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Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins

Murdo Macdonald

Edinburgh: University Press, 2020

Hardback. 232 p. ISBN 978-1474454070. £85


Reviewed by Clarisse Godard Desmarest

Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens)




This new book on the Scottish urbanist, biologist and polymath Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) fills an important gap; it seeks to understand, for the first time, the distinctively Scottish intellectual context of Geddes’s thinking. Geddes was a wonderfully complex thinker who achieved a great deal in areas as diverse as botany, geography, ecology, sociology, urban planning and cultural activism. Very often he had a pioneering role in helping to establish academic disciplines which we take for granted today. His life and work have been approached by scholars from a variety of angles which include, for example, Helen Miller’s biography Patrick Geddes : Social Evolutionist and City Planner (1990) and Volker M. Welter’s study of Geddes’s ideas on town planning in the light of 19th-century biology (Biopolis : Patrick Geddes and the City of Life, 2002). The specifically Scottish dimension of his thinking, however, had not been addressed comprehensively; and yet Geddes was the heir of an intellectual approach that emphasised the importance of interdisciplinary thinking.

Murdo Macdonald is well-qualified to tackle this theme, as he was taught by the Edinburgh philosopher George Davie, author of The Democratic Intellect (1961) and The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect (1986). For Edinburgh University Press in 2013 Macdonald edited and introduced a new edition of George Davie’s classic account of the Scottish intellectual tradition. In The Democratic Intellect Davie explores how, in the old Scottish curriculum, the study of the core discipline of philosophy enabled students to explore and compare disciplines with one another. This formed the basis of Davie’s thesis (now updated by modern scholarship) which examined the superiority of the Scottish system of higher education in the 19th century, as compared to, in particular, the English one. Davie’s angle reflected the agenda pursued by the nationalist intelligentsia of the 1970s; he was a friend of Hugh MacDiarmid, the poet and lead contributor to the Scottish literary Renaissance. Murdo Macdonald is Emeritus Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee, and this gives him an additional geographic and institutional connection with Geddes; in 1888 a special chair of Botany was created for Geddes at University College Dundee. Macdonald is well-known as the author of Scottish Art (2000) in Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series, a book which gave architectural historians Miles Glendinning and Aonghus MacKechnie the idea of writing a companion one, in the same series, on Scottish Architecture (2004). Macdonald has worked extensively as an art critic and is a former editor of the Edinburgh Review; in 1992 he edited a special on Geddes (vol. 88), with contributions by Duncan Macmillan, Gordon Campbell, Elizabeth Cumming, Veronica Wallace and Tom Hubbard. This marked the beginning of his long-term interest in Geddes.

The Scottish interdisciplinary tradition gives Macdonald the framework within which to think about Geddes and to structure his book. The last chapter (of 14 in total) focuses on Geddes’s farewell lecture to University College Dundee given in 1919 before he took up a new role at the University of Bombay, in India. It is one of the great statements of his interdisciplinary approach. Rather than seeing Geddes’s interdisciplinarity as being primarily influenced by 19th-century French thinkers like Auguste Comte and Élisée Reclus, Macdonald considers that Geddes was already part of a tradition of Scottish thinkers who approached issues from a generalist point of view (like the pioneer of education theory Simon Somerville Laurie and the Milton scholar David Masson, both of whom Geddes knew). Geddes was an admirer of the thinking of 17th-century Czech philosopher Jan Amos Comenius. Macdonald explains that the two World Wars, and the parallel increase in disciplinary specialisation, led to a waning interest in Geddesian thought. As the confidence of modernism dissipated, however, the broad view that Geddes represented became of interest again in Scotland and elsewhere in the 1960s and thereafter.

