Ben Peach's Scotland — a biography

Landscape sketches by a Victorian geologist

Early Years

Ben Peach

There can be few names in the history of Scottish geology better known than that of Ben Peach, whose classic work in the Geological Survey of Scotland from 1862 to 1905 laid the foundations for so much of our present understanding of the geological structure of this country.

Ben Peach was not a Scot by birth or ancestry but was born of an East Anglian family living in Gorran Haven, a small fishing village in Cornwall. His father, Charles Peach, served as an officer in the Coastguard Service but was also a distinguished amateur naturalist and geologist, with a wide circle of friends both scientific and literary. Peach senior was the first to discover fossils in the quartzites near Gorran Haven and he wrote to Sir Roderick Murchison, then Director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, suggesting that they were Lower Silurian in age, the first evidence of any rocks older than Devonian to be found in southwest England. Murchison, whose great work was the Silurian System, replied cautiously suggesting a possible misidentification, but Peach senior banished all doubt by sealing his next letter with a cast of the diagnostic species. Young Ben was therefore introduced to geology at an early age and he and his brothers often accompanied their father on his geological excursions. When Charles Peach was promoted to Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, in 1849 the boys’ interests and knowledge were extended greatly, for they learned not only about the local rocks but also about marine life and sea birds.

A further promotion took the family to Wick in Caithness in 1852 and young Ben’s education continued at Wick Academy, where an imaginative rector fostered his natural talents further. Living in Thurso at this time was one Robert Dick, a baker by trade, but a self-taught botanist, geologist and palaeontologist of outstanding merit. It was not long before Peach senior recognized a kindred spirit and the two men became close friends. Their long discussions of their mutual interests stimulated young Ben still further and he began to explore the countryside on his own.

In 1854 Peach senior paid a visit to Durness on the north coast of Sutherland to ‘receive a wreck’, and there he noticed poorly preserved fossils in the local limestone. He duly informed Murchison and the discovery reawoke general interest in the North-west Highlands, more especially when a subsequent visit in 1857 yielded better specimens of Lower Silurian age. Murchison felt so indebted to his friend that he undertook to send Ben to the Royal School of Mines when the young man reached the age of seventeen. Among Ben’s new teachers were the renowned glaciologist and structural geologist Ramsey and Darwin’s champion Thomas Huxley. Three years later in 1862 Ben, who had distinguished himself as ‘an able student’, graduated and was appointed by Murchison to his newly formed Geological Survey of Scotland, as their fourth member of staff. Although Peach senior’s friendship with Murchison was largely instrumental in securing Ben’s appointment to the Survey, Murchison was clearly impressed by the young man and time proved his faith to have been amply justified.