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Animal kingdom a la carte

Rev. William Buckland, in field gear. From the Society's portrait collection.

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan* samples the fare at the Buckland dinner table…

Geoscientist 20.8 August 2010

The household of the Reverend William Buckland, first Reader in Geology at Oxford University, was notorious for its eccentricity. Buckland's enthusiasm for the natural world and interest in animals even permeated the dining room of his house in Tom Quad at Christ Church in Oxford.

In his book Reminiscences of Oxford , the Reverend W Tuckwell recalls the “queer dishes garnishing the dinner table – horseflesh I remember more than once, crocodile another day, mice baked in batter on a third – while the guinea-pig under the table inquiringly nibbled at your infantine toes, the bear walked round your chair and rasped your hand with file-like tongue, the jackal's fiendish yell close by came through the open window, the monkey's hairy arm extended itself suddenly over your shoulder to annex your fruit and walnuts.”

In his book, Praeterita, another visitor to the Buckland household, John Ruskin, recorded his regret when an “unlucky engagement” caused him to miss “a delicate toast of mice”, but recalled “with delight being waited upon one hot summer morning by two graceful and polite Caroline lizards, which kept off the flies”.

No doubt living with and consuming so many different forms of life contributed to Buckland's great expertise and interest in animal anatomy. It also helps to explain why Buckland, on his wedding tour, viewed the sacred bones contained in St Rosalia's shrine at Palermo and confidently declared that they were not the bones of a woman – but of a goat.

Even so, it fails to explain how, many years later, Buckland was able to drop to the pavement in another foreign cathedral, touch his tongue to some dark stains reputed to be the blood of a martyr and exclaim with certainty: "I know what it is; it is bat's urine!" In all the contemporary reports that survive, bat's urine appears to be one of the few dishes that never graced the Buckland table.


The stories about the Buckland menus, the saint's bones and the martyr's blood appear in Reminiscences of Oxford by Reverend W Tuckwell, published by Smith, Elder and Co., London, 1907. The incident about Ruskin is described in The Curious World of Frank Buckland by G H O Burgess, published by John Baker, London, 1967.

*Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.

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