be celebrated as the Americas ‘Independence Day.’ The formative years of Mercer are lost in time, and all we really know is that he was the second youngest of ten brothers, though three died in infancy. These cobs were raised in Perth where the Mercer family had resided ‘time immemorial.’  Indeed in St John’s Kirk there was a vault to John Mercer who died in 1280 that carried the following inscription: 

“So sicker ‘tis as anything on earth
are older than Old

Long of the Royal burgh they may have been, but the Mercers were redoubtable explorers and even before his birth Graeme Mercer had lost one uncle to cannon-ball in the Americas, and another uncle to spear in Jamaica. The generation that followed were none the less adventurous, with all seven brothers, including Graeme, venturing across the oceans; five to India, one to the Americas, and the last to Guadeloupe.

“Before my sight four times six years had seen.
Throughout six kingdoms had my body been,

Bore arms in each.”

Graeme Mercer trained as a surgeon gaining in Edinburgh, in 1784, his Licence to practice. Two years later he took sail to the continent where his military family were – literally – canons and in Burdwan, north of Kolkata he settled with his older brother Laurence and there mastered Persian.  On the century’s turn Graeme Mercer was appointed Assistant Surgeon and served as Secretary in the Nizam’s court during the second Mysore war. Clearly both able and trusted, he was soon promoted to Secretary at Scindia’s court for the East India Company and was chief aide to the Governor-General of India, Lord Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington. Scindia, now the Gwalior State, sits central in north India, and in the late eighteenth century was virtually an independent kingdom under Mahadaji Scindia who was the arbiter of power in Delhi, and victorious over not just the Rajputs but also the East India Company. His successor, Daulat Scindia failed to stem the British expansion led by Captain Lake and Graeme Mercer his diplomatic agent. Captain Lake had applied himself to the improvement of the East India Company army, making arms, infantry, cavalry and artillery, more mobile and more manageable. [12]

Lake-&-ToddFigure 2: General Lake and Lt-Colonel James Todd

In early September 1803, General Lake stormed the Aligarh Fort and followed this by taking Delhi and Agra. This defeat, followed within days later by Arthur Wellesley’s victory at the Battle of Argaon, compelled Scindia to come to terms, and a treaty was signed in December 1803.

In his last six years in India, Mercer was the envoy (and friend) of the so-called ‘unbefriended adventurer.’ This of course was Lieutenant-Colonel James Tod who literally put Central India on the map – for it was he who submitted to the Governor-General the results of the surveys carried out in Rajputana with Mercer!

Rajputana consists of the Indian desert on the west and the Aravali Range of Mountains in the east. The meaning of Aravali is The Refuge of Strength. It was in this period when Tod managed to conciliate and settle the feuds within the Rajput states and also managed to collect materials which went into the making of the Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan.

Colonel Todd would have rejoiced this spring, for in 2009, the Sanskrit epic that he himself saved, The Ramayana, was put on display by the British Library for the first time. ‘Prince Rama’ (considered to be the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu) carries mysteriously through a poem of 24000 Sanskrit couplets most sumptuously illustrated. Here below is Todd himself riding on an elephant decorated in the rich colour of Rama.

By 1811, Graeme Mercer’s Indian campaign was at last over; and whilst his military career may have been with Lake, lasting friendship was with Todd. Aged 50, Graeme Mercer retired from service to his home Mavisbank where he had made a home for his sister Ann, sister-in-law, and nieces. It is unlikely that Graeme Mercer was naturally disposed to honestium otium and so speculating we should perhaps consider that he was named after General Graeme of Gorthy, an equerry to King George III. The estate of Gorthy in Perthshire – a century before ransacked by Rob Roy and his men – was acquired by Mercer’s father in 1819 and passed on his death to his youngest son. Graeme Mercer, akin to the General, was an adventurer unsettled by retirement. Such conclusion is based upon the 134 surviving pages of Mavisbank administration – which carries a man interested only in practical working of the land and who brought military discipline and governance to his farm, estate workings, cattle and workers!

Mapping-central-IndiaFigure 3: Mapping central India: James Todd

 5th October 1815: “Mosman paid 1s for watching the garden at night.”[13]

Dryden, an estate that, quite literally, collapsed due to mineral undermining, was in Mercer’s time nestled next to Mavisbank. Now its only marking of being is its depiction, and rather beautifully for that, on General Roy’s 18th century map with vistas, follies, and avenue bound parks of axial symmetry. Limited investigation has revealed that Dryden house was built for the Lockhart’s of Lee, in an ‘H’ plan with portico, and decorated pediment topped with three urns. Dryden was purchased as an estate in 1819 by George Dempster Mercer, younger brother of Mavisbank. Owing to irremediable subsidence the house was abandoned as early as 1865 being finally demolished on that century’s turn. George Dempster Mercer made his fortune in indigo with the East India Company before setting up his own firm (Mercer & Co.) which collapsed in 1826. Fortunately however George had secured land and was one of 14 Investors who in 1835 took indenture of Port Phillip, now Victoria, Australia, from the native chiefs. There he built many properties, and named the two principal seats; Dryden and Tulchan (after his Perthshire residence Glen Tulchan.)

Dryden2Figure 4: Dryden House

Encircled by railings the private and forgotten Mercer Burial Ground is located in Glentulchan and is now so overgrown that only the gateposts are visible, each topped incongruously by storks. Here buried are the two Mercer brothers, Graeme of Mavisbank and George of Dryden. Forgotten they may rest, and in wilderness for all that, but their repose is with ‘pride & privilege’, for Tulchan sits within the Trinity College Glenalmond, where the likes of Victor Alexander Bruce, 9th Earl of Elgin (Viceroy of India), Torquhil Campbell, 13th Duke of Argyll, Baron Wilson of Tillyorn (colonial administrator )were educated. It was here that Graeme Reid Mercer, son of George Mercer of Dryden and nephew of Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank, rich beyond imagination from his father George’s investment in Victoria, wrote his book the Nightingale’s Trill.[14] Lovely as the nightingale maybe, this manuscript carries the sweet song of the mavis.

As oft as I roam by the Almond’s clear water,

Whether at skreigh of dawn or the soft gloaming hour;

My thoughts are absorbed by the innkeeper’s daughter,

The charming young Jessie, Glentulchan’s sweet flower.

If she only deigns a bright smile to cast on me,

Neither sunshine nor moonlight have o’er me such power;

Her grace and her beauty have wholly undone me.

Graeme Reid Mercer so undone by Glentulchan’s sweet flower, roamed for twenty years till he found his nightingale. That girl was Catherine, the daughter of Lady Mary Hay, who throughout her long, and most premature, widowhood had returned from Colliepriest in Devon, to the Edinburgh that had been her formation. Lady Mary, daughter of Dalhousie, lived for forty years at Linden Lodge, and was the honourable gatekeeper to Clerk’s Mavisbank. There can be little doubt, Lady Mary is the forgotten chatelaine of Mavisbank; in this we must remember her first marital home was the Drum (Somerville House in Vitruvius Scoticus), built also by William Adam, and one of several projects that immediately followed Mavisbank. We should also consider that Lady Mary’s two daughters both married into Mavisbank: Catherine to Graeme Reid Mercer and Caroline to George Clerk Arbuthnot (of whom more lately).

Let us now deal with Graeme Mercer’s last four years, for it is only in his demise that he reveals agonies of flesh so tantalisingly incomplete.

Graeme Mercer died at Mavisbank on the first Wednesday of October 1841. He was in his 78th year. His Testament and five revisions by codicil, reveal a man in torment, forced to face his past, and the not so ignoble pursuit of his fortune.[15] Mercer’s estate, sold completely by roup, amounted to nearly six thousand pounds, including Linden Lodge (on an open-ended lease to Lady Hay) and five houses in Perth. His Executors and benefactors were his brother George Mercer of Dryden (father of Graeme Reid Mercer) and his nephew Major William Drummond Mercer. Testamentary instruction was at outset straightforward: Graeme Mercer was bachelor and he had no children. Then in early February 1837 the first of many quick Codicils appears.

Detail here is not necessary, but the umpteen revisions made by Graeme Mercer reveal that he had at least seven ‘natural’ children; two daughters and five sons, born between 1818 and 1833, and seemingly all to a Lasswade girl of the name Elizabeth Lousie. Illegitimacy, like consciousness, not surprisingly escapes record, and so the following consideration is speculative, but if the correct Elizabeth Lousie has been identified she was already married and worked as a chamber-maid in the house of Mavisbank. For at least six years Elizabeth Lousie sought to secure rightful provision for her children, but despite a High Court appeal to Lord Moncreiff, and a subsequent Action raised at Westminster, she failed. The codicils rehearse familial torment between Mercer and his ‘concubine’ as he referred to her in his codicils; ‘. . . such appeal will only be under the view of annoying me.’ Interestingly, and this is sometimes seen as death approaches, Mercer relented somewhat, but in favour only of his two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, both of whom received a financial settlement. His five sons however received nothing.[16]

It is a trail too far and beyond the ability of this writer, to reveal the pathways taken by Graeme Mercer’s seven children. It is almost certain that they were all born at Mavisbank, but in later childhood were removed to Canada, to settle in one of the two districts – Walpole or Walsingham – both acquired by Mercer.

