RECORD: Darwin, C. R. c. 1827. [Notes on a zoological walk to Portobello]. CUL-DAR5.A49-A51 Transcribed by Kees Rookmaaker and edited by John van Wyhe. (Darwin Online,

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Kees Rookmaaker and edited by John van Wyhe, corrections by Gordon Chancellor 8.2009, further corrections by Christine Chua 2019. RN3

NOTE: Janet Browne discusses this item in her biography of Darwin, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995), pp. 78-80:

"Darwin relaxed sufficiently in the company of these new colleagues to take a step that now seems completely uncharacteristic. An English student named William Kay, one of the presidents and then the secretary of the Plinian Society after Ainsworth stepped down, persuaded him to join him in writing a humorous article-or one that was meant to be humorous, in the usual tradition of heavy-handed medical wit—which revealed no trace of an affectionate relationship with either Scotland or their Scottish medical education. Never read before an audience, never published, never noticed as such by historians, this article sank virtually without trace. It represents a résumé of sorts of Darwin's feelings at a critical turn in his life.
Together Kay and Darwin produced an account of a "Zoological walk" to the nearby beach of Portobello—possibly completely fictitious, although it seems more likely that a real expedition served as a basis for their humour. Everything that could have gone wrong, they implied facetiously, went wrong.
Neither student believed himself a great satirist: they hoped only to puncture the pomposity of a Mr. Ritchie (one of three members with that name), who had delivered an interminable "journal of a walk from the source to the mouth of the Water of Fail in Ayrshire" with some "patriotic encomiums on Robert Burns and William Wallace." To describe a walk like this was a common literary device at weekly meetings, and one that also appeared regularly in the undergraduate and literary journals of the day. Darwin and Kay produced their own version of a similar excursion, including some English remarks on Scotland. They intended reading this out loud in alternate voices, with Darwin speaking of the driving rain and the sights they would have seen if it had not been so wet ("How could the event turn out but unsuccessful?"), and Kay delivering remarks from Samuel Johnson about the joy of seeing the "high-road to England." ...
The walk ended with a few paltry shells picked up on the shore (the tide was in, complained Darwin) and an excellent dinner, which they "discussed in a most scientific manner"—not of local country fare like haggis or Scotch collops, but of "substantial Beef-steak." The final Anglophile allusion would not have been lost on an audience steeped in the roast-beef chauvinism of the Napoleonic period."

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Reproduced with permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and William Huxley Darwin.

[49 recto]

[Scroll up to see introductory matter.]

Having conceived with Mr. Kay1 that a "Zoological walk" to Portobello would be not only be conducive to our own amusement, but that in rendering an account of it to this Society,2 we ought should set an example worthy of being followed by more able members than ourselves. — Accordingly we agreed to meet on Saturday morning for that purpose. — The morning proved, as it usually does in such cases, most particularly unfavourable, quite characteristic of the Scotish climate. We had indeed flattered ourselves with the hope of one of there clear-shining mornings so peculiar, in winter, to the more Southern parts of this Island. In this we were miserably disappointed, even near objects being rendered totally invisible by the dense & impenetrable mist. — Under such auspices we set out. What How could the event prove turn out but unsuccesful.

1 William Kay (1807-1861), one of Darwin's fellow students and friends at the University of Edinburgh. Kay was one of the Presidents of the Plinian Society, later a physician at Clifton, Gloucestireshire, and Darwin's companion on this walk.

2 The Plinian Society was a student society at the University of Edinburgh founded by Robert Jameson c. 1823. Darwin was elected a member on 28 November 1826. R. B. Freeman noted:

[Darwin] attended eighteen out of a possible nineteen meetings up until 1827 Apr. 3. 1827 Mar. 27 CD made a communication to it, not "at beginning of the year 1826" as stated in Autobiography 39. Title was: 1 That the ova of Flustra possess organs of locomotion. 2 That the small black globular body hitherto mistaken for the young of Fucus loreus is in reality the ovum of Pontobdella muricata. CD was wrong in both these assertions; the "ova of Flustra" were pilidium larvae, and the "ovum of Pontobdella" was an egg case full of eggs.
Companion, 2d ed.

See also:

Darwin, C. R. [Edinburgh notebook]. (1827; 1828-1829; 1837-1839). CUL-DAR118 Text & image

Ashworth, J. H. 1935. Charles Darwin as a student in Edinburgh, 1825-1827. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 55: 97-113. Text

[49 verso]

Such indeed proved was it proved disappointment succeeded disappointment, in short, to use a familiar term, it was a complete failure. — But I must proceed: Leaving the busy hum of men. & threading our way through dirty streets & cercuitous wynds, we at last reached Holyrood House. Who can see this venerable pile without connecting at the same time, connecting in his mind the various scenes & changes it has witnessed? Who can behold it without thinking of the unfortunate Mary?1 But alas the time will soon arrive that this ancient building, so famed in the chronicles of olden time, will by the ill taste of the Scotch Nation, be only recognised as a newly decked out Villa. — What a contrast the poor old Chapel, as yet untouched it stands in all is nature pristine grandeur & simplicity. —

1 Mary I of Scotland or Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587).

[50 recto]

If the day had been more favourable, we might have seen, on our right hand, the far-famed Salisbury Craigs, another striking specimen of Scotch taste. — Not of picturesque beauty, but of money. At one time this belted hill was perchance an ornament to Edinburgh— Now it merely stands, a monument, what Gunpowder & ye Wedge can perform. — Our only view was a broard dirty road, that cried out for Macedam at every step.. Along such a road however, we steadily persisted untill at length we gained the Portobello shore. We looked in vain for Inch Keith,2 the Bas-rock, the distant hills in Fifeshire, all these indeed were hidden in an impenetrable cloud of obscurity. But there yet remained one view, that view, which both English & Scotch unanimously agree in giving their just tribute of praise, that view, which when once beheld — renders all others totally [insipid] & devoid

1 John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836), Scottish engineer and road builder.

2 Inchkeith is an island in the Firth of Forth.

[50 verso]

of interest in the novels of our illustrious Dr Johnson, it is the "high-road to England.1

"There is one remark that I may make respecting this road. there appears to be some fascination, some magnet, that draws in one direction every moving body with an accelerated velocity. I cannot explain this. But most in the language of Philosophy call it an ultimate fact. —" *

We had, as I before mentioned at last reached the scene of action. Here from the first, we had hoped for an ample field of amusement; but alas, again we we were deceived, the shore appeared perfectly destitute & void of every thing that could interest the Zoologist. —

We then, as a last resource, determine to proceed to some rocks lying a mile or two to the right of Portobello. — The mist rendering all distant object invisible we steadily persisted in the hope, we could reach

* A very just observation of Mr Kay. —

1 "The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!" Boswell, Life of Dr. Johnson.

[51 recto]

These rocks before they were immersed in the approaching tide. — On the way we procured but a very few shells: here & there a stray Buccinum, polished smooth by the rolling waves, a Turbo Tenebra or Anomia Ephippium lay scattered on the beach. — But what words can express our disappointment when we gained this our last destiny, this our long looked for scene of amusement, to find the few last jutting points covered by the ebbing tide. — We lingered a few moments, then turning our backs on the hidden treasure, disappointed we retraced our tedious footsteps to Edinburgh. — Thus in our Zoological walk, our Fauna consisted of the above mentioned shells, to which may be added, a few gulls & some bad specimens of the human genus. — But if we failed in adding to our stock of Zoological knowledge, we had, on our return, the satisfaction of discussing in a most scientific manner, an excellent

[51 verso]

dinner, not of Haggis or Scotch Collops, but of substantial Beef-steak.

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