In Chapter 1, Macdonald highlights Geddes’s background in the Free Church of Scotland, a Church founded 11 years before Geddes’s birth in rejection of a hierarchy of political authority. His father was an elder in the Free Church of Scotland and, throughout his life, Patrick Geddes kept a connection with its thinkers. The Free Church had strong links with academics and artists, and this is relevant to the understanding of Geddes’s interdisciplinary thinking; amongst its founders were, for example, physicist Sir David Brewster, painter David Octavius Hill, better known today for his pioneering role with Robert Adamson in the development of Scottish documentary photography, Thomas Guthrie, founder of the ragged school movement, and the Greek scholar and advocate of Celtic studies John Stuart Blackie. This Presbyterian background in the Free Church provided Geddes with a training in comparative thinking, and also connections with artists; those who helped to bring the Free Church into being also helped structure the major organisations concerned with science and art, like the Scottish Academy (from 1838 the Royal Scottish Academy).

In his analysis of the development of Geddes’s thinking Macdonald highlights, in chapter 2, the importance of geography, history and place. Macdonald traces Geddes’s appreciation of the relations between city and region in the thinker’s early childhood sense of the mountains above the Highland village of Ballater in Aberdeenshire (where Geddes was born in 1854) and of the unique position of Perth in its surrounding valleys (his family moved to Perth in 1857). The ‘valley section’ idea, a key tool for Geddes’s geographical analysis (which shows how urban planning grows from gardens and parklands which link directly via rivers, mountains and oceans), derives from his early appreciation of place and of the complex geography of the Highlands. Macdonald explains that Geddes’s thought has never been more relevant than today, when the ecology of the planet is recognised as essential for human survival. In his farewell lecture at Dundee Geddes phrased it thus: ‘this is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and dependent on the leaves. By leaves we live’. Locally, the Black Watch (an army regiment whose headquarters were in Perth), its Gaelic culture, formidable reputation and Highland dress, was also part of Geddes’s rich cultural background. Geddes’s formative years in Dundee, Edinburgh and London (where he studied evolutionary theory under Thomas Huxley, a key exponent of Darwin’s theories), and also in Mexico (where he suffered temporary blindness) formed the backbone of Geddes’s future activities in biology, sociology, geography, ecology and cultural activism.

Macdonald shows how Geddes applied his interdisciplinary insight into addressing the most pressing social issues of his time (chapter 3). Geddes returned to Edinburgh in 1880, where he confidently applied his ideas in urban conservation and renewal; also, he moved from Princes Street to live in James Court, in the historic Old Town, in 1886. Macdonald explains how Geddes set about improving the Old Town, by then a neglected area, not by clearing dilapidated tenements but rather by rediscovering the inherent civic strength of the city. The Edinburgh Social Union was established by Geddes in 1884 as an interlinkage between art and social reform. Amongst the supporters of the Geddesian project were Sydney Mitchell, the architect of Well Court, and philanthropist J.R. Findlay, the one-time owner of The Scotsman newspaper. Geddes’s advocacy of the visual art as fundamental to the work of the Social Union found its most profound expression through Phoebe Anna Traquair’s murals; the artist, an eminent figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement, was commissioned by the Union to paint the mural scheme for the mortuary chapel of the Sick Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh, 1885-86, and architect Robert Rowand Anderson’s Catholic Apostolic Church in Mansfield Place, 1892.

In chapter 5, on ‘Education, Anarchism and Celtic Revival’, Macdonald explains how Geddes’s extraordinarily interdisciplinary commitment came into full focus in the 1890s. Geddes moved on from the primarily philanthropic activities of the Social Union to educationally driven projects. His higher educational and civic aims found expression in the network of residencies and academic facilities in Edinburgh which took the overall title of ‘University Hall’, founded in 1887 with the motto Vivendo discimus (‘by living we learn’). Ramsay Garden was developed by Geddes in the 1890s as an educational community, an informal college, built in and around a garden; the names focused attention on the fact that the flats and residences had at their core the house of Allan Ramsay, the 18th-century poet. Ramsay Garden and nearby Riddle’s Court (purchased by Geddes in 1889 and renovated by him in the 1890s) formed an integrated world of students and teachers. In his analysis of Geddes’s connection with private patronage and the city of Edinburgh, Macdonald explores the complexity of ‘radical Geddes’ (he shared anarchist views and was influenced by the ideas of James Mavor, Peter Kropotkin and the Reclus brothers) and ‘establishment Geddes’ (for example, he persuaded Lord Rosebery to buy and renovate Lady Stair’s House, then falling into disrepair). There was no tension or contradiction, however, Macdonald contends, because Geddes saw society as an evolutionary process, and the establishment he had to deal with and gain resources from was just one expression of the current state of that evolution. The crucial thing Geddes recognised was that human decisions could guide social evolution, and that such guidance could be for good or for ill.