Yet more strange tales have been made available by technology that Mercer could never have imagined: for Graeme Mercer had more than seven children! ‘Dumfound the internet’ surely the groan heard from Mercer’s long unvisited Glentulchan graveside.

William Mercer, yet another child of Graeme, was born at Mavisbank in 1813. His mother was of the name Wilson, but records reveal that William was raised by his uncle, Major Wilson, adopted his name, and in 1832 emigrated to Canada. An inked image survives of William Mercer, the very first Grand Mason of Canada; if it is representative of him, stiff and tall necked, his forbearance was formidable!

Graeme Mercer Esquire, for his deed of loyalty, trusted nobody more his butler James Adam. Such is understandable, for it was James Adam that administered day-to-day Mavisbank for all the many years Mercer was on military campaign. Who died first, Master or Servant, is not clear, but 1841 saw the last breath of both. Perhaps some may appreciate irony here, but the butler’s only son, named (of course) Graeme Mercer Adam, was to prove himself rather extraordinary as Canada’s finest historical biographer. [17]

“There is a fascinating grace about all of Mr. Adam’s work . . . to admire the grace with which a sentence has been rounded, or to linger over its exquisitely balanced rhythm. Nature he loves with all his heart, and the descriptive passages are delightful.”


Figure 5: William Mercer Wilson

Jim Mercer, a family historian, has helped in compiling this account of Graeme Mercer and like the writer was born in Colinton, but now resides in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Jim explained in correspondence how as a child, whenever he asked his parents for an expensive toy he was told that he would get it when they got the Mercer millions.[18] Many young Mercers grew up with the legend of Andrew Mercer, a business man who died in Toronto in 1871, leaving a fortune. Family rumour abounded, some branches stating that he had made money in the goldmines, but other branches that it was through amassing ‘huge tracts of land.’ With this came the tantalisingly whispering recall that Andrew Mercer was illegitimate son of an army officer![19]

Here is the 1934 newspaper headline:


Riddle of Rich Man’s Birth

[1] Bhattacharya, Manoshi (2008) The Royal Rajputs (Strange Tales and Stranger Truths)

[2] General Roy (1746-1755) The Military Survey of Scotland

[3] National Archives of Scotland (1761) Minute of Sale by Sir James Clerk to Robert Clerk, merchant in Edinburgh, of that part of the barony of Loanhead called Mavisbank with the house and furniture, excepting the pictures, for the sum of £5,000; GD18/1700

[4] General Register Office for Scotland (1792) Andrew Campbell late coachman to Robert Clerk of Mavisbank TD Edinburgh Commissary Court; CC8/8/129; (2 pages)

[5] Simpson & Brown (2005) Mavisbank House and Policies: Conservation Plan: This study was commissioned by The Mavisbank Trust, a subsidiary of the Edinburgh Green Belt Trust

[6] National Archives of Scotland (1799-1819) Graeme Mercer, farmer, Mavisbank. Wages and expenses book; 153 pages; CS96/2012

[7] General Register Office for Scotland  (1825) James Cheape 4th May 1825 Esquire of Strathtyrum, spouse of Helen Moncrieff,; Trust Disposition and Settlement; Cupar Sheriff Court SC20/50/1; (97 pages)

[8] Bhattacharya, Manoshi (2008) The Royal Rajputs (Strange Tales and Stranger Truths)

[9] Post, Felix (1994) Creativity and Psychopathology: A Study of 291 World-Famous Men; British Journal of Psychiatry. Post, Felix (1996) Verbal Creativity, Depression and Alcoholism: An Investigation of One Hundred American and British Writers; British Journal of Psychiatry

[10] Gordon, Peter J. (2009) Monumental Madness; From notes of a private manuscript on the raising of the WallaceMonument in Stirling

[11] Goldie-Scot Vanessa ( May 2007) Her death wasn’t an accident or even suicide – it was murder; Scotsman

[12] Mercer, Jim (September 2009) Correspondence on Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank and his brother George Mercer of Dryden; Jim Mercer lives in Ontario and operates the Mercer Millions website

[13] National Archives of Scotland (1799-1819) Graeme Mercer, farmer, Mavisbank. Wages and expenses book; 153 pages; CS96/2012

[14] Mercer, Graham Reid (1875) The laird o’ Glenalmond, or The nightingale’s trill

[15] General Register Office for Scotland (1841) Graeme Mercer Esquire of Mavisbank in the parish of Lasswade Inventory; Trust Disposition; Settlement; Deed of Bequest Trust Settlement; Codicils. Edinburgh Sheriff Court Inventories; SC70/1/61; (13 pages)

[16] National Archives of Scotland (January 1846) Disposition and Assignation by the Directors of the Aberdeen Savings Bank in favour of the Trustees of deceased Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank, of GD81/161 to extent of £7,000. GD81/168

[17] Mercer-Adam, Graeme (1888) Prominent Men of Canada

[18] Mercer, Jim (September 2009) Correspondence on Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank and his brother George Mercer of Dryden; Jim Mercer lives in Ontario and operates the Mercer Millions website

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

Time held green

Chapter 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]

razor-deathFigure 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. Just as the ‘inferiority’ of Africans was used as a justification for their enslavement, in 1836, the Calcutta merchants Gillanders, Arbuthnot & Co referred to the Indians who replaced them 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.

Mavisbank-watercolour-c1860Figure 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.

Mrs-Arbuthnott-MavisbankFigure 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]

mavis-and-SkelFigure 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]

Arbuthnotts-MavisbankFigure 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]

Mercer-Burial-Ground,-GlenaFigure 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.

InverclydesFigure 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.’

Lady-RuthvenFigure 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.”

Walter-ScottFigure 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]

St-John's-1902Figure 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]

Combe-bumps-et-alFigure 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.”

The-Combes2Figure 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;

[10] Watercolour of Mavisbank (c1860) Unknown artist; Photograph of the original held by Peter Geoffrey Arbuthnot;

[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;

[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

You see, but you do not observe

Chapter four:  You see, but you do not observe.[1]

“We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” 
Anais Nin

Reverend Archibald Alison recorded in his essay of 1790 the effect of the ‘sublime and the beautiful on the mind,’ and reflecting upon such Lockean association, Mavisbank presented an opportunity that could not be missed when the old Saughton Hall Asylum, cramped, urban and reekie, no longer fitted the prevailing theories of an appropriate environment in which to heal the troubled mind.[2] The death of Arbuthnot released the villa from family; children had grown up, and having scattered over seven seas, the maintenance of Mavisbank was beyond a lonely widow. Two months after Arbuthnot’s death, Mavisbank was advertised as follows in the Scotsman:[3]

May 1876 Scotsman


To be sold by private bargain
With Entry at Martinmas next, or earlier if desired

THE MANSION- HOUSE AND ESTATE OF MAVISBANK, in the County of Mid-Lothian, the Property of the late George Clerk Arbuthnot, Esquire.

THE ESTATE  comprising 150 acres or thereby, is beautifully situated on the banks of the North Esk, about 6 miles from Edinburgh and within a quarter of mile of the Stations of Polton and Loanhead on the North British Railway.

There are a small lake, stocked with Fish, a Rifle Range and a Cricket Ground on the Estate. There are also a Farm Steading erected by the late Proprietor: large stables, with Coach-Houses and Coachman’s Dwelling House; Three Lodges and a Garden and Ornamental Grounds extending to about 6 Acres, with Vineries, Stoves, Hot-Houses and all other requisites of a gentleman’s country residence.

THE MANSION-HOUSE, which is surrounded by fine old and valuable trees, contains Four Public-Rooms, Billiard-Room, Dorridor, Conservatory, Thirteen Bed-Rooms and Six Dressing-Rooms, Bath-Rooms, Closets and ample Servants’ Accommodation; Gas, Hot and Cold Water and Heating Pipes are laid over the whole House, which has been constantly occupied by the late Proprietor.

There are Episcopal Churches at Roslin and Dalkeith within three miles, and there are also several Presbyterian Churches of different denominations within easy reach. There are three posts every day, and Telegraph Offices in the Village.

The HOUSE and the Estate may be seen on Tuesdays and Fridays, from 2 to 6 pm, by Card, to be obtained from Messrs MacKenzie & Fraser W.S., 35   Frederick Street, Edinburgh, to whose hands are the Title Deeds and who will receive offers of.


