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date: 25 May 2022

Hutton, Jamesfree


Hutton, Jamesfree

  • Jean Jones

James Hutton (1726–1797)

by Sir Henry Raeburn

Hutton, James (1726–1797), geologist, was born in Edinburgh on 3 June 1726, the younger son of William Hutton (d. 1729), a prosperous merchant, and Sarah (b. 1698), daughter of John Balfour of Braidwood, Edinburghshire, merchant, and his wife, Elizabeth. Hutton's life spanned the greatest years of the Scottish Enlightenment and, of its number, only Joseph Black made a greater contribution to science. The principal source of information about his life is the masterly biography by Professor John Playfair published in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1805; little of his correspondence and none of his papers—barring one manuscript—survives. His father and elder brother died when he was very young, so Hutton grew up with his mother and sisters.

Education and early researches

Hutton was sent to the Royal High School and then, in 1740, to Edinburgh University where he studied the humanities and developed a taste for chemistry. Originally destined for a career in law, his apprenticeship to a writer to the signet was swiftly curtailed as he was often found entertaining his fellow apprentices with chemical experiments. In 1744 he returned to the university as a medical student, moving to Paris to continue his studies in late 1747, a move which may have been connected with the birth of a natural son (who was also known as James Hutton) at about this time. During nearly two years in Paris he studied anatomy and chemistry, probably attending the lectures of G. F. Rouelle. He finally graduated MD in Leiden in 1749 with a thesis entitled De sanguine et circulatione microcosmi. However, Hutton never practised medicine. Back in Edinburgh he and John Davie set up a plant to manufacture sal-ammoniac (ammonium chloride) by a process they had discovered some years before, using the soot from Edinburgh's chimneys as the raw material. The business, managed by Davie, flourished until the early nineteenth century and, together with Hutton's inherited wealth, made him rich.

In 1752, in an abrupt change of direction, Hutton decided to farm and, with Norfolk as his base, spent two years studying new agricultural methods. After a tour through Picardy and the Low Countries in 1754, he settled at Slighhouses, a farm belonging to his family, which lay in the fertile Tweed valley near Duns, Berwickshire. His few surviving letters from this period suggest Hutton was restless and unhappy at first, but he remained there for about thirteen years, bringing the land into good order, testing different crops and fertilizers, studying plant growth and diseases, and keeping meteorological records. He also introduced the Norfolk two-horse plough into the Borders and this proved his most lasting innovation. He failed to complete 'Elements of agriculture', a lengthy manuscript dealing with economics as well as plant and animal husbandry, which he was revising during his final illness and which still remains unpublished. Since 'the husbandman maintains the nation in all its ease, its affluence and its splendour' (NL Scot., Hutton, Agriculture, 681). Hutton believed governments should actively support agriculture.

Middle years in Edinburgh

In or before 1767 Hutton returned to Edinburgh. He bought a share in the Company of the Proprietors of the Forth and Clyde Navigation and spent seven years on the committee of management for this huge project, helping surveyors decide the route and finding suitable supplies of building stone for its thirty-nine locks. In 1777 he published Considerations on the Nature, Quality and Distinctions of Coal and Culm, a pamphlet urging the government to lift the tax on culm carried by sea, which was almost certainly written with traffic on the canal in mind. The tax was subsequently lifted, the pamphlet—according to Playfair—having contributed significantly to its repeal.

