Papers of George Low (1747-1795)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The material consists of Low's Orkney manuscripts dating from circa 1773 in 3 volumes, from  History of Orkney parts 1-8,  History of Orkney parts 9-19, to  Description and chronology parts 20-25, at Dc.6.102/1-3. There is also a typed transcript of the same. At Dc.6.103 there is work on Orkney flora and fauna, and at Dc.6.104 a course of microscopical observations from 1771-1772. There is a cabinet of curiosities collected by Low, 1766-1768 at Dc.6.105, and some notes and sketches in natural history at Stromness 1770, at Dc.6.106. The material also includes memorandums of the natural history of Orkney,  Fauna and flora Orcadenses, No.3, 1772, at Dc.6.107.

Administrative / Biographical History

George Low was born in Edzell, Angus, in 1747. He was educated at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and then at St. Andrews University. In 1768, Low went to Stromness, Orkney, as a tutor. The rest of his life was taken up by the study of the natural history of the Orkney Islands, looking at birds, flora and fauna, and marine life there. As an aid to his studies of marine life, he constructed a microscope. In 1771, Low became licensed as a Minister by the Presbytery of Cairston, but he remained in Stromness for a couple more years after that. In the meantime, in 1772, after a visit to Iceland, the explorer and naturalist Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) visited Orkney in the company of the Swedish botanist Dr. Daniel Solander (1736-1782), and physician Dr. James Lind (1716-1794). Through them, Low was able to widen his correspondence and connections, and in 1774 began a tour of the south islands of Orkney and the whole of the Shetland Islands. Also in 1774, he was installed in the Parish of Birsay and Harray, and as Minister there, in relative seclusion, he was able to complete his works on the history and flora and fauna of Orkney. This was in addition to earlier work on the commerce, population, language, and archaeology of the islands. In 1778, Low toured the north islands of Orkney. Extensive use of the microscope during his research probably contributed to the onset of opthalmia and near complete blindness by 1793, thus cutting him off from his studies. George Low died in Orkney on 13 March 1795.

Conditions Governing Access

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

Acquisition Information

The material was received from Dr. John Trail, 1920.

Note

The biographical history was compiled using the following material: (1) Stephen, Sir Leslie. and Lee, Sir Sidney (eds.).  The dictionary of national biography. Vol.12. Llwyd-Mason. Reprinted. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959-1960.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally 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 Low related material (check the Indexes for more details): letters and details of his tour through Orkney and Shetland, in the Laing Collection at La.II.588, La.III.580, La.IV, and La.IV.17 Marwick 11. There is a microfilm copy of La.III.580  A tour thro' the islands of Orkney and Shetland (1879) at Mic.M.1710. In addition, the UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes: papers relating to Orkney at the National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division, Ref. Adv MSS 29 5 8, 31 3 1, 32 4 1, also 1770-72 notes at Ref. MS 3935, and letters from 1772-95 to George Paton at Ref. Adv MSS 29 3 8, 29 5 5-8 NRA 23720 Paton; papers, 1774-80, at the National Museums of Scotland, Chambers Street (see HMC MS papers of British scientists 1600-1940, 1982); and, letters, 1772-75, to Thomas Pennant, at the Warwickshire County Record Office, Ref. CR2017 NRA 23685.

Bibliography

In addition to the manuscript and archive material described in this record, Edinburgh University Library holds the following works with a relationship to George Low and his research of Orkney: by George Low, from a manuscript in the possession of Wm. Elford Leach,  Fauna Orcadensis, or, The natural history of the quadrupeds, birds, reptiles, and fishes, of Orkney and Shetland (1813) at Special Collections, Zl.2.22; by George Low, with illustrations from drawings by the author and with an introduction by Joseph Anderson,  A tour through the islands of Orkney and Schetland: containing hints relative to their ancient modern and natural history collected in 1774 (1879), at Special Collections, SC 6806; by Laurits Rendboe,  Det gamle shetlandske sprog: George Low's ordliste fra 1774 (1987); and, in a limited edition by the Orkney Heritage Society, by George Low and edited by Olaf D. Cuthbert,  A history of the Orkneys: introduced by a description of the Islands and their inhabitants (2001), at Special Collections, SD 6270.

Geographical Names