Scotsman Obituaries: Graeme Whittington, expert on evolution of Scotland’s landscapes

Professor Graeme Whittington, geographer. Born: 25 July 1931 in Cranleigh, Surrey. Died: 29 April 2021 in St Andrews, Fife, aged 89

Graeme Whittington was a man of high principles and great integrity.

Graeme Walter Whittington, Emeritus Professor of Geography at the University of St Andrews, died three months short of his 90th birthday. He made research contributions of international standing to studies on the evolution of Scotland’s geographical and historical landscapes, drawing upon the methods of science and the humanities. He was a man of high principles and great integrity.

The youngest of four children, he often recalled a childhood spent roaming the countryside around Cranleigh which, along with stamp collecting, imprinted on him a deep interest in landscape and geography. At the age of ten he won a scholarship to attend the King Edward VI Grammar School in wartime Guildford. Desirous of becoming a geography teacher, he had to delay seeking university entry when National Service intervened. In 1950 he entered the RAF and worked in telecommunications, including a spell at the intelligence and codebreaking centre of Bletchley Park. Despite prodding, he never revealed what this work entailed as he had signed the Official Secrets Act, which he considered indelible.

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A developing interest in climatology encouraged him to apply for a geography degree course at Reading University. Whittington graduated BA in 1956 and became a temporary geography teacher. The regimentation of this experience convinced him that he did not want to become a schoolteacher, and nor did he wish to send pupils for caning – which he was urged to do by one zealous headmaster.

Undergraduate training had broadened his interests to include historical geography and archaeology – he had been introduced to excavation when lodging with Dorothy Marshall, a leading light of Scottish amateur archaeology, while working on a dissertation on the Isle of Bute. He began a PhD at Reading in 1956 on the topic of strip lynchets – the early agricultural terraces which adorn the chalk and limestone hillslopes of Britain. Using air photography, map evidence, place-name research and excavation, he cycled the length and breadth of the country, staying in youth hostels. The doctoral thesis was completed after only two and a half years. At the same time, as an RAF reservist, he was delivering extra-mural lectures in meteorology at Oxford University and at various air force bases around the country.

Whittington realised that an academic post would best enable him to pursue his intellectual curiosity. He was appointed in 1959 to an Assistant Lectureship in Geography at the University of St Andrews where he stayed for the rest of his career, including 11 years as Head of Geography and its successor Department of Geography and Geology. Never competitive, nor overtly ambitious, it was only at the urgings of friends and colleagues that he applied for promotion, becoming Professor of Geography a year before formal retirement.

For the first half of his career, much of his research and publication mirrored his teaching in regional geography (especially of India, Pakistan and South Africa – though he only visited the last of these), historical geography and climatology. His interest in the historical geography of Scotland came to dominate this period and he produced influential papers on Pictish place-names, urban development, medieval field systems and agricultural history, as well as the co-edited An Historical Geography of Scotland.

By the mid-1970s he realised that historical information underpinning Scottish landscape history was limited for those areas of interest to him, and he moved decisively into what he considered to be the most rewarding stage of his research career. Extensive reading and reflection during a period of study leave persuaded him that pollen analysis (palynology) would allow fresh, innovative perspectives. Using the environmental data extracted from the fossil pollen deposited within accumulating peat bogs, loch sediments and soils, he went on to produce around 80 papers focused on sites in eastern Scotland, the Outer Hebrides and the Northern Isles. This involved collaboration with other palynologists, geomorphologists, archaeologists, geochemists and statisticians. His abiding interest was the human component of landscape history. Meticulous fieldwork was matched by laboratory microscope studies of the highest calibre. He was aghast at unwelcome media attention when he showed that cannabis cultivation, essential for canvas and hemp rope production in the fishing industry, was a recognisable component of Fife life from early historical times.

His eyesight failed progressively over the last 20 years, and this greatly inhibited his direct involvement in research. He took great pleasure, however, in the publication of his last major paper when he was 84 years of age. Registered blind, he became largely immobile and despondent at his physical frailty. He fought to maintain his independence in the face of these difficulties, while also valuing the support and assistance, often literally life-saving, of friends and neighbours. Ultimately there was no practical alternative but to enter a care home where he was sustained by classical music, radio, talking books, and visits and phone calls from friends

A shy man, he never married. One of his dearest relationships was with his sister Betty, who predeceased him by six years, and with whom he shared a devotion to the Proms and an irreverent outlook on the world. His superficial reserve was easily penetrated to reveal an underlying warmth and openness. He was a modest, encouraging, inquisitive, cultured and intellectual man, lacking in conceit or pomposity, yet someone who quietly enriched lives.

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