Papers of Dr. John Walker (1731-1803)

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-205
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      55 volumes (2.5 linear metres).
  • Location
      Dc.1.18; Dc.1.57-59; Dc.2.17-40; Dc.7.113/1-4; Dc.8.20; Dc.8.31; Dc.10.15/1-5; Dc.10.33; Gen. 50-53; Gen. 703-12D; MS 2701

Scope and Content

The papers of Rev. Dr. John Walker consist of: 16 volumes of his own lecture notes on natural history at the University of Edinburgh (1766-1790), covering a broad range of subjects: meteorology, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, fossils, hydrography, rivers, glaciers, etc; 7 volumes of notes and memoranda from natural history field trips (1766-1774); 5 volumes of papers and correspondence on various agricultural themes; 1 volume of essays and observations on philosophy, human behaviour, Scottish history and antiquities; 10 volumes of lecture notes on natural history taken down by David Pollock in 1797, 5 volumes by Thomas Charles Hope (1784), 4 volumes by T Johnson, 1 volume by SW Carruthers and 1 written by John Douglas (1791); 5 volumes and other papers relating to geological interests; and, correspondence with many scientists of the period and a collection of Walker's sermons.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Walker was born in the Canongate, Edinburgh, in 1731. After grammar school studies he went to Edinburgh University where he prepared for the ministry. As a student he was trained in Latin and Greek and also quickly developed an interest in minerals. Influenced by William Cullen (1710-1790), he became particularly drawn to chemistry and mineralogy. Walker realised that the classification of minerals had been neglected so he travelled throughout the British Isles, sometimes with Cullen, collecting minerals from mines and outcrops. Using his own personal collection as well as that at the University Museum, he had established an Elementa Mineralogiae by the 1750s, and this classification was later modified to include 323 genera. Among the most interesting minerals that he collected in the 1760s was strontianite, from the mines of Leadhills. Walker became licensed to preach in 1754 and, after his ordination as minister of Glencorse in the Pentland Hills in 1758, soon met Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782). Walker was commissioned by Lord Kames to make an extensive study of the Hebrides in 1764, a trip that he would repeat on several occasions. From the time of this first ministry until his appointment in 1779 to the chair of Natural History at Edinburgh, he spent all of his spare time studying botany and geology. He was greatly influenced by the works of Alex Frederick Cronstedt (1722-1765), and especially by the contributions of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Walker's university lectures included discussions on agriculture's place in national improvement, and he held public lectures on agriculture and the Scottish Highlands. Walker had a major impact on the establishment of geology as an organised classroom subject in higher education, and he therefore has a legitimate claim to the title of 'Father of Geological Education'. One of his most significant works was his essay on peat, in which he made a complete analysis of the organic content and origin of the substance. In other papers he affirmed that petroleum occurred in rocks as a natural substance. His discussion of rock structures included accurate definitions of strike and dip as well as recognition of horizontal strata overlying tilted beds, a condition to which he referred as 'offlap'. Walker played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Natural History Society of Edinburgh and was appointed first secretary of the Physical Section in 1783. He was a long-time member of the Highland Society of Scotland, and as a result of his great interest in agriculture, formed the Agriculture Society of Edinburgh in 1792. These groups gave him the opportunity to participate in scientific discussions and provided an outlet for the publication of some of his articles. The Rev. Dr. John Walker held the Professorship at Edinburgh until his death in 1803.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.


The biographical history was compiled using the following material: (1) Gillispie, Charles C. (ed.). Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol.14. New York: Scribner's, 1972. (2) Birse, Ronald M. Science at the University of Edinburgh 1583-1993. University of Edinburgh, 1994. (3) Williams, T.I ., Lee, Sidney (eds.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol.20. London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1908. (4) Devlin-Thorp, Sheila. Scotland's Cultural Heritage. University of Edinburgh, 1981. (5) Taylor, George. John Walker: a Notable Scottish Naturalist. Reprinted from Vol. 38. Trans. Bot. Soc. Edinb., 1959.

Compiled by Andrew Thomson, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division. Revised by Graeme D Eddie.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Related Material

The local Indexes show various references to Walker related material (check the Indexes for closer details): Gen. 1999/1/154; Gen. 873/1/111-112; Gen. 874/IV/51-2. There is also correspondence to and from Walker in the Laing Collection at: La.III.352, La.III.353, La.III.575, as well as his sermons at: La.III.132. Related material also held in: Glasgow University Archives and Business Records Centre, Glasgow University Library, Department of Special Collections, GB 0247 see Bridson Natural history MS resources 1980, papers; National Archives of Scotland, GB 0234 GD24/502, 571, 581 NRA 29367 Stirling Home, (1764-1780), letters to Lord and Lady Kames; Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, GB 0585 see Bridson, Natural History MS resources 1980 NRA 16015 Coll of Physicians, (1782), lecture notes (12 vols).

Corporate Names