Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Lord Kelvin: Victorian Man of Science: intro.

April 15, 2008

In June 1896 Glasgow was busily engaged in celebrating one of her great men.  The City and its ancient University had combined to mark the 50th anniversary of William Thomson’s appointment as Professor of Natural Philosophy.  Fifty years was certainly a long time to occupy a Professorial Chair – even allowing for the fact that Thomson had taken up his post at the remarkably early age of 22 – but this alone would not account for the celebrations.  William Thomson, or Lord Kelvin as he had been known since Queen Victoria conferred a peerage on him in 1892, was more than just another long-serving academic; he was a household name and one of the most distinguished men of science of the Victorian age.

 

Statue of Lord Kelvin in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

His international reputation would be attested to by the presence in Glasgow of a host of distinguished scientists and academics from Europe, North America, Australia and Asia.  A gracious letter would be received from the Prince of Wales, and the presentation of congratulatory messages from 90 universities, colleges and learned societies from around the world, ranging from Yale and Johns Hopkins to Moscow and Tokyo would confirm the academic world’s esteem for Kelvin.

 

His adopted city and his University vied with each other to honour him and the delegates’ stamina would be tested by the festivities.  A conversazione for 2500 guests was held on Monday 15th June in the University’s Bute Hall, which was “lit by electric light for the occasion” and which also housed a display of Kelvin’s scientific achievements and inventions. Outside the pipe band of the Gordon Highlanders played to greet the distinguished company.  At the conclusion of the conversazione the students of Glasgow held a gaudeamus, or student merry-making, in Kelvin’s honour in their Student’s Union, commencing at 10.45p.m.   

 

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The Ingenious Mr Bell

April 13, 2008

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Henry Bell was the man who first made a success of steam navigation in Europe – sadly his work did not bring him financial success but his claim to fame as the man behind the paddle steamer Comet [pictured below] is secure.

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When my biography of Bell was first published in 1995 it was the first life of Bell since the 1840s and critics made kind comments on it like “scholarly and readable” (Ships Monthly) and “not only an authoritative biography…but a major contribution to the early history of steam navigation” (Lloyd’s List). This paperback edition appeared in 2001 priced at £9.99 – however readers of this blog can buy copies direct from me at only £5.00 post free – email me for details  –brian@bdosborne.fsnet.co.uk

Click here to read my article on Bell’s Highland steamship venture

Neil Munro: intro.

April 11, 2008

The front page lead story in the Glasgow News of 23rd December 1930 was on the death of the Scottish novelist Neil Munro. Its triple-decker headline read:

Death of Neil Munro

Passing of a Great Novelist

Genius in Journalism

Politics, crime, the economy were all relegated to second place. Over the next few days the News would publish four separate appreciations of Munro from prominent Scottish writers of the day such as R B Cunninghame Graham and J J Bell.

Although Munro was buried in a simple family ceremony at Inveraray, on the same day civic dignitaries, representatives of Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, the churches, An Comunn Gaidhealach and the press attended a crowded memorial service in Glasgow Cathedral.

          Munro’s death was treated as a major event and all the Scottish and British newspapers carried appreciations of his work and accounts of his career. All would probably have agreed with the comment of one writer who observed: “Neil Munro is dead, and a light has gone out in Scotland.”          A much-loved author had died and his death seems to have moved the nation in a quite remarkable way.

          There was little in Munro’s background or early life to suggest the high place in Scottish literature, or in the national consciousness, that he came to occupy; indeed his birth and childhood could hardly have been more disadvantaged.

          Born on 3rd June 1863 in the Argyllshire town of Inveraray, to Ann Munro, an unmarried domestic servant, Neil Munro grew up with the problem of illegitimacy and in very modest circumstances. He never knew who his father was, although local rumour has persistently suggested a member of the family of the Dukes of Argyll.  

In the 1871 Census the young Neil was recorded as living with his grandfather, a retired crofter.  Ann Munro married the widowed Malcolm Thomson, the Governor of Inveraray Prison, in 1875, but at the 1881 Census Neil was staying with his great aunt Bell MacArthur, a former agricultural worker. This family background, with its roots in the Argyllshire countryside, meant that Munro was brought up bi-lingually. Gaelic culture and the Gaelic spirit informed much of his writing, although he never published any works in that language.

          After attending school in Inveraray, Munro about the age of 13 entered the local law office of William Douglas as a junior clerk.  This was an odd appointment. Nothing in Munro’s background made a career in the law likely; his fellow clerks were from a more conventional middle-class background – a doctor’s son and a lawyer’s son.  The job was in fact wished on Munro. He later wrote he was:

 

…insinuated, without any regard for my own desires, into a country lawyer’s office, wherefrom I withdrew myself as soon as I arrived at years of discretion and revolt.

 

Nor was it just any country lawyer’s office. William Douglas was a central part of the Argyllshire establishment: Clerk to the Commissioners of Supply, Clerk to the Lieutenancy of Argyll, and later, Sheriff Clerk and Justice of the Peace Clerk.  Perhaps the string-pulling that had landed the bright young Munro such a coveted job was connected with the mystery of his father’s identity.

         

 

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Entertaining Dr Johnson:intro.

April 7, 2008

Bringing a friend home to meet your father can be a fairly stressful occasion, one that is made much worse if your relationship with your father is a difficult one and you just know that your friend and your father aren’t going to get on well.  The potential social embarrassment is made infinitely worse if the father in question is a distinguished Scottish judge with traditional attitudes and strong views and the friend is known for his notoriously anti-Scottish views.

James Boswell

This was the explosive situation that James Boswell, advocate and author, got himself into in 1773 when, at the end of his tour of the Highlands with Dr Samuel Johnson, he and Johnson arrived at his father’s Ayrshire home, Auchinleck House, to stay for six days.  James Boswell’s father, Alexander, who had the title of Lord Auchinleck from his position as a judge of the Court of Session, was sixty-six years old. James, who was now thirty-three, had been in more or less constant conflict with his father since his teenage years – a relationship not helped by Alexander re-marrying after the death of James’s much-loved mother.  Alexander thought that James was too fond of loose living and running off to London and should instead concentrate on his family responsibilities as a recently married husband, and as heir to Auchinleck, and on his career at the Scottish bar.

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Last of the Chiefs

March 26, 2008

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Alasdair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry was a Highland clan chief who died in 1828.  However he perhaps should have lived a hundred years earlier when his eccentric life style and flamboyant behaviour would have been more acceptable. He was an enthusiast for traditional Highland ways, he promoted the use of Gaelic, Highland dress and tartan, kept a domestic bard but at the same time was an enthusiastic clearer of his clanlands for sheep-farming and never seemed aware of the contradictions he represented.

My biography of him was published in 2001 and attracted such comments from reviewers as “well researched and highly readable” and “a fascinating picture of a bizarre life”. 

One of the incidents in his “bizarre life” was a duel he fought at Fort George – a duel which resulted in his trial for murder at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh. Click here for a link to my article Pistols on the Links  about the duel and the trial.

It was published in paperback at £9.99 but readers of this blog can buy direct from me at only £5.00 post free! 

Email me for details: brian@bdosborne.fsnet.co.uk

Writing Biography and Autobiography

March 26, 2008

I had written three book-length biographies and decided that I should put all that hard-earned experience to good use and so I persuaded A&C Black to add this title to their “Writing Handbooks” series. My thought was that we are all interested in people and many of us have wanted to write a life-story but have been unsure how to set about it or how to bring such a project to a satisfactory end. My book is, I hope, a practical and helpful introduction to writing biography and autobiography and looks at the various forms that such a project might take.

 

The historian and biographer Antonia Woodville was recently kind enough to comment in her blog:  “The book “Writing Biography and Autobiography” by Brian D Osborne has arrived. It’s a highly readable, interesting handbook.”

Click on the image below to go to Amazon.co.uk where you can buy this book