Figure 1: May 1976 the Arbuthnot’s home for sale

Arbuthnot’s widow Caroline found that she could not leave Edinburgh: her attachment was spiritual for she was a most devout worshipper at St   John’s church, although having never once missed a Sunday service (even after a heart attack) she has been absolutely forgotten by the church.

This writer, like the crime-writer Ian Rankin, is fascinated by Edinburgh past.[4] The body-snatching days of this writer’s family four generations back has already been shared, and the fascination with Dr Robert Knox articulated; the charismatic, one-eyed anatomist, whose craving for fresh corpses was ultimately exposed by the murderous killings of Burke and Hare. However, it is not Ian Rankin’s fictional detective, DI Rebus that returns our narrative to Mavisbank: for the fictional character that does so is Dr Sherlock Holmes, familiar world-wide for his incisive observational skills and cerebral prowess. Arthur Conan-Doyle, the doctor, spiritualist and believer in fairies, based his sleuth upon his medical tutor, the physician Dr Joseph Bell. This celebrated Edinburgh surgeon, and his Aesculapian friend, Dr George W. Balfour, brought new scientific vision to Mavisbank.


Figure 2: Mavisbank a family home is now a business venture in healing [5]

Mavisbank and the Aesculapians:
The advert above appeared in the Scotsman in autumn 1876. Mavisbank Limited: A Retreat for Mental and Nervous Individuals was a venture Aesculapian. This exclusive medical club, the very first of such clubs in the British Isles was set up by Andrew Duncan: Physician of the Enlightenment.[6]

It was Dr Andrew Duncan (1744-1828) who oversaw and organised both a Dispensary for the ‘sick poor’ of Edinburgh, and a Lunatic Asylum in which ‘inmates’ were to be treated humanely. In the face of opposition he founded a Chair of Medical Jurisprudence and Public Health in Edinburgh, the first in Britain. As a young doctor he attended the poet Robert Fergusson in his terminal illness.

The Aesculapian Club was established by Duncan in 1773 as a post-renaissance intellectual embodiment. The phoenix of this club, rose from the hearth of Robert Sibbald, the Edinburgh Physician, Antiquary and Geographer Royal who in the century before invited a band of keen, zealous friends to hold fortnightly meetings in his house. Chief among those were Doctors Balfour, Burnet, Pitcairne, and Stevenson. All had benefited from the intellectual flourish that had equally swept along Baron Clerk, with knowledge returned home from Continental instruction in the Universities of Holland, France and Italy. Of Sibbald’s party, it was Archibald Pitcairne who in 1692 became the First Professor of Medicine in the newly established College of Physicians.[7]

“Turn your mysterious Aesculapian science to increase the number of this young man’s days.”

Massinger’s tragedy, The Virgin Martyr

The Aesculapian Club, essentially a supping, or dining, club, was limited not only in numbers (ranging from 12 to 22 members in all), but also in funds. The Scottish genius for conviviality seems to have asserted itself in the constitution of this society with honorary degrees conferred by it including “Doctor of Mirth and Social Joy” and “Doctor of Merriment.” When, three years after its foundation, the members of the Club proposed to widen their interest and influence by presenting a prize for medical investigation, the proposition was made that, without infringing on the prestige of the ‘select Aesculapians’, a larger society should be instituted which would include not only Fellows of the Colleges but graduates of the University. The Harveian Society was thus a direct offshoot from the older Aesculapian Club.[8]


Figure 3: The Aesculapians – Edinburgh’s embodiment

These period Medical clubs carried a range of functions: whilst intellectually trying to instil good care amidst the less fortunate, they also pursued the conviviality of discourse. The Minute books of these meetings also reveal the prejudices of such a group at that time: in 1854 for example wagers were set at the Sydenham Club in London, “that Miss Nightingale is not married by the next meeting,” and, “that Miss Nightingale has a child by this day twelvemonth.”

It was the Edinburgh Aesculapians of the late 19th century that shaped a new future for Mavisbank. Joseph Bell, the leading surgeon of the time, and Dr George W. Balfour, the leading physician of the time, understood all too well, that they were amidst a modern epidemic: ‘Nervous disease.’ Their entrepreneurial acumen is shown in the opening words of their new Institution which was bought for £25000. Mavisbank, as a Limited Company, sought investors to match the outset capital (£25000) offering to those inclined, a market price of £1 per share. Evidently such ‘inclination’ was good as The Nervous Hospital for the ‘well-to-do’ opened the following August.

                               A Retreat for Mental and Nervous Invalids
There has been for some time a growing necessity for more suitable accommodation for Persons’ suffering from mental disorder and belonging to the Upper and Middle Classes of Society. Whilst in most of the Public Establishments for the treatment of the insane the benefit of the best Medical skill is obtained, the system of Mixed Classes is frequently felt to be a serious disadvantage.

Many persons are at present located in these Institutions only because of the difficulty in obtaining more suitable accommodation elsewhere; and it is believed that the friends of Patients would much prefer to place them in an Institution where the Class is more select, and where the fullest regard can be had to the comforts and amenities to which they have become accustomed at home.

Many of the leading members of the Medical Profession have expressed approval of the proposal to supply the want now referred to, and, with this view, the beautifully-situated Mansion-house and Estate of Mavisbank, about six miles from Edinburgh have been acquired at the cost of £25000. Reference is made to the subjoined Reports as to the suitability of the place for the purpose intended.

The Estate extends to about 120 Acres Imperial, and is within a quarter mile from the Railway Station of Loanhead, while the Polton Station immediately adjoins the South Lodge. The House is situated in a finely Wooded Park of between 50 and 60 Acres which contains much valuable and ornamental Timber. There are Commodious Office-Houses, including ample Stabling and Coach-house accommodation. Cow-houses, Poultry-yards &e. complete in every Department. There is a large and productive Garden, covering about Five Acres, with beautiful Flower Gardens, Vineries, Hothouses and Conservatories.

Whatever sum is required to provide suitable Furnishings, and otherwise adapt the House and Grounds to then purpose in view, can be borrowed over the Estate. From its proximity to Edinburgh, the Estate is likely to increase in value, and will always form a substantial security to the Shareholders.

In making the appointment of Resident Medical Officer, most anxious care will be taken by the Board, in conjunction with the Consulting Medical Staff, to select a Gentleman of such qualifications and standing as shall command the confidence of the Medical Profession and the Public. It is expected to have the Institution ready for the reception of Patients in May next.

Very high rates of board, frequently from £200 to £400 per annum, are paid for Patients in Private Homes, where only ordinary comforts are afforded. It is calculated that, assuming there were no more than sixty-five Patients received into this Institution, even the comparatively moderate average Board of £150 per annum, together with the Revenue from Estate produce, would, after the most liberal allowance for the maintenance of the Establishment, and Interest on Money borrowed, yield a Dividend of 10 per cent to the Shareholders. Existing Hydropathic Institutions, charging less than £150 per annum, are paying dividends ranging from 7 to 15 per cent. It is confidently believed, from the superior advantages afforded by the extent and attractiveness of the Estate, combined with moderate rates of Board, that the Institution, will, under careful management, command the confidence of the Medical Profession throughout the country, and prove not only remunerative to the Shareholders, but a great benefit to the class of Patient for whom it is intended


Figure 4: Mavisbank Asylum opens in August 1877 [9]

There were eight Board of Directors:

  1. John Heatley Dickson who had inherited the Barony of Corstorphine from his father three years before and had astonishing wealth;
  2. Professor Matthew Charteris (1840-1897) Regius Professor of Materia Medica the man who brought us salicylic acid (Aspirin.)
  3. Robert Turnbull, Linen Merchant and Town Councillor
  4. George Andrew, Solicitor to the Supreme Court, originally from Banffshire, who settled in Holly Cottage, Lasswade
  5. Sir Thomas Clark – Evangelical Publisher who had joined his uncle’s business (also Thomas) in 1846. This continues today forming part of Continuum Press
  6. John Alex Reid a Glasgow-born Advocate
  7. Andrew Robertson who had made a fortune as an Insurance Broker
  8. George Vair Turnbull – the largest Merchant in Leith, who in 1851 set up business with Christian Salvesen, ship-owner and broker

The Directors, Dr Charteris apart, had no medical experience, and would have been advised by the Aesculapians. Of those gathered around the Club’s dining table, it escapes record who really led the Mavisbank venture: Drs Charteris, MacDonald, Balfour and Bell were all equally brilliant and in 1876 represented the forefront – indeed were the leading four practitioners – in the Scottish Medical arena.

