Papers of James David Forbes

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 227 msdep7
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Physical Description
      5,452 incoming letters stored in 13 boxes, 9 bound letterbooks containing copies of 2,514 outgoing letters and 25 boxes of journals, notebooks and miscellaneous papers, and 1 portfolio.

Scope and Content

The main interest of the collection lies in the material it contains relating to the history of science. The fields to which James David Forbes made contributions were electricity, meteorology, physics of heat, and the theory of glaciers. This last subject involved Forbes in heated personal controversy, and there is much material relating to this. More generally, there is a good deal of information relating to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (generally referred to subsequently as the British Association), especially its formative years; the Royal Society of Edinburgh (he was made a member as soon as he reached the age of 21, and served as General Secretary 1840-51) and the Royal Society, London, of which he became a member in 1832. His work on the effects of heat involved him peripherally with some of the civil engineering achievements of his period.

David Brewster (1781-1868), William Whewell (1794-1866), George Biddell Airy (1801-1892) and Roderick Murchison (1792-1871) are those with whom Forbes had the fullest correspondence, but few of those working in the physical sciences in Britain and on the continent between 1830 and 1860 are not represented in the collection. Long and intimate contacts are few, though Forbes had great respect for those who supported him early in his career, such as Brewster, Airy and Whewell, and later in life was supportive to younger enthusiasts for the Alps, particularly Alfred Wills and Anthony Adams Reilly. He also developed close friendships with some of his former students, and in particular Edmund Chisholm Batten. Although the relationship cooled for many years (Alicia Forbes clearly disliked Batten), the closeness returned during Forbes' last illness.

Forbes's continental travels to study hot springs, glaciers, traces of volcanic action and the many other things which interested him are well documented in his journals, but he published much of this during his lifetime. Also well covered is his conduct of the Natural Philosophy class at Edinburgh University between 1832 and 1860. His lecture notes were said to have been almost entirely destroyed after his death, according to his wishes. There are among his papers, however, not previously catalogued, what appear to be lecture notes, perhaps not the final versions, but enough to give some idea of what and how he was teaching.

As well as scientific correspondence, the letters contain much business material. Some of this is personal, relating to banking, investments and renting and maintaining property. There are also letters relating to his employment at Edinburgh University, which was run by the Town Council, with whom J.D.F. had a number of arguments over pay, equipment and their general attitude to the relative importance of sciences and arts subjects.

The material relating to Forbes' time as principal of the United College, St Andrews, (1859-68), is especially important, both generally in giving information on dealing with the Commissioners following the 1858 Universities (Scotland) Act, and particularly with regard to the developments associated with Forbes' name - the reorganisation of United College finances, the founding and organisation of the College Hall Company and the restoration of St Salvator's Chapel. His interest in the wider problems of and developments in education can be traced throughout the correspondence.

Administrative / Biographical History

James David Forbes (1809-1868), Scottish scientist and traveller, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University 1833-1859 and Principal of the United College, St Andrews 1859-1868.

James David Forbes was born in Edinburgh on 20 April 1809, the youngest of six children of Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo and Williamina Belsches. After his birth his mother went to Lympston in Devon because of her health, dying there in December 1810. He was brought up at the family home at Colinton House, four miles from the centre of Edinburgh, and at his father's town house at 86 George Street and attended the village school at Colinton. Two of his brothers went into the army, a third into the family bank in Edinburgh, whilst James David was destined to become a lawyer. He went to Edinburgh University in 1825 at the age of 16, but studied science in secret as well as his official studies. Although he qualified as an advocate, he never practised.

In 1826 Forbes began an anonymous scientific correspondence with David Brewster. After the death of his father in 1828 Forbes was able to abandon his anonymity, and after much heart-searching and consultation with relatives and friends, took the decision to leave the bar and make a career in science, finally abandoning his legal career in 1830. The same year the family moved from Colinton to Greenhill, on the south side of Bruntsfield Links, near Edinburgh. James David lived here with his two sisters and two surviving brothers (the oldest brother, William, had died in 1826). Charles married in 1833, and the following year the oldest brother, John, married and chose to settle on his estate at Fettercairn, Kincardineshire. As a result James David and his sisters moved to the Dean House, close to the north side of Edinburgh.

James David's sister Eliza died in 1840, and the following year he and Jane had to move out of the Dean House. In 1843 he married Alicia Wauchope (1822-1885), the daughter of a Leith wine merchant, with whom he had three daughters, Eliza (1844-1869), Williamina (1845-1870) and Alice (1852-1926), and two sons Edmund Batten (1847-1924) and George (1849-1936).