Of Hutton's circle of friends the closest were Joseph Black, Adam Smith (who appointed Hutton and Black as his literary executors), George Clerk Maxwell (later Sir George Clerk of Penicuik), his brother John Clerk of Eldin, and James Watt. Hutton spent more time with Black than anyone else, often in scientific pursuits. Playfair, who probably first met Hutton in the 1770s, gave a vivid description of him. In figure he was slender, vigorous, and plainly dressed; in manner, impetuous and candid, careless of convention, and notable for his 'powerful and imperious' (Playfair, 96) desire for knowledge, which encompassed mechanical contrivances, exploration—he advised Joseph Banks how to make a geological survey of unknown terrain when he was planning to go on Cook's second voyage—and social philosophy as well as the sciences. For relaxation in his later years he used 'regularly to unbend himself with a few friends' (ibid., 98) at the Oyster Club, an informal group he formed with Black and Smith where they got together with savants, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs. He never married but enjoyed the company of intelligent women. This somewhat ascetic image is fleshed out by Hutton's few remaining letters which show he relished bawdy jokes and though, in Playfair's words, 'he ate sparingly, and drank no wine' (ibid., 93) he was certainly not averse to hard liquor.

In the early 1770s Hutton moved to 3 St Johns Hill, a house (now demolished) which he had built overlooking the Salisbury Crags and where he lived with his sisters until the end of his life. He had established a reputation as a geologist and mineralogist but although he gave several papers to the Edinburgh Philosophical Society he published nothing except the pamphlet on culm until after the foundation of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783. Thereafter he became one of its most active members, reading papers on chemistry, meteorology, natural history, geology, and the origin of speech and writing; six of these were published in the society's Transactions, the others were incorporated in his books. Much noticed at the time, and opposed by Jean André de Luc, was his Theory of Rain (1788), in which he proposed that the solubility of water vapour must increase with temperature at an accelerating, rather than a constant, rate, since precipitation occurs when masses of air at different temperatures and humidities collide. However, it was a paper given in the spring of 1785, 'Theory of the earth, or, An investigation of the laws observable in the composition, dissolution, and restoration of land upon the globe', which was to bring him lasting fame. An abstract was printed the same year; the full text, perhaps elaborated, appeared in the first volume of the society's Transactions in 1788. Hutton's final geological statement, Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations, preserved much of the 1788 text but added new evidence. The first two volumes appeared in 1795. The third volume may never have been completed; the manuscript of chapters four to nine found its way, long after Hutton's death, to the Geological Society of London and was eventually published in 1899.

Geological researches

According to Playfair, Hutton's interest in geology had developed in the 1750s in parallel with his interest in agriculture. During the next three decades he made extensive journeys through much of England and Wales and most regions of Scotland except the north-west and the Hebrides. Only the journeys he made in the 1780s are well documented and some historians of science have branded him as a theorist, unaware that his theories were preceded by thirty years of investigation at home and effort in the field. Indeed, long hours in the saddle led him to write, on an arduous journey through north Wales in 1774, 'Lord pity the arse that's clagged to a head that will hunt stones' (Hutton to George Clerk Maxwell, August 1774, NA Scot., GD 18/5937/2). On his excursions he invariably collected many specimens and in his writings he laid great weight on the evidence they provided.

At the outset of his geological researches Hutton observed, as others had done before him, that the majority of rocks on the surface of the earth are formed from the debris of former rocks and that the earth's surface is gradually being destroyed by erosion. However, he was the first to perceive the connection between these phenomena, arguing that the sediments produced by erosion must be consolidated on the seabed and then uplifted to form land—'a new and sublime conclusion' (Playfair, 56). He believed that heat was the agent of consolidation and uplift and that it also generated, in the interior of the earth, hot fluids from which all crystalline rocks originated. Hutton went further still, claiming that erosion, uplift, and igneous activity were continuous processes which had always, and would always, operate in the same way and thus that the surface of the earth was continually being recycled, leaving no evidence of how many times this had happened in the past or would happen in the future. In his most famous dictum: 'we find no vestige of a beginning—no prospect of an end' (Hutton, Theory of the earth, 304).