Professor Charteris had made his name in the care of pyrexial illness and had written various articles on the treatment of disease by climate. Among his later work, we must isolate one discovery: the therapeutic potential of salicylic acid (Aspirin).  It can be said then, without any fear of exaggeration, that Charteris was the man who introduced to the world modern therapeutics.[10]


Figure 5: Professor Charteris: doctor who realised the therapeutics of aspirin[11]

Dr George W. Balfour was the uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson (whose initials RLS should properly be recorded RLBS – for Robert Louis BALFOUR Stevenson) and it was Dr George Balfour who recommended in 1880 to his ailing nephew that to ease his tubercular cough that he should winter in Davos, Switzerland. You can be assured that this advice and Stevenson’s final journey, in the decade that followed, to Samoa in the South Seas were based upon the research of Charteris.

Telegram: 29th December 1894.
To the RoyalCollege of Physicians, 9 Queen Street, Edinburgh

DR. GEORGE W. BALFOUR informs us that a telegram received from Mr. Louis Stevenson’s mother has destroyed the lingering hope which Dr. Balfour entertained that there might have been some mistake in the earlier telegrams. The great novelist is dead, but the real cause of his death cannot be known until the mail arrives next week, if then.


Figure 6: Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson and his uncle Dr George William Balfour – he relieved the senile heart

The above telegraphic appeared in the British Medical Journal above an article intriguingly entitled “THE INCREASING NERVOUSNESS OF OUR TIME.”[12] It is curious how incidental discoveries can carry relevance not just for one century, but surely centuries to follow. In this article of 1894, Professor Erb carries the widely shared view of the time; that insanity was propagating like fungal spores: as a contagion environmental. Professor Erb reminded his audience that the nineteenth century began in ‘disorder and commotion.’ France had passed through a bloody revolution which was to be followed by the excitement and exhaustion of Napoleonic adventures; restlessness, political and social, was followed by a period of calm, but, with the advancing years, industrial technology rapidly replaced manual labour. This, argued Professor Erb, explained the new nervousness, where, in his words ‘time and space seemed to be annihilated.’


Figure 7: Dr Robert Jamieson the Superintendent of Aberdeen Asylum for 40 years. He thought insanity contagious.[13]

Mavisbank, in the view of the Aesculapians, could heal through time, space and landscape. In Ancient Greece, side by side, stood the persuasion Aesculapian, with its method borne of suggestion and belief; and the doctrine Hippocratic, observational but based upon the four humours. Yet both returned to, in their healing principles, the need for cleanliness, fresh air, attractive surroundings, and where practicable, exercises. It was much later, with Galen that man looked to drugs, as we are occasionally reminded by the out-moded term ‘galenicals” in pharmacy. After Galen came the Dark Ages, and it was, according to our medical historians, ‘not until the last quarter of the 19th century that therapeutics began to take a new course.’ Here of course Charteris and his aspirin are case in point.

A favourite medical article of this writer is a review of the evolution of modern therapeutics by Sir Langdon-Brown, published in the British Medical Journal in 1945.[14] The article is neither seminal nor cutting-edge; it carries however as the most honest reminder that we can and must learn from the past and that if medicine is to heal to the best of its ability, we must add a philosophical dimension to science. The only difficulty this paper presents is which, of the many lovely quotes to highlight! It is recorded that Langdon-Brown’s speech, in its hesitancy, matched the immobility of his massive physique rather than the agility of his mind.

“But no wave of advance is without a backwash, and the early triumphs of thyroid therapy misled us into thinking the problem simpler than it has proved to be.”

“The discovery of penicillin by Fleming illustrates Pasteur’s dictum that chance enters only the mind that is prepared.”

Sir Walter Langdon-Brown died in the year after he gave this address on therapeutics, but his intellectual depth, his erudition, and his fluency of thought and expression live on in his 1938 work: Thus We are Men.[15] Reading this series of essays, one realises that Langdon-Brown was no innovator or originator, but he was, supremely, an interpreter and commentator, one to hold the balance between competing branches of medicine. It is reassuring that as doctors, we have followed some of Langdon-Brown’s wisdom, but disappointing that we have not continued as far as we might.

The path of progress is littered on either side by discarded theories and practices. In psychological medicine, therapeutics have a fairly heinous career, and it would not at all surprise this writer, doctor and practitioner, that the medicines he uses today, will in the future be regarded as backward, and possibly even, barbaric. However Langdon-Brown airs another preoccupation shared by this writer; the mistaken dichotomy which separates mind and body. In order to discover, science often simplifies. This reduction has helped biological medicine in many promising ways, and has brought great good, however it has completely ignored the complexity of life, of Man; the thinking, conscious, talking animal.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Albert Einstein

Dr George W. Balfour (1824-1903) was a remarkable doctor, who through research for this manuscript, has revealed himself as a reminder of how medicine gains not just through heralded discoveries, but as much by practise, patient contact, and continual revision of science. In modern day this is described rightly as Evidence based.[16] However consensus must not forget the voice that is Aesculapian. Dr Balfour, always a young looking man was indefatigable; he was said to walk with an upright figure and a light step. Born in Colinton Manse where his father served as Parish Minister, he trained in Medicine in Edinburgh before completing his studies in Vienna. He was very much like today’s medical columnist Dalrymple in that his store of anecdote, history and fable, made him the favourite Aesculapian of his supping comrades. However this is simply an aside to Balfour’s true place in medicine, for no other practitioner, since the time of Harvey, progressed the understanding of heart conditions, especially the ‘senile heart.’[17] At a time when venesection and antimony were the chief interventions in the routine treatment of pneumonia, Balfour was the very first to promulgate the heresy that heroic treatment was unnecessary, harmful, and often fatal.[18]

April 1895 – Edinburgh Medical Journal
Dr. George W. Balfour gives a gruesome account of the “heroic” bloodletting which our forefathers thought to be a cure for all earthly ills – over 9 pints and sometimes even more were occasionally taken from one person.  The floors of hospital out-patient rooms used to be so slippery with blood that caution had to be exercised in walking over them.

However Mavisbank was attended not just by Balfour, his Physician colleague, Dr Angus MacDonald (1836-1886), also Consultant in Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary, shared in the venture.[19] This writer, a hundred years apart he may be, shares shoelaces with MacDonald, in that both have been shaped in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and both gained degrees in Science and Arts in the Universities of both cities. There the similarity ends! Angus MacDonald was, without any argument, the brightest star of his generation, all the more remarkable, when you consider that he sprang from working Doric roots and that his road-sweeping father died in Aberdeen when Angus was just 11 years old. In considering genius, beyond the innate determination of his family roots – Baleshare island off Uist – it should not escape our attention that Macdonald was fostered by a mother ‘of character and vigorous intellect’ and Dominie, Arthur Gerrard, Schoolmaster in Grange, Banffshire. In Medicine, Angus MacDonald is celebrated more today than he would have ever accepted – few others at that time advanced obstetric care as he did. The lives saved by MacDonald are beyond realisation and is a ‘living’ legacy of which Scotland should be rightly proud.

Mention of MacDonald cannot pass by without recognising that he was not just a medic – for he was truly a ‘Lad of pairts!’ His career in the curriculum of Arts was very distinguished; he obtained prizes in Latin, Greek, mathematics, and natural philosophy; and when he took his M.A. in 1859, he was awarded the Hutton Prize for general excellence in all the branches of the curriculum. This was all the more to his credit as, during the session, he taught in the gymnasium and elsewhere at least four hours daily.


Figure 8: Truly a lad of pairts: Dr Angus MacDonald. He saved lives but his house could not match[20]

During the last four years of his life, Dr Macdonald was plagued by a recurrent lung infection. Advised by his physicians to reduce his commitments, he spent a year in the Riviera trying to recoup his health, but to no avail. He died in February 1886, aged 49 years, at his family home 29 Charlotte Square. It is a curious twist of fate that MacDonald’s home, in the century that followed, was to become the corporate offices of The National Trust for Scotland. This one of the Trusts that failed Mavisbank. As I sit here, so pathetically typing before a screen bright, there carries the stark truth of 2009, that through mismanagement and lack of foresight, the National Trust has itself approached ruin. Its Headquarters, MacDonald’s old home, are now for sale.

It was the boyishly handsome Joseph Bell that most certainly wielded his surgeon’s scalpel to redefine Mavisbank. Dr Joseph Bell, the diary of Mrs Arbuthnot recalls, was surgeon and doctor to the Arbuthnots. Reading between the lines, as all pathographers do stray, it is evident that Mrs Arbuthnot did not care for Dr Bell; and indeed after leaving Mavisbank for a New Town Apartment she decided to forgo Dr Bell and to seek the care of a former, and retired family doctor – Dr Maclaren.[21] Could it be that Mrs Arbuthnot blamed Dr Bell for turning her family home into a Mental Institution?

