Author Archives: dmcclay

Charles Lyell’s World Online events

On the 9th and 16th of February we were joined by over 250 people from 17 countries to learn about our progress and future plans to make Charles Lyell’s notebooks and archives accessible online through our forthcoming Charles Lyell’s World Online website. For those who were unable to join us may view these recordings. Whilst the first 35 minute section of each event are similar each event had a unique live question and answer part.

9th Feb event

16th Feb event

Charles Lyell’s World Online events

To learn more about our new funding priorities to help us accelerate our digitisation and online plans please contact David McClay, Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections 

Find out more about supporting the Collections. 

Charles Lyell’s World Online funded

We are delighted to announce that we will shortly be receiving a generous donation from the International Association of Sedimentologists to fully fund the design and development of a new website: Charles Lyell’s World Online.

Daryl Green FSA FSAScot, Head of Special Collections, writes “This gift will allow us, over the next two years, to develop an online resource of digital photographs of the archives and notebooks, alongside transcriptions, indexes and catalogues, interpretation and contextual content so that anyone, from seasoned researcher to the merely curious, can easily navigate and discover the richness of the Lyell archives.

Thank you to the IAS Bureau and members for sharing our vision for making the Lyell archives accessible.”

The International Association of Sedimentologists is a Not for Profit Organisation, known for academic publishing and supporting students field and lab work, conferences and other public events.

To learn more about our new funding priorities to help us accelerate our digitisation and online plans please contact David McClay, Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections 

Find out more about supporting the Collections. 

Introducing Charles Lyell’s World Online events

We’d like to invite you to our Introducing Charles Lyell’s World Online event, running on Tuesday 9th and 16th. Hear from Library staff and guests why Lyell and his archives are so important and how we plan to share them. This will include hosting high quality images on  our new website Charles Lyell’s World Online.

For the question and answer part we are pleased to receive questions in advance (email: or during the event. If we are unable to answer all questions during the events we will post answers on this blog.

Looking ahead the fuller potential of the Lyell notebooks and archives are about to be realised, we look forward to sharing these ambitions and progress with you.

To book [ctrl + click to follow link]

Introducing Charles Lyell’s World Online Tickets, Multiple Dates | Eventbrite

If you have any issues booking or have any other questions please contact David Mcclay, Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections at

Lyell notebooks


The Charles Lyell archives feature in the Arts Council England’s Cultural Gifts Scheme and Acceptance in Lieu annual report 2020/21 .

Both schemes are remarkably important in ensuring important cultural collections are cared for by the right public institutions. The 2020 allocation of the extensive Charles Lyell archives to the University of Edinburgh Library, thereby reuniting them with his other papers including his 294 notebooks, is just one example of the scheme producing a wonderful result.

Sincere thanks from the University of Edinburgh go to all of the staff, volunteers and supporters who make these schemes such a success.


David McClay

Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections

Thank you Friends

Friends of the National Libraries

Friends of Edinburgh University Library

The University of Edinburgh’s Lyell archives continue to grow, thanks to the support of our generous friends. The Friends of the National Libraries and the Friends of Edinburgh University Library united to help us acquire a fascinating Lyell family album of 118 letters and 57 portraits.


The album’s correspondents are quirkily described as “Divines, metaphysicians and philologists.” They date from 1805 to 1899 and include letters from Charles Kingsley, Samuel Wilberforce, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm.

Lyell album of letters and portraits

The correspondence appears to be mainly unpublished and will be an important resource for researchers seeking to understand the vital social, scientific and intellectual network of Sir Charles Lyell and his extended family.

The album cost $22,000 from an American dealer and was supported by a £10,000 from the Friends of the National Libraries and £500 from the Friends of Edinburgh University. The album’s contents will join his notebooks and other archives as part of our ambitious Creating Charles Lyell’s World Online project. The ongoing support of our many Friends deserves our heartfelt and warm thanks.

David McClay, Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections  

Friends celebrate Lyell acquisition

LogoThe Friends of Edinburgh University Library played a vital role in helping to acquire the Charles Lyell notebooks. They celebrate that acquisition in the new issue of The Piper

Joining the Friends is an excellent way to keep informed about Library activities and new collections: Friends Of Edinburgh University Library

Two new films on Charles Lyell and his notebooks

Professor Withers and others viewing a selection of Charles Lyell notebooks, University of Edinburgh’s Playfair Library, February 2020

There are two new films on Charles Lyell and his notebooks: The Travels of His Own Mind – Travels of His Own Mind where Professor Charles Withers, Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Edinburgh and Geographer Royal for Scotland, discussing the importance of Charles Lyell’s notebooks.

Also ‘Two Hundred and Ninety Four Notebooks, One Thousand One Hundred Donors’ – 294 notebooks, 1,100 donors where Professor Withers and Jacky MacBeath, Head of Centre for Research Collections and Head of Museums, University of Edinburgh, on why we are excited about Lyell!


Lyell Notebooks: Progress Report

Collection Curation

Since their arrival, the focus has been on a range of preliminary tasks to get the notebooks ready for digitisation, consultation and exhibition.