At the time of his 1785 paper Hutton was still uncertain whether granite, like trap or whinstone, was igneous. In summer 1785 he made the first of three famous excursions to prove this point. In the bed of the River Tilt, in Perthshire, he found the junction between the granite of the Cairngorms and the ‘marble’ (schists and limestones) of the mountains to the south. Here branching veins of granite penetrated deep into the marble, which could have happened only if the granite were younger than the marble and had been fluid. Hutton's companion, John Clerk of Eldin, made several drawings, so accurate that more than 200 years later it is possible to identify the exact site. Excursions to examine the granite of south-west Scotland and Arran followed in 1786 and 1787.

Hutton summarized his findings on granite in a paper published in 1794 and wrote a full account of his excursions for volume three of the Theory of the Earth. When it was published in 1899 the geological community had long lost sight of Clerk's drawings, which were not identified and published until 1978. Their detail, admirable even by modern standards, confirms Hutton's mastery in the field and suggests that Clerk, too, was a skilful observer.

During the visit to Arran, Hutton noticed strata of two different sedimentary rocks lying at an angle to each other (a conformation later called an unconformity). In 1788 he found another example of the same phenomenon in the banks of the River Jed, in this case horizontal strata of sandstone resting on vertical strata of ‘schistus’ (shales and mudstones). Subsequently, accompanied by Playfair and Sir James Hall, he found a magnificent exposure of the sandstone and schistus on the east coast at Siccar Point. He realized that there was only one way their configuration could be explained: the schistus had been laid down horizontally on the ocean floor, then elevated, folded, and the tops of its folds eroded, subsequently sinking back into the ocean where it formed the base on which the sand was later deposited and consolidated. Such a sequence of events could only have taken place over an immense period of time. Hutton advanced this explanation with such eloquence that it made an indelible impression on his companions whose minds 'seemed to grow giddy looking so far into the abyss of time' (Playfair, 73).

Later years

In the autumn of 1791 Hutton fell dangerously ill with what Black described as 'a suppression of urine' (Joseph Black to James Watt, 1 Dec 1791, Birmingham City Archives, JWP: 4/44/30), probably caused by kidney stones. To save his life Black and a colleague operated on his bladder, after which he made a slow recovery. Thereafter he set about publishing a lifetime's work on a wide range of subjects. Dissertations on Different Subjects in Natural Philosophy (1792) contains his published papers on meteorology; a defence of phlogiston based on debates at the Royal Society of Edinburgh with Sir James Hall (who was one of Lavoisier's first British converts); and an exposition of his theory of matter, which he held to be composed of particles with no magnitude—a hypothesis which resembles that of R. G. Boscovich but was probably arrived at independently. In A Dissertation upon the Philosophy of Light, Heat, and Fire (1794) he discussed the connection between these phenomena—a connection he had striven to understand all his adult life—and concluded that heat and fire were 'different modifications of solar matter, alike destitute of inertness and of gravity' (Playfair, 81) lying dormant in matter. The same year he published a long, uneven, work in three volumes, An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge and the Progress of Reason, from Sense to Science and Philosophy. Having stated that the true merit of scientific investigation lies in providing the facts on which to base a sound guide to conduct and belief, he constructed a complete metaphysical system partly derived from Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Causation is a major topic but he also dealt with time, space, religion, morality, politics, and education. He referred, in passing, to the disadvantageous position of women, whom society considered 'only fitted for domestic service, and for the idle entertainment of the little tyrant, in the thoughtless moments in his life' (An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, 3.588), and argued that their education was necessary 'for the perfection of the state' (ibid., 1.xiii).

Hutton's illness recurred in 1794, after which he was never again able to leave the house. His last years were spent in considerable pain which he endured with 'a wonderful degree of Courage and good spirits' (Joseph Black to James Watt, 29 Sept 1795, Birmingham City Archives, JWP: 4/44/21). He died on 26 March 1797 at his home, 3 St John's Hill, and was buried in Greyfriars kirkyard, Edinburgh, where, on the 150th anniversary of his death, a memorial tablet was placed above his unmarked grave. He left no will and his considerable property passed to his only surviving sister, Isabella. Subsequently she distributed it between young cousins on the Balfour side of the family and Hutton's seven impoverished grandchildren, whose father had made only a meagre living as a clerk in the London post office.


