Tom Furniss, Discovering the Footsteps of Time: Geological Travel Writing about Scotland, 1700-1820

Tom Furniss, Discovering the Footsteps of Time: Geological Travel Writing about Scotland, 1700-1820 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2018) xiv + 305 pp. £80 Hb. ISBN: 9781474410014

Early on in his rigorous monograph, Furniss quotes from Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1703). The savant from Skye, known also as Màrtainn Màrtainn observed that

there’s a Wantonness in Language as well as in other things, to which my Countrymen of the Isles are as much strangers, as to other Excesses which are too frequent in many parts of Europe. We study Things there more than Words, tho’ those that understand our Native Language must own that we have enough of the latter to inform the Judgment, and work upon the Affections in as pathetick a manner as any other Languages whatever. (55)

As Furniss notes, this emphasis on ‘Words’ rather than ‘Things’ expressed its author’s intentions of adhering to the plain and observational style of writing encouraged by the Royal Society. Modern readers may be surprised, perhaps, by Martin’s suggestion that the Western islanders spoke (in Hebridean Gaelic) with a similarly Lockean directness. Readers concerned with the literature of the earth sciences will recall how this weaponisation of language has been key to previous scholarly excursions into geology’s written nature, many of which have been so profitable to the field of literature and science. Furniss’s contribution adds further valuable insights to the literary study of scientific non-fiction.

Discovering the Footsteps of Time is a study of geological travel writing in Scotland during a period in which important conceptualisations both of geology and of Scotland were being formed. Furniss focuses on how his subjects ‘avoid or emphasise the aesthetic impact of Scotland’s mountain wilderness and the geology that produced it’ (16), and thus the extent to which they adopt changing conventions of natural historical observation, the sublime, the Romantic quest, and piety in the face of nature’s grandeur. Considering the ‘literary strategies of this geological travel writing’ alongside the ‘geological theories and discoveries’ the writers promoted, argues Furniss, reveals ‘mutually constitutive relationships’ (ix).

After contextualising Scotland’s role in what we might call the Enlightenment and Romantic earth sciences, the bulk of the book consists of readings of texts by seven field workers: Martin Martin, John Walker, Thomas Pennant, Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, James Hutton, Robert Jameson, and John MacCulloch. The careers of these men shade roughly from natural history into mineralogy, geognosy, and geology – the latter term, in particular, being a category that can only be anachronistically applied to the subjects of investigation in earlier sections of the book. Furniss’s discussion brings in classic topics including Ossian-mania, the clashes of Neptunists, Vulcanists, and Plutonists, and the exploration of famous sites like Fingal’s Cave, all unified (as suggested by the quotation from Martin) by the familiar disagreements over the extent to which language and genre represent or shape the natural world. Furniss argues that, while the earlier travel writers attempt to obey the generally collaborative, empirical, observational, and non-speculative dictates of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural history, later authors become increasingly attentive to geotheorising, aesthetic appreciation, and the sublime. After borderline tensions in the work of Pennant, from the Romantic Faujas onwards their writing ‘typically foregrounds the heroic geological traveller’s subjective experiences of difficulty, discovery and delight’ (53). Furniss identifies this literary shift as being ‘plotted’ alongside the transition ‘from Enlightenment mineralogy to Romantic geology’ (122). By the early decades of the nineteenth century, as Scotland became less integral to the progress of the earth sciences and tourism became easier, Furniss concludes that ‘Romantic travel and geology’ began ‘to go their separate ways’ (232).

Furniss’s readings of these travel writers are incisive, sharply demonstrating how the texts work while grappling confidently with the authors’ often-elaborate rhetorical protestations about style, theory, and priority. Amongst the most compelling is the reading of Hutton’s little-studied manuscript notes, intended for a third volume of his Theory of the Earth that was posthumously published only in 1899. Furniss combats the idea that Hutton was an ‘inept’ writer through close study of ‘narrative strategies associated with quest romance, figurative language, authorial self-fashioning’ and ‘the manipulation of the sublime’ (193), including an inspired analysis of Hutton’s deployment of the novelistic ‘was-now’ formulation (176-80). Similarly impressive is Furniss’s parallel reading of the published and manuscript journal forms of Jameson’s tours of Arran. This reading shows how ‘Jameson rewrote, reinterpreted and reorganised his findings and experiences on Arran’ for publication (200), creatively reshuffling moments of epiphany ‘in the service of his larger rhetorical and geotheoretical aims (211). These aims were chiefly to promote Wernerian theory and to combat the atheistical worldview Jameson found in Hutton’s work.

This book’s narrative is at times a neat one, perhaps appropriate to its preference for the geotheoretical world of Enlightenment Scotland over the chambers of the young and staunchly unspeculative Geological Society of London. Furniss is aware of the irregularities (or unconformities), contextualising exceptions where neither literary style nor scientific theory follow his trajectory neatly. It is odd that, apart from a somewhat disputable disagreement (236), Furniss does not engage more with the work of Adelene Buckland, whose Novel Science (2013) presents the closest comparison for his own work. It might be added that, despite the invocation of Ralph O’Connor, such categories as the ‘literary’ sometimes go unqualified, and the conclusory epilogue on how geology and Romantic travel literature were disassociated is brief.

These qualifications must not detract seriously from a book that comes highly recommended to scholars of literature and science interested in the earth sciences, as well as those concerned with travel writing, eighteenth-century science, the Scottish Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the literary study of non-fiction more generally. Perhaps due to the pioneering scholarship of Martin Rudwick, one of Furniss’s main sources, works examining geology as literature have often been hard to distinguish from the study of the history of geology. This book is no exception, offering contributions to historians of science, both in its sustained literary attention to important texts and in its emphasis on fieldwork, particularly the work undertaken by Pennant and Hutton, that has previously been insufficiently considered. Discovering the Footsteps of Time is an invigorating read and a significant addition to our understanding of science as literature and literature as science.

Richard Fallon, University of Leicester

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