The Literature of
Orkney and Shetland

Chemistry Nights in Kirkwall

Chemistry Nights in Kirkwall

Guest post by Pam Perkins

The winter of 1802-03 was a difficult one in Orkney.  Crops had been scanty and late, and there was considerable distress among the poor.  Thomas Stewart Traill, the twenty-one-year-old son of a Kirkwall clergyman had just returned to the islands after completing his medical studies in Edinburgh, and he decided to do his part to help:  in January 1803 he launched a subscription series of “Lectures on chemistry and natural history”, with the proceeds to go towards relief for the poor.

Lectures of this sort were a fashionable pastime across Britain.  A generation earlier, the chemist Henry Moyes had made himself sufficiently famous be invited, in 1785, to make an American tour.  A few years later, Humphry Davy became a genuine scientific celebrity:  according to Maria Edgeworth, tickets to hear Davy speak in Dublin went for as much as twenty guineas.  Traill couldn’t provide Orkney with that sort of star power, but the series was (according to Traill himself) a great success.  It was also an indication that in the opening years of the nineteenth century, the middle classes in Kirkwall were able to enjoy at least some of the same amenities of their compatriots in the south.

The same time that Traill was giving his lectures in Kirkwall, his friend and contemporary John Murray was giving a similar series in Edinburgh.  Murray’s audience included Thomas Charles Hope, then Edinburgh’s Professor of chemistry and medicine and the geologist John Playfair, so his course was presumably not for the scientifically faint-of heart.  It’s not clear how much the two courses overlapped, but in February 1803 Murray sent Trail both his syllabus and eight copies of Murray’s 1801 textbook Elements of Chemistry.  “I must return you my thanks,” Murray adds “for recommending them to your friends, or perhaps I should rather say to your pupils”.

This Kirkwall appetite for the newest publications on chemistry was fuelled in part by the women of the town.  Traill’s lectures, like those of Murray, Davy and Moyes, were explicitly intended for a mixed audience.  This led to some jokes:  “I should like much to hear you describing to a female audience some of the functions of animals viz generation,” a friend wrote from Edinburgh in March 1803. Yet women were among Traill’s most eager listeners.  “Neither the badness of the roads, nor the severity of the weather” deterred Christian Watson of Crantit from attending the lectures with her husband James, and she became one of Traill’s most “apt pupil[s]”.  Traill might have been writing with some retrospective bias, as in 1811 he became Christian Watson’s second husband, but that said, there is no indication that Watson was alone or particularly unusual among the middle-class women of Kirkwall in choosing to cultivate scientific interests.  On the contrary, another of Traill’s friends referred to the series as Traill’s “chemical lectures to the ladies of Kirkwall”.

How long those ladies were able to pursue that interest is another question.  Traill offered another series of lectures, again for charity, the following winter, but left the year after that to launch a medical career in Liverpool.  He did, however, leave his chemical apparatus with the Watsons, an appropriate tribute, as he explains, to the “neat and successful Experimentalist” he had trained during his time in Kirkwall.

(The quotations from Thomas Traill and his correspondents are taken from manuscripts owned by the National Library of Scotland, including a volume of Traill’s correspondence [MS 19337] and a manuscript memoir of Christian Robertson (Watson) Traill [MS19391].)

 Pam Perkins teaches eighteenth-century and Romantic-era literature at the University of Manitoba and is currently working on accounts of the North Atlantic islands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

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