Dr Joseph Bell (1837-1911), after James Young Simpson pioneer of anaesthesia, is Edinburgh’s doctor celebre.  In 1894, his former student, Dr Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote:

It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes, and though in the stories I have the advantage of being able to place [the detective] in all sorts of dramatic positions, I do not think that his analytical work is in the least an exaggeration of some effects which I have seen you produce in the out-patient ward. Round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man who pushed the things as far as it would go – further occasionally – and I am so glad that the result has satisfied you, who are the critic with the most right to be severe.”

Bell replied to Doyle saying: “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.”[22]


Figure 9: Sherlock Holmes: was he more Dr Conan-Doyle than Dr Joseph Bell?

Dr Bell was a marked figure in Edinburgh. Nearly to the end of his life he retained his buoyant and even boyish disposition. He was bright, cheerful, and happy. He came from a dynasty, generation after generation, stretching back 150 years, which had served as medical practitioners to Edinburgh. Indeed Joseph Bell’s grandfather was one of the first Aesculapians.[23] However, it was Joseph, who was truly the emblem of family brilliance; one of the most perceptive of doctors, who behind honest charm applied his mental acumen even more skilfully than his scalpel. He was recalled for his bedside manner, easing into a vernacular couthiness without hint of pretence. His frame was slight, his head always said to be carried high and he walked between beds, stiff, bristling with a ‘jerky energetic gait.’ [24]

In an era when science was only beginning to establish an influence in criminal investigations, Bell can be considered a pioneer in medical forensics. Yet as an Aesculapian there was more to his ministering of care than that which is observable, quantifiable, or assuredly scientific. Further it occurs to this writer, the equation of attribution, Sherlock-Holmes = Dr Joseph Bell, can only be a mathematical reduction: a reduction that our fictional detective would have understood. Indeed in Conan-Doyle’s story Silver Blaze,[25] we are shown that what fails to happen is sometimes as important as what does happen!

“Is there anything to which you would like to draw my attention?” 
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” 

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Likewise, what is unsaid is often as important as what is said. And what historians omit from, or do not emphasise in, their accounts of the past tells us much about the mentality of their own times, as what is recorded.

[1] Conan Doyle, Arthur (1892) A Scandal in Bohemia; (Sherlock Holmes)

[2] Hickman, Clare (Dec 2009) Cheerful prospects and tranquil restoration: the visual experience of landscape as part of the therapeutic regime of the British asylum, 1800-60; History of Psychiatry; Vol 20, Issue 4, No 80.

[3] Scotsman Newspaper (May 1876) Mavisbank for Sale

[4] Rankin, Ian (2001) The Falls; An Inspector Rebus Novel; Orion

[5] Scotsman Newspaper (1877) Mavisbank Limited: A retreat for mental and nervous Invalids

[6] Aesculapian Club (1949) History of the Aesculapian Club. Printed booklet; Royal College of Physicians

[7] The British Medical Journal (Dec 1926) Relations of William Harvey to Medicine in Edinburgh; Oration to the Edinburgh Harveian Society; by Sir Robert Philip

[8] Aesculapian Club (1773-1934) Minute books. 16 vol. Edinburgh, RoyalCollege of Physicians

[9] Scotsman Newspaper (1877) Mavisbank Limited: A retreat for mental and nervous Invalids

[10] Langdon-Brown, Sir W (Jan 1945) The Evolution of Modern Therapeutics. Printed in the British Medical Journal.

[11] British Medical Journal (1897) Obituary, Matthew Charteris; 1897

[12] British Medical Journal (24th Dec 1894) The increasing Nervousness of our time; Professor Erb

[13] Gordon, Peter. J (a work in progress) The degeneration of madness: the history of Aberdeen Royal Lunatic Asylum

[14] Langdon-Brown, Sir W (Jan 1945) The Evolution of Modern Therapeutics. Printed in the British Medical Journal.

[15] Langdon-Brown, Sir W (1938) Thus we are Men; The collected essays; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co Ltd

[16] British Medical Journal (August 1903) Obituary of George W (William) Balfour

[17] British Medical Journal (1905) Dr Balfour and Heart disease; Dr Robert Saunby

[18] British Medical Journal (April 1895) An account of heroic blood-letting; George William Balfour.

[19] British Medical Journal (February 1886) Obituary of Angus MacDonald

[20] The Scotsman (21 May 2009) National trust for Scotland announces property closures

[21] 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

[22] Joseph Bell correspondence The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; GB779.

[23] British Medical Journal (October 1911) Obituary of Joseph Bell

[24] The Lancet (Aug 1956) Dr Joseph Bell

[25] Doyle, Arthur Conan (1892) Silver Blaze; Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories 455, 475 (1986)

Little more than a name

Chapter Five of Repeats its love: “Little more than a name” 117

The Aesculapians never intended to run the Mavisbank Institution themselves, and with Hippocratic beneficence, left matters of mind to the Superintendents.

Mavisbank could symbolise much. Already it has been argued that beyond simple aesthetics, it survives as emblem enlightened, with the little mavis, harmoniously blending biology and being. Furthermore Mavisbank could be seen to represent the two cultures: Science and Humanities – the giant pillars of mankind’s advancement beyond beast[1]; pillars that remain standing despite neo-Darwinian subsidence. The symbolism is apt, and it is time for Mankind to take heed. Science is our greatest endeavour; it has eased more pain, saved more lives, and brought comfort beyond the brightest of predictions. Yet science does not traverse all disciplines with ease, and here of course, given Mavisbank’s incarnation  as hospital, one can only reflect the giddy ‘headiness’ of that unease.

Few references are now made to Adolf Meyer in medical literature, except to profer that we have moved on from his woolly notions; indeed within a decade of his death, as Dr Theodore Lidz remarked, Meyer was ‘little more than a name.[2] It is time for this narrative to reveal the importance of Meyer in connection with Mavisbank. In doing so care will be taken to avoid the potential pitfalls of historical writing; revisionist overstatement, and corridor vision. However, if Meyer serves as one reminder for mankind it is that we must not be understood simply as biology gone wrong[3].

Let there be clarity here: Meyer never worked at Mavisbank. Adolf Meyer (1866-1950) was a Swiss born psychiatrist who in 1892 emigrated to America where, in the early part of the following century he proved himself as the most influential figure in his profession. Why then, you may rightly ask, has Meyer any right to broker, and second-hand at that, this narrative on Mavisbank? Well the answer will reveal itself in what follows, but has a beginning for this author in walk around the derelict shell of Mavisbank with David Harrowes, the son of the last Superintendent Dr Bill Harrowes. David recalls Mavisbank as a boyhood home.

Dr Bill Harrowes started out in the practice of psychiatry in 1924 under Sir David Henderson who later sent him to his own former chief at the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in the Johns Hopkins.[4] This was, of course, Professor Adolf Meyer. In 1949, the year before Meyer’s death, from Mavisbank, Bill Harrowes published ‘Human Personality and its Minor Disorders.’[5] In it the theme that is exposed is twofold: firstly that mankind was now rather too eager to make a neurosis out of the ordinary ups and downs of everyday life and to imagine that every worried man is mentally disordered; and secondly the obvious truth that every personality is the resultant of mental and physical forces, and that by using these forces it adapts the environment to itself or itself to the environment.

“My mother, who after years of marriage was a psychiatrist manqué, said that it contained too much Meyer and not enough Harrowes; maybe in some sense therefore it was the book that Meyer himself never wrote. It’s a thought that it was written in the light of both the years at Mavisbank and the preceding years of hospital medicine.”
David Harrowes (2009)

Psychobiology was the term introduced by Adolf Meyer for the study of man as a person within the framework of biology. In good part the argument profered in this chapter is that there is value in restating the Meyerian perspective.

In late retirement, Dr Bill Harrowes continued to offer his considered thoughts in reply to articles in the Lancet and British Medical Journal. In the latter periodical, in April 1972, a welcome riposte to a narrowly conceived biological research program was made. It is worth noting that his thoughts in reply were echoed by Dr John Bowlby, who reminded the authors of the paper ‘Research in Psychiatry’ that man is not only a complex biological organism but also a product of society. Dr Bowlby added his surprise that the authors had made absolutely no mention of the family. In this he was assuredly right. Harrowes shaped his words of reply even more succinctly and rather wonderfully for that: The thousand words or so of your excellent article are almost completely summed up by Meyer’s oft repeated and unaltered declaration that “We study the whole man and his setting, and not only the parts of man.”[7]

Yet Edward Shorter, a current American historian and Professor in the University of Toronto, dismisses Meyer outright, and has recorded on paper (2005) that Meyer’s views “were nothing more than an accumulation of platitudes of the day.”[8] It should be understood that Professor Shorter is not afraid of using strong language of judgment when writing up history, and whilst this author agrees with some of his conclusions, he finds his words more often reflect Shorter than the past of which he proposes representation. For example, it was Shorter that declared, not without great consideration, that the 19th century asylums “bequeathed relatively little to today’s psychiatry.”  It is curious that such an esteemed historian can carry respect when his history is so presented through bitter-taint glasses. History, in its recall, is beset by misrepresentation; add in high personal feeling, and you lose the promise of insight. It is curious that professor Shorter writes with such extreme dogma, for much in what he says is actually Meyerian. In his 1986 book for example: Bedside Manners: The Troubled History of Doctors and Patients,[9] Shorter asserts that while medical knowledge has greatly expanded, patient care is deteriorating because disease-oriented doctors neglect to treat the whole person, including psychogenic ills, as the family doctor used to do. Although Shorter blames the stress of modern life and media hype for an increase in patient symptoms, he also deplores excessive diagnostic tests, impersonal, brief consultations and over-prescribing, along with medical schools’ purely scientific training.

