The Genius o' Glenlair

The year 2006 was the 175th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish genius James Clerk Maxwell,  and Scotland declared it 'The Year of Maxwell'.  I composed the following doggerel following a meeting at the Paisley campus of the University of the West of Scotland "What's the go of it: James Clerk Maxwell" on 16th December 2006.  The poem is followed by an annotated version.

The Genius o’ Glenlair 

 

   A wee bit doggerel tae mark the 

   Year o’ Maxwell 2006

 

 

                When James Clerk Maxwell  was a lad,              

His questing mind fair deaved his Dad;

For “What’s the go of it?” he’d speir,

An’ hammer on till a’ was clear.

 

They ca’d him ‘dafty’ at the scule,

An’ that, ye’d think, was awfie cruel!

He didna’ mind, he was apart

Constructing ovals o’ Descartes!

 

He played wi’ colours blue an’ green

An’ red, enhanced by glorious sheen;

An’ took the earliest colour photo,

As good as ony Blake or Giotto.

 

He analysed the rings o’ Saturn,

Resolving their striated pattern,

Predicting weel their composition 

By calculus and long division.

 

Redundant in the granite city

An’ spurned by En’bro’, mair’s the pity,

He ended up awa’ doon South,

Nae doot they thocht him gae uncouth!

 

He liked tae doodle lines o’ force,

Wi’ charge an’ current as the source;

As much at hame wi’ rho an’ phi,

 An’ E an’ B an’ J forbye!

 

Through these he dreamt up waves o’ licht,

An’ workit on them day an’ nicht;

His mind roamed far whaur ithers durn’t,

An’ hit upon displacement current.

 

Syne back tae Galloway he repaired,

He had tae go – he was the laird!

By day conferring wi’ the ghillie,

By nicht luc’brating willy-nilly!

 

At last frae Cambridge cam’ the call,

Doon tae thon hallowed Senate Hall,

Where, tho’ he held the dons in thrall,

They didna follow him at all !

 

Blithe son o’ Gallovidian hills

O’ birk-clad slopes an’ tumbling rills,

Wha rose through intellect sublime,

Tae comprehend baith space an’ time; 

 

Great Scot! wha’s words in prose an’ rhyme,

Inspire us yet o’er vales o’ time, 

In this thine eponymial year  

Thy soaring spirit we revere!

MaxwellStatue.jpeg

Photo: with Misha Monastyrski under the statue of Maxwell 

Edinburgh, October 2012

Statue by Sandy Stoddart

And here's the annotated version 

The Genius o’ Glenlair 1

 

   A wee bit doggerel tae mark the 

   Year o’ Maxwell 2006 2

 

When James Clerk Maxwell  was a lad,

His questing mind fair deaved his Dad 3 ;

For “What’s the go of it?” 4 he’ld speir 5,

An’ hammer on till a’ was clear.

 

They ca’d him ‘dafty’ at the scule 6,

An’ that, ye’ld think, was awfie cruel!

He didna’ mind, he was apart

Constructing ovals o’ Descartes 7 !

 

He played wi’ colours blue an’ green

An’ red, enhanced by dubious sheen 8 ;

An’ took the earliest colour photo 9 ,

As good as ony Blake or Giotto.

 

He analysed the rings o’ Saturn 10 ,

Resolving their striated pattern,

Predicting weel 11 their composition 12

By calculus and long division.

 

Redundant in the granite city 13

An’ spurned by En’bro’ 14, mair’s the pity 15

He ended up awa’ doon South 16 ,

Nae doot they thocht him gae uncouth 17 !

 

He liked tae doodle lines o’ force 18 ,

Wi’ charge an’ current as the source;

As much at hame 19 wi’ rho 20 an’ phi 21,

An’ E an’ B an’ J 22 forbye 23 !

 

Through these he saw the radiant licht 24 ,

An’ workit 25 at it day an’ nicht;

His mind roamed far whaur ithers durn’t 26 ,

An’ hit upon displacement current 27.

 

Syne 28 back tae Galloway he repaired 29,

He had tae go – he was the laird 30 !

By day conferring wi’ the ghillie 31 ,

By nicht researching willy-nilly 32 !

 

At last frae Cambridge cam’ the call

Doon tae thon hallowed Senate Hall 33,

Where, tho’ he held the dons in thrall,

They didna follow him at all 34 !

 

Blithe son o’ Gallovidian 35 hills

O’ birk-clad 36 slopes an’ tumbling rills 37,

Wha rose through intellect sublime,

Tae comprehend baith space an’ time 38 ;

 

Great Scot! wha’s words in prose an’ rhyme 39

Inspire us yet o’er vales 40 o’ time,

In this thine eponymial 41 year

Thy soaring spirit we revere!