Hutton's theory of the earth was studied on the continent and in America but had few supporters at first except for Black, Playfair, and Hall; it was fifty years before his theory was universally accepted in all its essentials. Though he was certainly a theist, claiming time and again that a beneficent deity had designed all the operations of the earth for the ultimate benefit of man, his theories offended many Christians by implicitly rejecting the biblical account of the creation and Bishop Ussher's chronology for the age of the earth. Some natural philosophers, following the ideas of Robert Hooke, Thomas Burnet, and de Luc, opposed his contention that the surface of the earth is slowly recycled by the same natural processes which operate at present (a view later called 'uniformitarianism'); instead they maintained that sudden catastrophes had given the earth's surface a permanent form. Even more fiercely contested were Hutton's ideas about the heat of the earth and the igneous nature of crystalline rocks. Some of these objections focused on limestone and fossils, which Hutton held are not decomposed by the heat of the earth because of the high pressures in the crust. Although he and Black demonstrated this point in a small way using a Papin's digester, he concluded that attempts to replicate the heat and pressure in the earth were futile. It was not until after his death that his suppositions, both about limestone and the igneous origin of crystalline rocks, were verified experimentally by Hall whose work did much to rebut the criticisms of the Wernerians led by Robert Jameson, professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh. Hutton's other powerful advocate, John Playfair, recast his prolix arguments into a more lucid form (Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory, 1802) and it was often through this book rather than Hutton's own work that his ideas were taken up by the next generation of geologists, most notably Charles Lyell. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards they became received wisdom to such an extent that Hutton's name was sometimes forgotten.


  • J. Playfair, ‘Biographical account of the late James Hutton, FRS Edinburgh’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 5/3 (1805), 39–99
  • G. Y. Craig, ed., James Hutton's theory of the earth: the lost drawings (1978)
  • D. R. Dean, James Hutton and the history of geology (1992)
  • J. Hutton, ‘Theory of the earth, or, An investigation of the laws observable in the composition, dissolution, and restoration of land upon the globe’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1/2 (1788), 209–304
  • J. Hutton, ‘Elements of agriculture’, 1797, NL Scot., MSS 23165–23166 [2 vols., unfinished MS]
  • Partners in science: letters of James Watt and Joseph Black, ed. E. Robinson and D. McKie (1970)
  • J. Hutton, two letters to George Clerk Maxwell, July 1774, NA Scot., GD18/5937/1
  • J. Hutton, Dissertations on different subjects in natural philosophy (1792)
  • J. Hutton, A dissertation upon the philosophy of light, heat, and fire (1794)
  • J. Jones, ‘James Hutton and the Forth and Clyde Canal’, Annals of Science, 39 (1982), 255–63
  • J. Jones, ‘James Hutton: exploration and oceanography’, Annals of Science, 40 (1983), 81–94
  • J. Jones, ‘The geological collection of James Hutton’, Annals of Science, 41 (1984), 223–44
  • J. Jones, ‘James Hutton's agricultural research and his life as a farmer’, Annals of Science, 42 (1985), 573–601



  • J. Kay, caricature, etching, 1787, BM; repro. in J. Kay, A series of original portraits and caricature etchings, 2 vols. (1837)
  • J. Kay, caricature, etching, 1787 (with Joseph Black), BM, NPG; repro. in J. Kay, A series of original portraits and caricature etchings, 2 vols. (1837)
  • J. Tassie, ceramic medallion, 1792, Scot. NPG
  • J. Tassie, wax model, 1792 (for ceramic medallion), Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
  • J. Kay, caricature, etching, BM, NPG
  • P. Park, bust, Geological Museum, London
  • H. Raeburn, oils, Scot. NPG [see illus.]
  • wash drawing, Scot. NPG
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