Alas, the view represented by Edward Shorter is similar to the standard psychiatric view, as represented by Slater and Roth in 1969, that heuristically Meyer’s approach was “almost entirely sterile.”[10] This really is unjust, for reasons that will be argued, and all the more so in that it was given by the two successive Presidents of our BritishCollege. At the very least they fail to appreciate Meyer’s role in recognizing the importance of socio-cultural factors in the prevalence of mental disorder.

Parmenides, the pre-Socratic philosopher would have understood this. Today many of our scientists imply that we are on the cusp of understanding all that it is to be human, and that as programmed genomes, we can be reduced to scientific algorithm, or worse a computer. If the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet accompanied Parmenides on his journey from darkness to light they would perhaps see greater depth. This is certainly not a call for spirituality, but for science to embrace what is distinctly human and not simply to look for pathological explanations of experience. Dr Elliot Slater, father of the genetics of mental illness, and whom we must thank for the psychiatric journal long brightened yellow[11], concluded his retirement interview by stating that he was ‘never a depth explorer.’[12] Of course he was referring to some of the sickening psychoanalytic explanations given to us by the likes of Freud. Elliot Slater was a brilliant man, unquestionably the best of his day, with however it was Elliot Slater who chopped down a thousand year old yew tree that had poisoned one of his depressed patients. For Elliot the answer to the mind was biologically simple and genetic causation a certainty. But as much as he was right to investigate familial predisposition, he was wrong to side-line the experience and the constant re-shaping of life. Actually despite massive investment, some of the scientific minds of today have realised that Steven P. R. Rose was correct to criticise neurogenetic determinism.[13] Elliot Slater blamed the tree – but the tree did not poison the man – the man poisoned himself.


Figure 1: Gathering Yews in pen and ink – by Peter J. Gordon

“I don’t know what its alkaloid is, but it killed him all right … next thing to cut that tree down. It was a very handsome yew tree, which shouldn’t have been there, admittedly.”
Elliot Slater[14]

Mavisbank-gardenersFigure 2: The Mavisbank gardeners

Elliot Slater and Sir Martin Roth enjoyed, respectively, distinguished careers as exponents of neurogenetic determinism and neuropathological determinism. These pathways are the only ones worth developing for the dementias. However entirely biological determination (in its strictest sense) can less fruitfully be applied to illnesses that are obviously more complicated than just ‘stand-alone brain.’[15] Here it is worth raising the fascinating truth that some of the most brilliant scientists have chosen to embrace a range of disciplines from pathology to philosophy. Perhaps the most astounding example is Roger Sperry, the neuro-anatomist who won the Nobel prize for his split-brain research, before developing a career in the philosophy of consciousness.[16] Sadly Sperry died of Kuru contracted from the brain tissues he had studied. Sir William Osler[17] is a further example from the century before and Dr Raymond Tallis an example of today.

‘The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease’

Sir William Osler (1849-1919)

However you may be surprised to learn that Meyer also trained as a neurologist and neuropathologist, and that through the entire span of his career, he attended the weekly ‘brain cuttings,’ where he showed more verve than in any of his other clinical or teaching activities. Although Meyer publicly supported it, in private tuition he spoke against the “cesspool of the unconscious,”[18] just as he did against psychoanalysis. Meyer rightly objected to rigid formulations and one-sided insistence on limited factors, such as sexual difficulties. He was correct that Freud (who also started out as a pathologist) was a sham. He discouraged most of his residents from pursuing analytic training. Indeed, Meyer generally disliked public conflict and ran toward-at least public-compromise. Meyer scholar Ruth Leys suggests that this was a heritage of his parents’ constant bickering.

In developing the medical curriculum at Johns Hopkins, Meyer placed the study of the personality in a much more prominent position than at that time was given to it by any other medical school worldwide. Research that I have undertaken into the Aberdeen Asylum[19] has shown that from the outset of Institutional care, psychiatrists found that professional respectability within medicine was tied to looking for pathology, cellular or otherwise, creating a defensiveness that rears when any challenge is made to its foundation.[20] [21] It is understandable, therefore, that Meyer was sensitive to this potential reaction and avoided outright opposition.

Mavisbank - first OS map

Figure 3: Mavisbank and Park as per the 1st edition Ordinance Survey map

It is even more surprising, given the diverse and embracing nature of Meyer’s outlook that his life-long friend, with whom he lunched weekly in New York, was John Dewey the leader of American pragmatism. In a rather lovely article, S. Nassir Ghaemi argued that Meyer’s approach represented eclecticism – an approach coined ‘a vice in theory but a virtue in practice’[22] – to which practitioners who just want to be ‘free’ are of course attracted. William James once remarked that the basis for all philosophies lies in the personalities of philosophers. On this basis, it has been argued that Meyer ‘congenitally incapable of disagreeing with any person,’ was so open-minded that he left his profession (psychiatry) prey to hard-headed biological radicals and psychoanalytic dogmatists.

He seems to have recognized this himself in a heartfelt note written in the early hours of the morning in November 1947, toward the end of his life: [23]

Why did I fail to be explicit? . . . I should have made myself clear and in outspoken opposition, instead of a mild semblance of harmony. . .

What was it that failed to get across? Did I pussyfoot too much? . . .

The very fact that my Salmon lectures never came through-why and how?

An unwillingness to declare war?

My plan failed to be outspoken. . . . Leaving it to attempts to compromise?


 Figure 4: Adolf MeyerMy plan failed to be outspoken. . .

However surely it cannot be fair to argue that the ‘triumphal biological march’ (as it has been described by several writers[24]) was simply the result of Meyer’s compromising approach to disciplines of thought. That is as absurd as it is twisted! Furthermore it is not true that Meyer had no framework, his principles are clear:

  • That we must study the whole man and his setting
  • That personality should have core consideration
  • That biological research must not be arrested but embraced
  • That interpretations of sub-consciousness might often lead to erroneous and damaging conclusions
  • That psychiatry remained insufficiently developed to hammer out an aetiologically based nosology


All this has been lost, but some of it re-framed by Engel, in his wonderfully eloquent but terse 1977 paper in Science: The need for a new medical model. [25]Engel’s biopsychosocial model became influential in the context of the modern critique of medicine and the recognition of medicine’s limitations. The model was not only a challenge for psychiatry, but also for medicine in general. In his paper, Engel acknowledged the historical significance for his model of the work of Adolf Meyer, but did not recognise Roy Grinker, who without Engel’s eloquence had described such a model in 1954. However, it is indisputable that the founding influence for the biopsychosocial model was Meyer and its continuing appeal is the critique of biomedical reductionism.

“I forecast that psychiatry’s presently one-sided neurobiological and pharmacological model will gradually return to the midpoint of Engel’s model – when the former discovers that drugs are not panaceas and that there is more to the human being than the brain.”[26] Edwin R. Wallace IV


[1] The Times (Oct 2005) You can be a beast, but I’m human by Raymond Tallis

[2] Double, D. B. (Dec 2007) Consultant Psychiatrist East Anglia; Adolf Meyer’s psychobiology and the challenge for biomedicine

[3] Giuliani, Alessandro, (June 2000) Keeping in pace; British Medical Journal; “Curiously enough the advanced research in molecular biology is more similar to Steven Rose’s position recognizing the global vacuity of looking for single genes responsible for given diseases and shifting to holistic and complexity based methodologies. The situation would be quite comic if it should not involve deep political and ideological consequences and, more importantly, the way our society faces the sufferings of real people.”

[4] Harrowes, William McC (April 1972) President Scottish Association for Mental Health “We study the whole man and his setting, and not only the parts of man.” Correspondence in the British Medical Journal;

[5] Harrowes, Dr William McC (1949) Human personality and its minor disorders; Edinburgh; E. and S. Livingstone.