James David Forbes first went abroad with a family party in 1826, a trip which including a visit to Vesuvius, the active volcano near Naples. In 1832 he returned to the continent, but the trip was cut short when he learned of the death of John Leslie, and returned to put his name forward to succeed Leslie in the chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University, a post which he held until he moved to St Andrews. Forbes subsequently explored the Pyrenees, and spent the summers of 1841 and 1842 in the Alps, publishing a book about his travels the following year. In 1845 he visited the western highlands and islands of Scotland, and Skye in particular. He visited the Alps again in 1850, and Norway in 1851. Forbes was one of the first to describe regular journeys above the snowline. He made numerous minor ascents (as well as the first British ascent of the Jungfrau) in the Alps and Norway. He employed Auguste Balmat on research into glacier movement and was involved with Tyndall in the great glacier controversy of the 1850s. He was the first Honorary Member of the Alpine Club.

After 1851 his health prevented further trips to the mountains, and without the stimulation provided by field-work he lost much of his enthusiasm for science. Forbes had increasing problems relating to his employment at Edinburgh University, and needed the change offered by the post of principal of the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard at St Andrews, to which he was appointed in 1859. Though he was very reluctant to leave Edinburgh, once the family was settled in St Andrews, Forbes seems to have flourished as an administrator and taken to the town and its climate. He held the post until he resigned through ill health in October 1868, two months before his death.

For further biographical details see: D.N.B..


The collection consists of three main blocks of material:

  • Incoming letters, 1785-1929, the first few being family letters between 1785 and 1815, and the rest after this date mostly addressed to J D Forbes himself up to 1868 (4,940), or to George Forbes (1849-1936), the younger son of James David Forbes (512 letters), mostly relating to the affairs of G.F. These survive not in a steady sequence, but in episodic blocks. They relate to his gathering of testimonials for the Chair of Natural Philosophy in the Andersonian College, Glasgow in 1872 and for the same chairs in Aberdeen and St Andrews Universities in 1880; to his defence of his father's glacier work in 1873; to his dealings with the Admiralty, 1903-04, about his new range-finder; and to his donation of his father's library to St Andrews University in 1929.
  • A series of 9 letterbooks containing copies of outgoing letters (2,514 items), starting in 1830 and ending in 1867, consisting of a general chronological series in Volumes I-VIII and a few items of an especially personal nature in Volume IX.
  • Eighteen boxes of papers, including notebooks, journals, manuscripts and offprints of published papers, juvenilia, and miscellaneous scientific and personal papers, belonging to J.D.F. or to his son George Forbes. The 43 journals and pocketbooks cover most of J.D.F.'s travels between a family journey to Italy in 1826 and his trip to Norway in 1851. One of the most interesting items is a copy of parts of two travel journals written by J.D.F.'s mother in 1805 and 1808. There are also two volumes of a journal written by J.D.F.'s sister Jane Forbes, giving a more feminine perspective on the family tour of Europe in 1826-27. A journal by J.D.F. records a family trip to the Western Highlands in 1819.

In addition to these there are two more groups of material:

  • Bound manuscripts of published books and papers containing manuscripts of works written by James David Forbes between 1826 and 1858, almost all of which were published.
  • Miscellaneous material contained in seven boxes and one portfolio, with manuscript reference numbers 38079 - 38081. Included within this are a further 46 letters. There are also a number of copy letters, for 14 of which the original does not survive in this collection. This section includes material relating to a Forbes exhibition in 1968 to commemorate the deposit of the papers in the library.

Access Information

By appointment with the Archivist. Access to unpublished records less than 30 years old and other records containing confidential information may be restricted. Special conditions apply to photographs.

Acquisition Information

The main collection was deposited on indefinite loan by Dame K J Watson-Watt and Mr A F F Williamson, under formal agreement with the University Court, 28 February 1968.


Description compiled by Rachel Hart, Archives Hub Project Archivist based on description by P F Martin who catalogued the collection.

Other Finding Aids

The listing is available on the Library's manuscripts database. A number of supplementary entries offering additional biographical information for many of the correspondents are also available.

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the University Archivist. Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents.

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 227 procedures.

Custodial History

The bulk of the collection was found in the simple holiday cottage at Pitlochry known as 'The Shed', belonging to George Forbes. This material was deposited with St Andrews University by Forbes' grand-niece Dame Katherine Watson-Watt DBE and his great-grand-nephew Mr A F F Williamson, in time for a major exhibition to mark the centenary of the death of James David Forbes. The University Library already possessed the scientific library and some of the manuscripts of J D Forbes, presented by George Forbes in 1929.


A. Geikie, Memoir of the late James David Forbes ..., read to the Geological Society of Edinburgh, 21 January 1869, (Edinburgh, 1869); J C Shairp, P G Tait and A A Reilly, Life and Letters of James David Forbes, (London, 1873); E H Stevens, 'James David Forbes (1809-68)', in Alpine Journal, (1944) pp. 372-8; F F Cunningham, James David Forbes, pioneer Scottish glaciologist, (Edinburgh, 1990).