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Scoti's Local heroes

James Croll, LL.D, FRS  - A forgotten hero of Perth? -

James Croll was the first person to have the idea that some changes in climate might be due to changes in position of the Earth and its axis as it orbits the Sun. These changes are very gradual and take a very long time, thousands of years. He was so dedicated to his work he took a job as a janitor in Glasgow to be close to the books he needed to develop his ideas- a very dedicated man!

Professor David Crichton, Inchture, Perthshire has kindly provided the following details of James Croll's life and work 

(Visiting Professor, UCL,Visiting Professor, Middlesex University,Hon Research Fellow, University of Dundee)

Born:  2 January 1821, Cargill, near Perth

Died: 15 December 1890, Perth

James Croll was a pioneer in the field of geological studies of climate change, but his work goes unrecognised in his home City of Perth.  In view of the current public interest in climate change, it would seem appropriate that Croll’s life and work should be recognised in some way.  Perhaps by a commemorative plaque or statue in a prominent part of Perth, or by naming part of the new Perth Conference Centre after him.  This would let local people know that one of their citizens had a leading role in improving our understanding of climate change.

  Historical details

James Croll left school at 13 to work on his parents’ tiny farm.  His parents could not afford to send him to university, but he taught himself physics and astronomy.  He spent his life studying ice ages and the causes and consequences of climate change, and published a number of books and papers, which were at the forefront of contemporary science. For example, he persuaded Charles Darwin on the efficacy of rivers as agents of erosion when this was not fashionable. In 1868, John Tyndall had suggested he apply for election to the Royal Society and he finally got round to seeking election in 1875 and was duly elected in 1876.


His book “Climate and Time in their Geological Relations”, first published in 1875, was well ahead of its time with its astronomical model showing linkages between ice ages and orbital variations of the Earth. (A copy of the fourth edition of this book is contained in Perth Library’s archives). Following publication of this book he was given an honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of St. Andrews.


Apart from these honours, Croll never received full credit for his work, and the astronomical cycles he wrote about are now called “Milankovitch Cycles” after a Serbian scientist who was born four years after the publication of Croll’s book.


A committed teetotaller all his life, apparently his last words were to ask for a glass of Scotch, saying: "I don't think there's much fear of me learning to drink now."

Summary of James Croll’s life.

1821  Born 2 January 1821, at Cargill, near Perth

1837 - 1850;   Apprentice millwright, then tea merchant in Elgin

1848  Married Isabella Macdonald

1852-3;  Ran a temperance hotel  in Blairgowrie, making much of the furniture himself.

1853- 1858;  Insurance salesman (an agent for the Safety Life Assurance Society, residing at Glasgow, at Edinburgh, and then at Leicester).

1858; Worked for a temperance weekly newspaper (“The Commonwealth”).

1859;  Janitor in the Andersonian College and Museum, Glasgow.

1867-80; Clerical post with the Geological Survey of Scotland, Edinburgh, as keeper of the maps and correspondence. where the Director, Archibald Geikie, encouraged him to carry out his own research.

1876;  Granted an honorary degree from St Andrews University.  Elected Fellow of the Royal Society on 1st June, 1876.

1880; Retired early at 59 due to ill health

1890;  Died, in Perth.


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