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People of Angus

Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) an eminent scientist

Sketch of Sir Charles Lyell

Born at Kinnordy House, near Kirriemuir on 14th November 1797, Sir Charles Lyell is perhaps the most significant figure ever born in Angus. Within his chosen subject of geology he was hugely influential and his encouragement of Charles Darwin helped lay the groundwork for evolutionary biology.

Lyell was descended from Angus farming stock. His grandfather made his fortune at sea and bought and improved Kinnordy House and estates, while his father achieved fame in his own right as a botanist and translator of Dante. Charles spent much of his childhood at the family’s other home, Bartley Lodge in the New Forest, where his interest in the natural world was sparked. Educated at Oxford, he read for the Bar. But weak eyesight and a growing interest in geology led to his hobby becoming his life. He reviewed for quarterly magazines, then was asked to survey Forfarshire to help compile the geological map of Scotland. In 1828 he explored the volcanic region of the Auvergne, then went to Mount Etna to gather supporting evidence for a theory of geology he was developing. In brief, this stated that, given sufficient time, millions of years, geological change was slow and gradual and not subject to inexplicable catastrophe such as Noah’s Flood. In 1829 volume one of his great work Principles of Geology appeared. It was popular and controversial. Lyell’s prose is witty and subtle, and beautifully argued. He ruled that geologists should work as though visible causes of change are the same kind and the same intensity as those that have always acted - this had a great impact on Darwin. All his life, Lyell insisted upon the importance to geologists of field-work and extensive travel. In 1831 he married Mary Horner, who was of great help to him in his work. Lyell was the first to discuss metamorphic rocks and their age, and in 1837 he published The Elements of Geology, a textbook for serious students of the science, which, like The Principles he spent his life revising, keeping abreast of new developments. In 1848 he was knighted at Balmoral by Queen Victoria, riding there from Kinnordy. He made several tours of the United States, described in Travels in North America, and in his sixties he once again ascended Mount Etna. His later years were troubled by the necessity of accepting Darwin’s evolutionary theory, through this, he felt, conflicted with his religious faith. His final work, The Antiquity of Man, 1863 was a wide-ranging study of the human fossil record. He died on 22nd of February 1875, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. The standard biography is Leonard G. Wilson’s Charles Lyell (1972), and is highly recommended.

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