George Gordon – Man of Science
Moray Connections celebrates the achievements of those from Moray who made their mark nationally or internationally. For most, that meant going out to the world.
But in the case of one nineteenth century Moravian, the scientific world came to Moray, to visit him.
That man was George Gordon, Church of Scotland Minister for Birnie. The Elgin Museum now stands as a monument to the lifework of this remarkable man who chose to devote his great talents to the study of Moray.
And if as a minister he may have failed the expectations of his congregation by reading passages from the bible rather than delivering a sermon, he certainly never failed to bring credit to this special part of Scotland.
George Gordon was born on 23 July 1801 at Urquhart Manse, the first son of the Reverend William Gordon and his wife Margaret who was daughter of Joseph Anderson, Church of Scotland Minister at Birnie.
George Gordon attended Elgin Academy, leaving at the age of 14 to attend Marischal College, part of Aberdeen University.
After graduating MA in 1819, he went on to the University of Edinburgh where he attended those lectures that were a necessary part of the training for a doctorate in medicine. This was to allow him to continue his scientific training whether or not he intended to become a doctor.
In Edinburgh, taking many of the same lecture courses was a brilliant group of students that included Charles Darwin and Hugh Falconer and John Grant Malcomson of Forres.
Starting with natural history in 1821 and ending with geology and botany in 1829 his education in Edinburgh was to shape his future activities. Between 1827 and 1928 he also studied theology in the capital.
He returned to Moray and had to wait before becoming minister of Birnie in November 1832, with the assistance of the Earl of Moray.
Gordon married Anna Stephen of Bruceland on 20 March 1834 and his eight children all grew up in the manse.
The manse at Birnie became a hot house of scientific thought as well as a family home. The 1851 census lists the minister, his wife, seven children, a governess, a wet nurse, four indoor servants and one outdoor servant – a total of sixteen!
Gordon became a champion of Moray, totally absorbed in the scientific and antiquarian aspects of a province which to him extended beyond the county boundary, as far as Beauly.
Initially botany took up his leisure time and by 1839 he had completed a Flora of Moray. He and his friends actively scoured the countryside making the first records of its rich and varied plant life.
In the 1840s Gordon set about recording the fauna of Moray, beginning with its mammals, birds and fishes and then moving on to the invertebrate. Most of his findings were published in The Zoologist.
These achievements were made possible through the support of a large network of friends, both professional and amateur, many stretching back to his university classes and he continued to work with them throughout his long life.
Gordon was a willing sharer of knowledge, a constant questor for information and a great giver of information to those less well informed. His many letters to the great scientists of the day and to so many other interested in science serve as a proud record of support so freely given.
It was the geology of Moray that proved to be of the greatest interest to scientists. Gordon and his friends had found fossil fish in the local sandstones in the 1830s and from this interest the Elgin and Morayshire Scientific Association was formed in 1836 with Gordon as a founder member. In 1843 the association built the Elgin Museum.
Geologists continuously visited Moray to research the fossils and the sandstones and called on Gordon’s excellent knowledge of the area.
Such was the respect given to him that he was rewarded with an honorary degree from Marischal College in 1859.
Gordon remained active in science up to his death, a touchstone of knowledge about Moray for all who studied the area.
He died on 12 December 1893 at his home Braebirnie, Mayne Road, Elgin and was buried at Birnie Kirk.
Today his past can be celebrated both by visiting Elgin Museum and by sharing his love and understanding of the flora, fauna, geology and archaeology of Moray.