Following in the footsteps of James Smithson
Somewhat late in the summer of 1784, James Smithson embarked on his first scientific expedition. This “expedition” might have seemed a bit odd to a modern viewer—as it consisted of four gentlemen, with their servants, driving north from London in carriages—but in the 18th century science was often a gentleman’s pursuit and this was how gentlemen traveled.
Their goal was to explore the remote island of Staffa, off the Northwest coast of Scotland. Staffa had recently been visited by Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society in London, and his description of the island’s distinctive basalt columns and remarkable marine caves had captured both the popular and scientific imaginations of the time. In the 19th century Staffa would become a major tourist destination, but in 1784 Smithson’s party would have been one of the first scientific groups—and certainly the first mineralogists—to attempt the rigorous overland journey to see it.
Smithson would later become famous for leaving his fortune to found the Smithsonian Institution in the United States. But at this time he was only 19 years old and fresh from his studies at Oxford. The driving force behind the expedition was Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a French geologist and mineralogist who planned to use the trip as field-work for a book on Scottish volcanoes. Smithson only learned about the expedition at the last minute from one of his professors, who urged him to join and provided letters of introduction. Smithson dropped everything and rushed to London, arriving just a few days before it departed.
The route Smithson’s group took to Staffa. Today’s highways take essentially the same path.Map by Reginald Piggott from Heather Ewing's The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian (Bloomsbury, 2007).
The events he witnessed, the places he visited and the ideas he encountered propelled Smithson’s early scientific career and influenced much of his later scientific work. As a Smithsonian curator researching the science of James Smithson, I’ve spent much of the last year trying to unravel the story of what Smithson saw on this trip and what it would have meant to him. So much of the story is connected to the specific geology of Scotland and to Enlightenment-era Edinburgh that I came to realize the importance of seeing these places in person. And when I mentioned this idea to my intrepid volunteers Jeff Gorman and Frank Cole, it was not long before we all found ourselves on a unique vacation: following in the footsteps of James Smithson.
Averaging less than 20 miles a day, it took the expedition several weeks to reach Edinburgh (more than 300 miles from London), and for me this was their first important destination. This is where Smithson encountered the remarkable intellectual flowering now known as the Scottish Enlightenment.
We know that Smithson carried letters of introduction and that he met and later corresponded with the famous chemist Joseph Black. Black was noted for his use of the chemical balance and at the National Museum of Scotland we were able to see some of his actual instruments. Smithson wrote about carrying a balance “of Black’s design” when he traveled in Europe.
Smithson arrived in Edinburgh at a very interesting time. The city was home to some of the most brilliant men in Europe and they all seem to have been close friends. Smithson was able to meet many of them and although the expedition could not linger more than a few days, he seems to have been strongly affected by the experience and returned for a second visit on his way back to London.
In particular he seems to have been impressed by James Hutton, now known as the father of geology. At the time of Smithson’s visit Hutton would have been just developing his revolutionary theories about underground heat and pressure, and we know that he was recruiting visiting scientists to send him rock samples. Hutton seems to have recruited our hero as well, as Smithson later tried to send him fossils. If Hutton spent any time with Smithson, one of the places he would have taken him was “Salisbury Crags”—an ancient lava flow that literally loomed over the back yard of his house.
The Salisbury Crags, near Hutton's home
This image was taken just a short distance from where Hutton lived, and it’s easy to see why his attention was drawn to this formation. In his time the hard basaltic stone at the top was being excavated for use as paving stones. As new material was exposed Hutton would study it for evidence of structures that could only have been formed by underground lava. To help us understand the unique geology of Edinburgh we arranged a geologic tour of the city, and this turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. The Edinburgh area was shaped by ancient volcanoes and in Holyrood Park, in the center of the city, we were able to see some of the same formations that Hutton would have studied—and presumably shown Smithson.
On Salisbury Crags, in Holyrood Park, our geology guide Angus Miller points out what Hutton would have called an “unconformity”—a layer of sedimentary rock that has been injected with unground lava.
Edinburgh was the intellectual center of 18th century Scotland, but the expedition encountered a different side of the Enlightenment at the next place it lingered—Inveraray Castle. This was, and still is, the home of the Duke of Argyll, and Smithson’s group reached it only after a long, difficult journey up the west side of Loch Lomand and then overland to Loch Fyne. A modern highway now follows this same route and as we drove we were able to enjoy the rugged beauty of mountains and lochs. But we could imagine the challenge of getting carriages over muddy mountain roads and of finding food and lodging in the rain and dark. We could also imagine the joy of Smithson’s group when they finally reached the Castle.
