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Tell it like it is


Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan eavesdrops on some home truths…

Geoscientist 21.09 October 2011

Amateurs have always played an important role in geology, often providing the ‘professionals’ with access to carefully gathered collections of fossils and extensive and detailed local knowledge. One such was Robert Dick (1810/11–66) who served an apprenticeship with a baker in Tullibody in Scotland and went on to work as a journeyman baker in Leith, Glasgow and Greenock before opening a baker’s business in Thurso. When he wasn’t baking, Dick devoted himself to the study of natural history in general, and geology in particular. He became a recognised authority of the geology of Caithness, provided valuable assistance to luminaries such as Roderick Murchison in their research, and maintained a regular correspondence with Scottish geologist and writer Hugh Miller (1802–56). He was also a great friend Charles Peach (1800-86) – father of Ben Peach, of Peach and Horne fame – who praised Dick’s cheerful manner and sparkling wit.

Cheerful he may have been, but Dick clearly didn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade and speak his mind. In 1854 he wrote to Hugh Miller:

“Do you know, I am often accused of bearing an ill-will to geologists! When I think them at fault, and am asked to speak, I merely speak what I think to be the truth. Mr John Miller here has got Murchison's thirty-shilling book, and handed it to me to look at. Well, unfortunate fellow that I am, I saw that Sir Roderick was entirely wrong in saying that Cyclas was confined to the uppermost beds of the Old Red. I told him so, and he, as usual, thought that I was doing injury, and what not, to geology! Poof! poof! In what respect was I a gainer or Murchison a loser. Instead of being angry, you geologists should be pleased, as it shows that we pay attention to what you say."

For his part, Murchison doesn't seem to have allowed insult to lead to injury as far as his relationship with Dick went. In a letter dating from May 1857 and sent from the Museum of Practical Geology, he turned on the charm when asking for a fossil 'donation':

"... Aware of the talent you have evinced in collecting rare and good specimens of the fossil ... I venture to ask you to take some steps to supply us with a few really good things in the ichthyic line ... Pray excuse the freedom I use. I have no other means of endeavouring to secure this desirable object."

Dick responded with the gift of "a very fine specimen of Asterolepis". Flattery always could get you everywhere!


Sources for this vignette include Robert Dick Baker of Thurso, Geologist and Botanist written in 1878 by Samuel Smiles, and Dick’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Michael McMullen.

  •  If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG)? For more information and to read the latest HOGG newsletter, visit:, where the programme and abstracts from the Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting are available as a pdf file free to download.

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