James Hutton changed the thinking of how our world was formed, so why is he barely recognised today?

I’m always amazed when so many figures of the Scottish enlightenment have such widespread recognition such as Adam Smith, Robert Burns and James Watt; that James Hutton, literally the man who is regarded as the person who changed the thinking of how our world was formed; is barely recognised and almost a peripheral figure amongst these other leading lights of their time.

James Hutton deserves more recognition. Picture: Wikicommons
James Hutton deserves more recognition. Picture: Wikicommons

This is in contrast to what his friends clearly thought of him and he was central to their company and held in the highest regard by these other great thinkers.

He was born in 1726 in Edinburgh and raised and educated in the capital during the period of the Enlightenment. Like many of his time from the merchant classes, he travelled further afield to extend his education and experience in England, The Netherlands and France.

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He was at university in Edinburgh at age 14, and although he graduated as a medic and made useful insights into how blood circulated in the body, his passion turned out to be chemistry.

Ten years later, aged 24, he co-founded a company making sal ammoniac from the soot of Edinburgh’s chimneys which is used in dye making. After his travels he returned to Edinburgh and farmed in the Scottish Borders where he applied many of the agricultural improvements he had learned further afield.

He described agriculture as the “study of my life” and his observations of soil formation and erosion eventually led him to think of deeper forces and earth processes.

His most famous contribution was a Theory of Earth in which he correctly outlined the earth processes by which rocks are made, and how landscapes changed over time due to long slow processes which were fuelled by the heat in the middle of our planet.

This not only spawned the science of geology, it reset the age of the world to be very much older than what had previously been computed from the Bible. These discoveries laid the groundwork for major theories by others about Continental Drift and also made it possible to develop a Theory of Evolution as the great time spans (Deep Time) made it credible for such processes to occur.

His talents were not only limited to geology; he wrote extensively about agricultural improvements in his publication, Elements of Agriculture.

He introduced the metal plough to Scotland, he developed some of the first thoughts about how the environment selects traits in crop, he wrote about the origins of soil and how to improve it with lime and organic matter and most appropriately for Scotland, he was also a meteorologist who develop a Theory of Rain, and was one of the first to measure and propose a relationship between altitude and temperature.

The James Hutton Institute is named after him because he was an acknowledged innovator, thinker and his areas of science mapped so well to our work. We are one of the biggest independent institutes in Europe working on agriculture and the environment, trying to both save the planet and feed the world. We are also leading a group of interested people from across Scotland’s institutions to celebrate James Hutton’s Tercentenary in 2026 and hope to put this under-recognised but hugely influential genius firmly in the minds of the Scottish public - feel free to join us in our quest.

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Professor Colin Campbell is CEO of The James Hutton Institute

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