[6] Harrowes, David (Sept 2009) Personal communication with Dr Peter J. Gordon

[7] Harrowes, William McC (April 1972) President Scottish Association for Mental Health

[8] Shorter, Edward (1997) A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac

[9] Shorter, Edward (1986) Bedside Manners: The Troubled History of Doctors and Patients

[10] Double, D. B. (Dec 2007) Consultant Psychiatrist East Anglia; Adolf Meyer’s psychobiology and the challenge for biomedicine

[11] Morgan, Edwin (Winter 2000) The Contribution of Iain Crichton Smith; Scot Lit 23. Two Girls Singing: Really the only thing I would say about that very fine poem (it was one of the author’s favourites, and he was right) is that his often-used method of contrast has a freshness, an unexpectedness about it that – once you catch it – underlines the meaning of the poem. Yellow is always a very negative colour in Smith, and it’s used twice here, referring to yellow sodium streetlights. The streetlights not only have this alarming colour, but they march in strict ordered lines along the dark road. The sinister authoritarian predictability of the streetlights is contrasted with the sudden unpredicted almost wordless voices of the two girls singing on the bus.

[12] Man, Mind and Heredity (1988) Selected Papers on Psychiatry and Genetics: in memory of Eliot Slater

Mar 1748

[13] Rose, Steven P. R. (Dec 1998) Neurogenetic determinism and the new euphenics; British Medical Journal; 317: 1708

[14] British Psychiatric Bulletin (Feb 1981) In Conversation with Eliot Slater; Dr Barraclough’s interview with Eliot Slater; In two parts.

[15] Slater, Eliot & Valerie Cowie (1971) The Genetics of Mental Disorders; “It is a pity to be blinded by emotion; but it is the wilful self-binding which causes so much of the avoidable difficulties against which workers in such fields as psychiatry and behavioural genetics have to pit themselves. It is indeed necessary to take up a position, for argument’s sake, or to have a point of departure for further work. But such positions are necessities of convenience and should claim no loyalty. We must not weep when we are forcibly moved on, or compelled to retreat.”

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

[17] The British Medical Journal (January 1920) Obituary to Sir William Osler, Bt, MD, FRS, FRCP

[18] Meyer Archives Series; (II/353/124)

[19] Gordon, Peter. J (a work in progress) The degeneration of madness: the history of Aberdeen Royal Lunatic Asylum

[20] Craddock, Nick et al (2008) Wake-up call for British psychiatry. British Journal of Psychiatry; 193: 6-9.

[21] Bullmore, Ed (Apr 2009) Why psychiatry can’t afford to be neurophobic;Editorial in British Journal of Psychiatry

[22] Stone (1981) Eclecticism: a vice in theory but a virtue in practice

[23] Double, D. B. (Dec 2007) Consultant Psychiatrist East Anglia; Adolf Meyer’s psychobiology and the challenge for biomedicine

[24] Beveridge, Allan (Dec 1997) The recent triumphal march of biological psychiatry . . .” Lecture to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Scottish Division. Winter Meeting, Edinburgh.

[25] Engel, G. L. (April 1977) The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine; Science, Vol 196, Issue 4286, 129-136

[26] Wallace, Edwin R. (Dec 2007) Professor of Psychiatry University of South Carolina Adolph Meyer’s Psychobiology in historical context and its relationship to George Engel’s Biopsychosocial Model

Mirror Writing

This is Chapter 6 of ‘Repeats its love’ my book on Mavisbank House

As a child this writer could fall asleep whilst still standing (his grandmother’s chuckling reminiscence) and with innocent aplomb, entirely without understanding, mirror write. Alas both traits disappeared beyond the first six years that Alfred Adler so poetically described as the style of life. This is a telling reminder to the author of how we change, shape, and reveal our true selves. It is far more complex than that erroneous divide of nurture versus nature. Much returns to family, and communication patterns and the retreat we all take into imagination with thoughts arising but rarely spoken. It is doctors like Langdon-Brown, shaped by an understanding borne of treating every malady of man, who choose to peer beyond that dark-mirror, who instinctively embrace the glow of the humanities as expressed in art, poetry, story and song. That glow has been lost to much of modern medicine.[1] An image from the memory of Langdon-Brown has struck a chord with this writer. That moment was experienced by a young Langdon-Brown as he witnessed the recovery of a bronze statue dredged up off the coast of Greece: “It was an exquisitely beautiful figure of a boy . . . his right arm was uplifted, and he gazed with wonder and delight at something which had now vanished.”[2]


Figure 1: The Superintendents of Mavisbank Asylum: Dr Hugh W. Diamond’s patients (first photographs of madness)

Between its opening in May 1876 and closure in 1954, Mavisbank the Hospital, was served by at least nine different Superintendents. It seems that all the medical and administrative records have been lost, though who knows, perhaps one day some might turn up in family attic or, more likely, legal basement. Research for this manuscript has thrown up just one file covering Mavisbank Nursing Home Ltd between 1946 till 1953.[3] The following account is derived from sources such as the Lancet, the British Psychological Association, the British Medical Journal, census returns, books, broadsides, and newspapers.

The very first Superintendent to govern Mavisbank was Dr James Allan Philip. His appointment was a coup, as he was brought from the newly refurbished Lincoln Asylum. The Lincoln Asylum had been built in 1820 as a ’public receptacle for objects suffering under the greatest of all human calamities.’ It is now a conference centre called The Lawn.[4]

The first reference, amongst sparing few, to Allan Philip, is a letter he wrote to the Lancet, in response to an article on the treatment of Dipsomania. The letter was dated 24th August 1878, and Allan Philip signs off as Superintendent of Mavisbank Asylum.[5] Elementary family investigation has revealed that Allan Philip was born in Aberdeen in November 1845, the eldest child of eight born to an Englishman who had settled in Mounthooly, Aberdeen as General Practitioner. Curiously this was the Aberdeen city district served by the writer’s wife also GP between 1993 and 2001.

In 1880, in Turriff, Allan Phillip married the daughter of an Aberdeenshire minister: Katherine Cruickshank, and in June 1882, at Mavisbank, she was delivered of a daughter. Shortly after the young family move on from the auld Mansion House and institution and disappear from record.

The second Superintendent of Mavisbank was Dr John Keay, and he served the asylum for two years between 1891 and 1893. Keay was a prominent member of his profession, and, having graduated in Glasgow in 1881, crowned his career by becoming, in 1918, President of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association. Like so many of our past great figures he was brokered first in Crichton Royal, Dumfries and gained his appointment in Mavisbank directly following. [6]

In March 1893, from Mavisbank, Dr Keay reported his experimentation with a new medicine, an anti-histamine called Chlorobrom that had first been introduced to Scotland by Dr Charteris. “I have not seen, however, any note of the solution having been used in the treatment of mental and nervous diseases, and as I have prescribed it in suitable cases in this asylum for about a year with results which seem to show that in it we have a valuable addition to our still too short list of really safe and reliable hypnotic.”[7]


After this brief Mavisbank sojourn, Dr Keay moved on to be Superintendent of Bangour Village District Asylum, where he served out till retirement. When the First World War broke out he was entrusted with the task of converting Bangour into a 300 bed MilitaryHospital. His military bearing survives record: he was apparently unflappable, precise and unnerving in his administration and his pride in his hospital reflected in his belief that to ease suffering his staff must feel belonging and heartfelt support from their Superintendent. One nurse recorded Dr Keay’s only weakness: “an unconscious look in his eye, which signified his feeling that brass-hats would be so much more manageable if they were certified.” Dr Keay was awarded CBE and died in Dorset in January 1943 aged 83 years.[8]

The next Superintendent of Mavisbank was Dr George Robert Wilson, who served the Institution for the decade that spanned the century’s turn (from 1894 till 1906.) Sadly his life was cut short, aged just 42 years, by insidious breathlessness with mycoplasma concluding victory. This bacterium felled a giant, a man once vigorous in youth, when he had played rugby football for Scotland. His talent for sport had no limit: he was a scratch golfer, and as such is listed victorious, year after year in the British Medical Association Tournaments. He was also a fine curler and cricketer.[9]

A rather vivid impression has been left of Dr Wilson, surviving in his own words. In 1899 he wrote his most notable work: Clinical studies in Vice and insanity.[10] This book is a rarity: for it carries personhood first and science second. Indeed it carries man, and the scientific misunderstandings of addiction, in a most timely reminder for today, when science alone has failed to combat Scotland’s exponential cirrhotic decline and the unenviable, yet undeniable statistic, as first place on Europe’s list of untimely deaths due to alchol.[11] It would not be time wasted for the 15 cases of alcoholism described by Dr Wilson to be aired and left upon the collected consciousness of us today. Dr Wilson certainly disproves the dictum of this generation’s scientific tutors, who tell us that a single case (n=1), or indeed a handful of cases as here, carry no importance, as only statistics with massive demoninators, have any meaningful scientific relevance.

