scottish history
A service from


The Highland Clearances

Scottish Origins... up to William Wallace

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

Battle of Falkirk & Execution of Wallace

History of the Kilt

Patrick Geddes

Tragedy at Glencoe


Patrick Geddes: Scotland's Renaissance Man
by Duncan Macmillan
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Ecologist, planner, botanist - Patrick Geddes's achievements were wide, and deserve worldwide acclaim,

Who are our cultural heroes? And how many are big enough to be visible beyond Scotland's horizons, from beyond the world's curve? Hume, Burns, Scott, Stevenson, a few others maybe - and there is one more who should be there, but is not ... not yet. Truly a prophet in his own country and a man before his time, he is only now beginning to be heard more than 60 years after his death. He is Patrick Geddes, native of Perth, resident of Edinburgh, professor of Botany in Dundee, who also worked in France, Palestine and India. Geddes' achievements are numerous. Biologist, botanist and social thinker, he is internationally recognised as one of the fathers of town planning. He was one of the founders of Scottish nationalism, but also a great Scottish Internationalist. Far from being incompatible, he saw these two things as mutually dependent. A passionate believer in the Auld Alliance, Geddes devoted much time in his later life to re-establishing the pre-Reformation Scots College in Montpellier where the building he put up still stands and there is a street that bears his name.

He promoted public art including paintings by Phoebe Traquair and John Duncan. He started international summer schools, the first of their kind and a not so distant ancestor of the Edinburgh Festival. In Dundee he laid out a botanic garden. He left his mark on the fabric of Edinburgh too where, among other things, he had a hand in designing Edinburgh Zoo, but he was first and foremost a pioneer of the regeneration of Edinburgh's Old Town. There he built Ramsay Garden, centred on the house the poet Allan Ramsay built for himself. He pioneered student residences and the Outlook Tower with its camera obscura became the symbol of his vision of the flow of ideas between the community and the wider world. The list is so long and appears to be in so many bits that the unity of the man has escaped us. But he was a true disciple of the Scottish generalist tradition, and so the core of his thought is humane and very simple. It is what makes him more topical daily. He was a pupil of the great biologists of the 19th century, of Darwin and of Huxley, but he was also a student of the pioneers of sociology. He put these two things together and came up tiwth this result. In the biological scheme of things, human society is an organism like any other. Like all other forms of organism, it requires certain conditions to flourish and crucially, its own health depends on the health of the other organisms that make up its ecology. His vision of the right conditions for human social health was a complex one. To mirror its complexity he devised the idea of the regional report. Single factors like housing or employmenrt were essential, but not sufficient causes of social health. In addition, these ranged from the need for fresh air and gardens to communal self-esteem, the importance of place, identity, of history and of art as the vehicle of a society's present self-expression. So art has a place in human ecology. But remember, Geddes was also a pioneer of ecology in the wider sense. He foresaw very clearly what would happen if we became enslaved by our technology at the expense of our humanity. The disaster would not just engulf us, but our whole environment to which we are bound in mutual dependence. Geddes saw and foresaw all this. Though he has been neglected, his neglect has not been absolute. He coined the phrase the Scottish Renaissance and was one of MacDiarmid's heroes. And he inspired Sir Robert Grieve's comprehensive Strathclyde Regional Survey, a model of its kind. To perpetuate his teaching Professor Johnson-Marshall established a Patrick Geddes Centre with a major Geddes archive in Edinburgh University. The Outlook Tower was to be its home and was bought by the university for this purpose in 1966. It never happened. The present owner of the Outlook Tower took it over first of all as a tennant with a promise to house the Geddes centre. But this [promise was never fulfilled and eventually he bought it in 1982 as a sitting tennant with just one floor leased to the Geddes centre. When Johnson-Marshall's department of urban design and regional planning was closed down by the university, in acrimony surrounding the closure, the Patrick Geddes Centre was almost lost. For years its life hung by a thread but it was nursed and gallantly defended by Sofia Leonard, its director. And now at last the university has given it secure status, though its foothold in the Outlook Tower is less certain. For the moment though, reclaiming a little bit of its own, if only temporarily, the centre has put on an exhibition devoted to explaining Geddes. It is a small but lucid display that gives far more to the passing tourist than the tired holograms on the floor below. There are other things afoot. The garden Geddes created at Montpellier has recently been restored with a view to a wider re-instatement of the site. Scottish artists and Geddes disciples Kenny Munro and George Wyllie, with several others, went out there with a view to reforging links. In Edinburgh there is now a Patrick Geddes Trail.

In Perth a group of people have been working to establish a Geddes Centre. In Dundee there is enthusiasm for re-establishing Geddes's otanical garden. In Edinburgh, Ramsay Lodge, the central building in Ramsay Gardens, complete with murals by John Duncan, is up for sale. This opportunity of recovering for education what was once a power house of interdisciplinary thought has not esacped the notice of Geddes enthusiasts. Edinburgh and Scotland have in Geddes a figure who focuses some of the central concerns of our society, not just locally but internationally. There is a lot of talk of cultural tourism. At its crudest, its a way of making richer visitors stay longer, but does it need to be just that? The exhhibition in the Outlook Tower is a little island of sanity in the sad length of the Royal Mile. Must we give tourists kitsch we would not touch ourselves or can we give them through Geddes something that represents the strongest, most relevant part of the Scottish tradition? The exhibition at the Outlook Tower is on the fourth floor, or contact the Patrick Geddes Centre on 0131 650 8971. For more information: Patrick Geddes Multimedia Education Project

Scotweb's Scottish History Magazine
is edited by
Robert M. Gunn

Please email comments and suggestions to

All original material © Robert M. Gunn 1997-2003 unless stated
No parts to be reproduced without prior written consent

Scottish History site provided courtesy of
This site is hosted by Scotweb - see our range of kilts and tartans