The first exhibition of Lyell’s notebooks


The first free public display of the Lyell collection is currently on at the University of Edinburgh’s Main Library on George Square, on the 6th floor in the Binks Exhibition Wall of the Centre for Research Collections (CRC). The volumes selected include a journal of a European tour of made by Lyell and his parents in 1818, an 1828 examination of the 1822 eruption of Vesuvius and an illustration of geology of Prosen Village (close to the Lyell family home at Kinnordy, Kirriemuir) in 1874.  The exhibition also features an engraved  portrait and a selection of geological specimens.

The exhibition also features a notebook which contains the description of shells sent to Lyell by Darwin, alongside the shells themselves.  The shells and the geological specimens are part of a wider collection of around 100 stone artefacts (axes, spears and arrow heads), three meteorites, 25 fossils, 25 rocks. These were generously donated to the University in 1927 by the Lyell family (along with a significant collection of Lyell’s papers, now held in the CRC) and are held at the University’s Cockburn Geology Museum.  Although the shells were already well known to us, finding documentation about them in the notebooks was a very exciting discovery.

The exhibition runs until 26 March.


The notebooks fall into 5 series, the largest of these being Coll-203/A1, the principal scientific notebooks. The other series are Coll-204/A2 – travel journals, Coll-203/A3 – scientific journals / manuscript notes, Coll-203/A4 – Madeira and Canaries and Coll-203/A5 – Indexes.  While full cataloguing will take some time and require to be resourced separately, skeletal catalogue entries for the first series has been created by repurposing a much earlier inventory. Some rudimentary entries have also been created for the volumes in the other series to allow them to be given unique identifiers, which are essential for managing digitisation, consultation and exhibition.

These catalogue records are not yet online but will be in the near future, once the notebooks are available for general consultation.

Conservation & Preservation

Notebooks shelved awaiting boxing


While primarily in pretty good condition a full conservation survey has been undertaken and work identified.  In particular a good number the spine labels, which are an essential part of the materiality of the notebooks, are particularly fragile and will require some specific intervention.

Each notebook will require its own ‘book shoe’ after which they will then be boxed for efficient storage and retrieval.  In the meantime, the notebooks have been temporarily shelved in sequence until this work can be carried out.


Two volumes have been selected as initial exemplars for digitisation.  The first volume comes from the scientific notebooks and contains, “Geological notes and observation; Notes on modern causes”.  The second is from scientific journals and contains some drafts of letters from Lyell to Charles Darwin.

A more ambitious plan of digitisation is currently being initiated, prioritising, in the first instance, the most physically robust volumes that require no or little intervention by a conservator.

Juliette Lichman working on Lyell digitisation assessment

Lyell in Context – New Post

The CRC is currently advertising an exciting new post: Project Archivist (Climate Change).  This puts Lyell firmly in context, identifying his papers not solely as a record of his own life and work and of the history of his discipline but recognising its significance in terms of understanding our planet.  Neither does Lyell stand in isolation.  Crucial connections and interactions between him, his contemporaries and his successors run through a range of our collections and properly identifying and making these available for research is a high priority. Vital to understanding the Earth and its needs is understanding its history.  This innovative post will scope out how Lyell’s papers and other collections here can play an important role.

As well as focussing on the collections, the Project Archivist will also have a responsibility to liaise with academic and other researchers and stakeholders and to establish and develop a cluster of research interest in and around the collections as a means of identifying the collaborative basis of future projects.

For further details on the post:  Vacancy Reference 050984

If you have any questions regarding the Lyell collections please contact in the first instance Rachel Hosker, Archives Manager and Deputy Head of Special Collections, at or to discuss the fundraising campaign or future funding needs; David McClay, Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections at


Professor Richard Fortey on Lyell

  Lyell expert and enthusiast

Professor Richard Fortey is one of the most authoritative and engaging experts on the importance of Charles Lyell. A welcome supporter in the Lyell notebook campaign, he has recently been interviewed by Professor Brian Cox for the joint BBC and Royal Society series People of Science. Watch here for a persuasive account of Lyell’s scientific significance: People of Science

We’d also recommend Richard’s fascinating article on Lyell and deep geological time for the Geological Society (of which he is a past President): Lyell and Deep Time

Thank you for saving Lyell’s notebooks

What an exciting prospect! The imminent arrival of Charles Lyell’s 294 notebooks to the University of Edinburgh Library is an occasion which will rightly be celebrated in Edinburgh. Students, staff and alumni will take pride in Edinburgh becoming the dynamic centre for future Lyell research and engagement.

There will also be celebrations around the world, as it was truly an international effort of geologists and historians rallying to save this remarkable collection. Throughout the UK and overseas, individuals, societies and groups gave what they could; from a couple of pounds to hundreds of thousands, so that in a short time the full £966,000 had been raised to allow the purchase to go ahead.

Whilst the £235,600 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the £200,000 from the John R Murray Charitable Trust were vital major gifts, there were over 1,100 other donations which were just as important in reaching our target. To each and every one of those who pledged and donated the University of Edinburgh would like to extend the warmest and sincerest of thanks. Soon we will be publishing an online list of our wonderful supporters, who have given permission to do so.

We look forward to making this collection of Lyell notebooks widely available and used. We wouldn’t have this opportunity to do so if it wasn’t for our generous supporters and donors. To you all – thank you!

David McClay
Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections