The ‘other’ Glasgow Boys: the rise and fall of a school of palaeobotany
With its long-standing coal industry working the measures of the Scottish central belt, fossil plants have long been known in Scotland. The earliest significant work dealing with Scottish palaeontology, David Ure’s The History of Rutherglen and East-Kilbride (David Niven, Glasgow) had been published in 1793, with its plates of Equisetum, ferns and bark impressions. But, as in Yorkshire and Lancashire, it was not until the industrial revolution’s increased exposure of fossils was matched by the advent of the ‘new European botany’ (which, in part, grew from substantial improvements in the optics for microscopy) that fossil plant study began in earnest in Scotland.
In 1959 John Walton reflected on palaeobotany in Britain at the end of the 19th century, as ‘awakening from a long sleep’. In Glasgow, this awakening centred on the university’s Botany Department, and the development of the study of fossil plants closely parallels the growth of this department as a whole for much of its time. In the same city during this period a collective of artists called the ‘Glasgow Boys’ were pushing the boundaries of representational painting. With Frederick Bower’s own cohort of palaeobotanical ‘Glasgow Boys’ (David Gwynne-Vaughan and William Lang) facilitating the work of Robert Kidston, a veritable ‘School of Palaeobotany’ existed in the university at this time. John Walton himself was also destined to serve an unusual, but critical, later role in the preservation of Kidston’s work.