“Not everything that counts can be counted,
and not everything that can be counted counts.”

                            (Sign hanging in Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton)

Figure 49: A photograph from the time of Dr Bill McConnochie Harrowes: he saw beauty

Dr Wilson was a man of wide interest. His great-great-grandfather was none other than Robert Adam, half the ‘polish’d mind’ of Mavisbank and wholy of Britain beyond. There can be no doubt that it was this family association that tuned Dr Wilson’s ears to the beautiful but faint little mavis song. Having been born in Kilmaurs House in Duns, the son of a family of renowned weavers, Wilson appears to have shared in family suffering as his father was pensioned after serving for the Royal Artillery and his grandfather James Smith never the same after his life in the 20th Dragoon Guards. Wilson’s mother, riddled with tuberculosis, died after two years suffering in 1873, and poor Wilson was not even seven. What happens thereafter is not entirely clear, but in all likelihood he was raised by his mother’s brother, George Smith in Edinburgh. George was a religious man, well travelled, who was in his day considered a man of letters, a writer and publisher. One can assume he was popular as his writing brought him wealth. In 1891, we find Wilson living with his uncle in a mansion house in Newington, along with three other lodgers.[12] All were doctors serving as supporting Physicians to Dr Clouston at Morningside’s Royal Edinburgh, apart for one, a pathologist to the Asylum.

In 1893 the fifty-seventh annual meeting of the Medico-Psychological Association met in Edinburgh and one of the speakers was Dr Wilson, in advance of the book he had written, and was just about to publish, entitled simply: Drunkenness. How curious, in reading Wilson’s summation of 1893, in that his dark mirror reflects the views of today’s more acerbic medical commentator, Theodore Dalrymple, the monthly columnist in the British Medical Journal.

“The Habitual drunkard was the subject of a paper by G.R. Wilson of Mavisbank Private asylum, in which he dissented from the too kindly theory of hereditary, ridiculed craves, and generally urged a more ‘Calvinistic’ treatment of the habitual drunkard. The paper gave rise to much and varied discussion.”[13]

Dr Wilson was described by Thomas Clouston as “one of the most attractive of men” and regarded highly amongst his scientist brethren for his broad philosophical grasp. His literary style was all his own, and his case descriptions were as vivid as they were dogmatically astute. Thomas Clouston expressed a wariness of Wilson’s ‘storytelling’ and colourfulness, but nevertheless concluded: ‘There exists in the literature of psychiatry no better clinical records.’[14]

Below are two case studies, given in Wilson’s own words but severely edited for this narrative: they are interesting on several accounts. Firstly for the vividness of life and the inescapable, complex, interaction of ‘drunkard,’ family and environment. Secondly, they reveal the house of healing that was Mavisbank, and the understanding, largely since lost, that natural environs, beautiful surroundings and a feeling of belonging can restore purpose when it has been lost to drink.

Case Study One: Andrew First
Andrew First was one of the gentlest and most guileless of men I have ever known. He was the kind of man one would suppose some of the disciples to have been, for he was a determined man in matters of conscience, and of a mild, persuasive eloquence. It was Andrew’s misfortune that he had not realised the danger of alcohol

His habit had got past the stage of concealment before his wife died, and more than once or twice she endured the pain of seeing her husband drunk beside her death-bed. When his wife died Andrew was drunk, for the next few days he was drunk, and he was drunk at her funeral. Then he came to us.

But to him drunkenness was a sin, and nothing more and nothing less than a sin; and a due repentance was the only possible cure for it. It had been ordained by his relatives that Mavisbank was to be his wilderness, and his humility forbade him to rebel. He would eat of our locusts and clothe himself spiritually in camels’ hair, and in time he would be strong to fight his devil.

Everything that was suggested he fell in with in a spirit of submission, except a very few things, like cards and dancing, which were against his conscience. He took the regulation walks within and without the grounds, he accepted the constant supervision of an attendant, he went to bed at ten and rose at half-past seven, he went to the drawing-room on the nights prescribed. He curled, and golfed, and played bowls, – all with the same cheerfulness and docility and repentings.

One thing preyed constantly upon his mind and told against his recovery. He had been too drunk after his wife’s funeral to see that the grave was properly attended to or to remember whether it was or not. The idea of his neglect took on the nature of a delusion in his mind.

And so, before many weeks had gone, he had drunk himself into the grave which he had been so eager to visit.

Case Study Two: Alcoholist, Husband, Gentleman
Mr Erythema came to us under an assumed name, he quarrelled with us seriously within a fortnight, but he stayed on because he had paid to be treated, and he liked value for his money; and after four months he was discharged recovered with good results. These things were characteristic of the man. Secretive and a little sly, exacting and irritable, not afraid to speak his mind, very business-like and methodical, he had plenty backbone left, though drink had worn off the layers which make life pleasant.

He had taken seriously to golf, and if any one thing can be said to have saved that man, golf must get the credit. He practised assiduously, first here and then on other greens, and he also did a great deal in exploiting all the places of interest in the county and beyond it.

He roamed all over the countryside, taking prodigiously long walks; he planned all sorts of improvements in our household arrangements; he devised a new golf club and laid out our course on a new pattern; he tried to convert me on politics, went to the theatre, doctored the horse, called frequently upon friends whose acquaintance he had made since coming to us, and was altogether very busy and very cheerful.


Figure 50: The writer’s father Stuart, with the writer’s son Andrew: like Dr Harrowes, Andrew saw beauty.

Dr Wilson died at Allantown House, Newmains, Lanarkshire in March 1908, he was 41 years old and had only a few years before purchased the Mansion House to form his Sanatorium for the treatment of Neurasthenia and other mental disorders. He left behind a beautiful widow and two little daughters.

His early death was a great loss to medicine and a blow to the scientific treatment of alcoholism. It really would seem that comparatively few men in medicine have appeared since with such widely reaching outlook framed always through earnest scientific scrutiny. Yet his successor at Mavisbank, Sir John Batty Tuke, concluded Wilson’s Eulogy that the see-saw between science and story was weighted by Wilson on one side: “Dr Wilson was in no respect narrow, except, perhaps, in regard to one point, that he undervalued the labours of the microscopic brain pathologist. His vision seemed to fail him as to the future capabilities of that, the most accurate and indisputable of all the investigations.”[15] Given the advancement of cellular understanding of this century’s turn, and day-on-day advancements in such, it is no wonder the microscope, and pathologist, were considered to hold the foundation answers to all mental illness, alcoholism or otherwise. However the pathological certainty of alcohol brain damage apart, Wilson was surely correct to return to man and womankind, considered not in isolation from, family, environment and life. Batty-Tuke, however recognised that alcoholism was a problem to be addressed not just by the medical profession, but by mankind in general:

Future advances

Figure 51: Mavisbank as it was in its final days of healing

[1] Tallis, Raymond (2008) Enlightenment; Manifesto ClubAnyone who defends the Enlightenment must first of all acknowledge that the original Enlightenment philosophers had widely differing views; and secondly that our ‘take’ on Enlightenment thought has evolved – in particular we are more wary of the trap of scientism.”

[2] Langdon-Brown, Sir W (1938) Thus we are Men; The collected essays; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co Ltd

[3] National Archives of Scotland (1946-1953) National Health Service (S) Act, 1947 Mavisbank Nursing Home Ltd, Loanhead; position in the NHS Non-Scheme Hospitals HH101/549

[4] Rutherford, Sarah (2008) The Victorian Asylum; Shire Library

[5] The Lancet (Aug 1878) Dipsomania; James Allan Philip, Superintendent of Mavisbank Asylum

[6] British Medical Journal (Jan 1943) Obituary of Dr John Keay

[7] Keay, John (March 1893) Chlorobrom in Mental Diseases; British Medico-Psychological Association

[8] British Medical Journal (Jan 1943) Obituary of Dr John Keay

[9] British Medical Journal (Mar 1908) Obituary of Dr George Robert Wilson

[10] Wilson, George R. (1899) Clinical Studies in Vice and Insanity; William F. Clay.

[11] BBC News (22 Feb 2009) Scotland has the eighth-highest level of alcohol consumption in the world, according to statistics analysed for the Scottish Government.

[12] General Register Office for Scotland; Census returns from 1841 till 1901

[13] Wilson, George Robert (1888) Discussion of ‘The Habitual Drunkard’ at Medico-Psychological Association’s Annual Meeting in Edinburgh

[14] British Medical Journal (Mar 1908) Obituary of Dr George Robert Wilson

[15] The Journal of Mental Science (1909) Obituary of Dr George Robert Wilson