Located on the shore of Loch Fyne and situated at the base of a low mountain, the Castle remains today much as Smithson would have seen it. Much more a home than a fortress, the Castle was just being finished when they arrived. The Duke and Duchess were famous for their hospitality and refinement, and Faujas later reported that French was spoken at dinner and that French wines, tableware and manners were at all times employed.
For me, Inveraray Castle presents the romantic side of the Enlightenment. The artwork and tapestries, the elaborate gardens and hothouses, even the design of the Castle itself all express something of the idealization of nature and reason that characterized Smithson’s time. And there is also an underlying belief in progress and human improvement, which is an interesting connection to Smithson’s later founding of the Smithsonian.
Sculpture of Perseus and Andromeda by the Flemish sculptor Michael Van Der Voort, 1713. Smithson almost certainly saw this work and one wonders how he would have understood it. Did he see, as many in his time would have, a metaphor of nature and the power of reason?
The expedition could only linger three days at Inveraray, although the Duke urged them to stay longer. They must have looked back fondly to this time during the subsequent days, because they now began the most difficult part of their journey.
The expedition now headed northwest to the fishing village of Oban, from which they would sail to the island of Mull and, from there, to Staffa. The road was the worst they had yet encountered and they were exhausted by the time they reached Oban.
Our own drive to Oban was much more pleasant and took only a few hours. We arrived in time to visit the local historical society and learn a bit about its history. Oban would have been a small fishing village when Smithson saw it, with a population of only about 600. It began to grow in the 1790s—partly due to interest in Staffa—and today is a pleasant community of about 8,500.
Today it’s an easy ferry ride from Oban to Mull, although for Smithson the 33 mile trip could have been daunting—it was the beginning of the stormy season. Once on Mull, Smithson’s group crossed to the west side of the island and the embarkation point for Staffa. They stayed at Torloisk, an estate the Duke had recommended, and from which (on a clear day) they could see Staffa. It took several days before the seas were calm enough to attempt to reach Staffa and even then Smithson reported a harrowing trip. He spent the night on the island, returning the next day with a cache of mineral samples and a genuine sense of accomplishment.
Our own expedition to Staffa was less successful. Modern tour boats leave Mull from the same spot that Smithson used, but on the days we were there the seas were too rough to venture out. The seas around Staffa are notoriously unpredictable—Smithson had to wait almost a week for good weather—but having gotten so close made me determined to come back and try again during another trip.
After Staffa, Smithson returned to Edinburgh for an extended visit and then returned to London. On the way back he visited the important mines at Leadhills, which produced not just lead, but a variety of other metals including zinc, silver and gold.
At the museum in Wanlockhead we were able go a short way into one of the original lead mines, which was an interesting experience. I was intrigued to learn that this area had both lead and zinc mines. Smithson wrote about the chemistry of both minerals and the zinc ore Smithsonite is named after him. Did his interest in these ores begin during this visit?
Smithson’s last stop before returning to London was to visit a salt mine in the Northwich area, southwest of Manchester. The underground salt deposits in Northwich have been worked since Roman times and the extraction of salt has led to a series of subsidences (or “fells”) throughout the area. Many of the lakes in Northwich are actually old salt mines that collapsed after the salt was removed.
This was also our last stop, although the mine Smithson visited no longer exists. Instead we visited the Lion Salt Works in Marston which is one of the few remaining 19th-century salt mines. It closed in the 1970s and is now in the process of being restored as an industrial museum. It used a “brine” method of extraction, which is different than the mine Smithson visited, but the site is adjacent to the Trent and Mersey Canal, which was completed just a few years before Smithson’s visit. The canal was built to facilitate shipping salt and, like so much of what Smithson saw on his trip, was what we now think of as the beginning of the British industrial revolution.
Smithson returned to London just over three months after he had left. His newfound reputation as an explorer opened doors for him, as did the large cache of mineral samples he brought back. Just 3 years later, in 1787, he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society, becoming its youngest member. Smithson’s scientific career had started.
Historians are more commonly found in libraries and archives than on road-trips, and I must admit to being a bit uncertain about how useful this trip would actually be. But having seen the places Smithson visited and having, in some ways, shared his experiences has proved immensely helpful as I try to piece his story together. In particular, the depth of his interest in geology has been a revelation and my research since returning has been largely devoted to exploring that topic.
Steven Turner is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science. He’d like to express his appreciation for his “support group” on this trip: Jeff Gorman, Ginni Gorman, Frank Cole and Mary Lou Cole; with a special thanks to Frank, who took on the daunting task of planning this trip and without whom it certainly wouldn’t have happened.