Macdonald stresses that Geddes had a great ability to think visually, which is, for example, manifest in The Evergreen (1895) and Cities in Evolution (1915). This visual culture was heavily influenced by Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and encouraged Geddes to think holistically. Chapter 6, ‘Manifestos in Word and Image’, explains the close relationship between Dundee-born artist John Duncan and Patrick Geddes, as exemplified in Duncan’s painting of a frieze for Geddes’s flat in Ramsay Garden. Macdonald explains that in 1896 the flat decorated by Duncan formed part of an exhibition by artists of the Old Edinburgh School of Art (with work by Charles Mackie, Mary Hill Burton and Helen Hay), an aspect of ‘University Hall’ of which Duncan was the Director. Duncan was Geddes’s long-lasting collaborator and the leading artist of the Celtic Revival in Scotland. The spirit of Scots Renascence which emerged from the unique concentration of intellectuals and artists in Geddes’s halls is described in detail by Macdonald, and extends in a study of the international dimension of Geddes’s summer meetings in University Hall (chapter 8). That spirit found expression in many ways; the periodical The Evergreen, the Celtic verse and stories published by Geddes, the paintings of Burn Murdoch, John Duncan and others, the Outlook Tower and the building of the halls themselves. Interest in Celtic myths and ancestry, and archaeology, was reflected also in the activities of the Society of Antiquaries, whose museum occupied half of the new Scottish National Portrait Gallery (R.R. Anderson, 1891) in Queen Street, and some of whose fellows were close to Geddes. Macdonald devotes a full chapter (7) to the Celtic revival which Geddes and his circle led in the 1890s; the significance of St Columba and Iona, and Celtic legends in Geddesian thought, is also explored by Macdonald (chapter 12).

A further example of the importance of visual methods to Geddes is his Outlook Tower, the heart of University Hall and a sociological laboratory which he called an Encyclopaedia Graphica. Its symbolical imagery, providing a visual basis for human ecology, is unpacked by Macdonald (chapter 8). In doing so Geddes was also drawing attention to the fact that the tower was in Edinburgh, the city in which those great statements of interdisciplinary thinking, the Encylopaedia Britannica (to which Geddes was a contributor, in its ninth edition) and Chambers’s Encylopaedia, were founded. There is a wider interest in Geddes’s visual material at the moment, as shown by the collaborative project between the University of Edinburgh and the University of Strathclyde, the aim of which has been to preserve and virtually reunite the collection of papers of Geddes held in both institutions.*

Macdonald stresses Geddes’s internationalism; with other early 20th-century thinkers he shared an intellectual project of cultural nationalism as a basis for cooperation. Geddes had strong connections with French culture and French post-impressionism art and admired the social value of the Paris international exhibition of 1900 (chapter 9). In Paris, Geddes, a central figure, as we have seen, of the Celtic revival in Scotland, met key figures who would develop the Hindu revival in India, such as his friend the remarkable Irish educator Margaret Noble, who took on the name of Sister Nivedita as a disciple of the Hindu revivalist, Swami Vivekananda. Geddes met pioneering scientist Jagadis Chandra Bose whose biography he would later write and forged links with both Ananda Coomaraswamy and Rabindranath Tagore (chapter 13). Geddes’s wider friendships included many Indian spiritual thinkers who introduced him to the East, Baha’ism and Theosophy. These links deepen our understanding of Geddes’s cultural milieu.

At the end of The Democratic Intellect, G. Davie acutely described Geddes as ‘forward looking’ (p. 337-338). Macdonald’s book explains how much of Geddes’s research on education, city development and ecology is still relevant today.


* More details here.


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