Thursday, 10 January 2013

Cross stones and correspondence

Throughout the course of some earlier blogs I have hypothesised that Rev Milne's antiquarian interests may well have rubbed off onto his son. In particular I wondered if a news cutting, regarding a toad which had apparently emerged from the centre of a block of sandstone, had been placed in Cupar's Antiquarian Society Book of 1840 by Rev Milne and subsequently provided a starting point for Robert's story of suspended animation, Ten Thousand Years In Ice .

This I felt was likely as it appeared, from the cutting above, that Rev Milne had an interest in archaeology as demonstrated by this report which, I believed, concerned items uncovered at the 'Norries's Law' find of 1819.  However, having recently searched the St Andrews University Library Special Collection I now have reason to believe that this article may in fact refer to a discovery Rev Milne made himself some years later:

"On the 9th of last month when walking through the cathedral grave ground accompanied by a friend we went out by the eastern door, outside which were deported about half a cartload of stones, on turning some of them over we came upon a slab on which we were able with great difficulty to trace several lines... We found an ancient cross partly incised as in relief...  Cross No.1 is a beautiful specimen of the ancient Keltic[sic] cross perhaps coeval with the early Culdees as to be sen at Iona, Largo and on 'Sueno's Stone' at Forres." Extract from a 'Binder of papers submitted to the St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society': "Some Remarks on a Keltic or Mediaeval Cross found 9th February 1869 in a Grave near the South East end of the Cathedral of St Andrews", by Rev George Gordon Milne.

If these stones are indeed the 'cross stones' mentioned in the above cutting this obviously raises questions about the apparently anachronistic inclusion of the undated newspaper article, potentially from 1869 or thereabouts, appearing in Cupar's Antiquarian Book of 1840. However the fact that Rev Milne was clearly interested in not just local finds but those from further afield remains unaltered, as evidenced by his apparently detailed knowledge of Pictish stones.  Indeed if anything I feel this lends weight to my argument that he was responsible for the inclusion of the cutting entitled 'Singular Circumstance' detailed in an earlier post which I have speculated may have formed the basis for one of Robert's stories.

That his father's interests perhaps influenced his storytelling is one thing but what has never really been explained about RDM is where he developed his aptitude for science and technology. Milne himself wrote about having attended lectures by 'Darwin's bulldog' Thomas Huxley and physicist John Tyndall prior to leaving for America, but these alone cannot account for him turning up at the San Francisco 'Mechanics Institute Fair of 1874' to demonstrate a steam engine of his own design and for which he (among several others) held a patent.

Robert Duncan Milne left Oxford University before completing his degree in classics and to the best of our knowledge the years between 1868-74 had been spent mainly working as a hired hand on sheep ranches throughout California, so quite how the engine came about is still yet a mystery.

One aspect however which I believe may have had a lasting impact was, again, those interests of his father who, through his fellow Antiquarians and friends was connected with the great and good of Victorian science. Rev Milne provides a link between the St Andrews and Cupar Antiquarian Societies, contributing as he did to both. Through this he would undoubtedly have known Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope and one of the St Andrews' society's founding members. Among Brewster's notable acquaintances and correspondents was William Henry Fox-Talbot, most famous for developing Calotype photography.

 Letters in the Special Collection also see Milne Snr. writing to a George Hay Forbes regarding a church matter but, perhaps more pertinently, Forbes Snr, with whom Rev George must surely have been acquainted,  corresponded with the likes of James Watt, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday and Charles Babbage.

Leaders in their respective fields the aforementioned pioneered discoveries in optics, engineering, natural history, physics and computing: could this be where Robert gained his interest and formative schooling in science and technology?

Even if Rev Milne wasn't himself in direct contact with these giants of nineteenth century scientific thought isn't it likely that, given his relative proximity to them, he would have seen fit to share his second-hand knowledge of their achievements with his family? The closest modern day analogy I can come up with would be having a friend whose father was in regular contact with Stephen Hawking: that's something you'd at least mention to your family, isn't it?


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