Footnotes: 

0. The poem is written in the deliberately ‘tongue-in-cheek’ style of a lowland Scot, who recognises Maxwell’s genius but has little understanding of the real nature of his accomplishments, and so takes refuge in a measure of pawky (i.e.dry) humour. 

 

1. Glenlair:  Maxwell’s family estate in Galloway, the South-west region of Scotland.

 

2. Year of Maxwell:  2006, the 175th  anniversary of Maxwell’s birth, was declared “the year of Maxwell” in Scotland.

 

3. James had a very close relationship with his father John Clerk Maxwell, who encouraged the boy’s curiosity during his childhood on the Glenlair estate.

 

4. ”What’s the go of it?”, i.e. “How does it work?” was the question James is alleged to have asked whenever he encountered something he didn’t understand; and he kept on at his enquiries until he got an answer that he could understand.

 

5. speir: to ask or enquire 

 

6. Maxwell entered the Edinburgh Academy in 1841 at the age of 10.  His classmates found him very strange, partly on account of the country clothes he wore, and partly because of his unusual intellectual ability, which set him somewhat apart.  They gave him the nick-name “dafty”, an affectionate, but nevertheless insulting, term indicating perhaps “foolish eccentric”.

 

7. While still at school, Maxwell discovered how to construct ovals using two pins and a string and pencil; he rediscovered and extended a construction of René Descartes, and his first paper on this topic was published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1846, when he was just 15 years old.

 

8. In 1855, Maxwell published his paper “Experiments on colour perceived by the eye”, the result of some years of work on the constitution of colours from three primary colours.

 

9. In May 1861, at the Royal Institution, Maxwell demonstrated the principle of colour photography, using three filters (red, green and blue) in turn, then projecting the images simultaneously on a screen.  The red was in fact ‘dubious’ because the photographic plates used were insensitive to red light; they were however sensitive to ultra-violet light which was also excited by the tartan material photographed, and this piece of luck led to the ‘success’ of the experiment.

 

10. Maxwell was awarded the Adam’s Prize for his essay (published in 1859) “On the stability of the motion of Saturn’s rings”.  

 

11.  weel:   well

 

12. Maxwell’s predictions concerning the structure of Saturn’s rings was confirmed by pictures from the satellites Voyager I and II in the early 1980s.

 

13. The granite city:  Aberdeen;  Maxwell was Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen, 1856-1860, but was made redundant when Marischal College was fused with King’s College, Aberdeen, to form Aberdeen University in 1860. 

 

14. “spurned by En’bro”: Maxwell applied for the vacant Chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh in 1860, but was unsuccessful, the successful candidate being P.G.Tait, his former schoolmate and lifelong friend.

 

15. mair’s the pity: too bad! 

  

16. awa doon South: Away down South; in fact, Maxwell was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at King’s College, London, a post that he held from 1860 to 1865.

 

17. Nae doot they thocht him age uncouth. No doubt they thought him very uncultured.

 

18. He liked tae doodle lines o' force.  He liked to sketch lines of force.  Maxwell’s first paper on Electromagnetism (1855) had the title “On Faraday’s lines of force”, which led him to his concept of a ‘field of force’.

 

19. at hame wi’: at ease with

 

20. rho: the Greek symbol for electric charge

 

21. phi: the Greek symbol for electric potential (voltage)

 

22. E and B and J:  Maxwell’s notation for Electric field, magnetic field and current density.

 

23. forbye: besides

 

24. the radiant licht.  An allusion to Maxwell’s discovery that light is a form of [electromagnetic] radiation

 

25. workit: Scots form of “worked”

 

26. whaur ithers durn’t: where others didn’t dare

 

27. displacement current: Maxwell’s discovery of what he described as “displacement current” was the crucial breakthrough that led to the subsequent discovery of electromagnetic wave propagation.

 

28. syne: then

 

29. In 1865, Maxwell resigned his Chair at King’s College London, in order to attend to his family estate (Glenlair) in Galloway, and to give himself time to write his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism.

 

30. laird: owner of a Scottish estate.  Maxwell’s father had died in 1860, so Maxwell was the Laird of Glenlair from 1860 till his death in 1879.

 

31. ghillie: a guide or attendant on hunting and fishing on Highland estates

 

32. willy-nilly: having no alternative

 

33. In 1871, Maxwell was appointed Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University, and first Director of the Cavendish Laboratory. He would have given his Inaugural Lecture in the Senate House.

 

34. They didn’t follow him at all:  Maxwell had very little following during his lifetime, during which few understood his electromagnetic theory; even the great Lord Kelvin never came to terms with it.

 

35. Gallovidian: of Galloway

 

36. birk-clad: covered with birch trees

 

37. tumbling rills: turbulent mountain streams

 

38. Throughout his life, Maxwell was an inveterate composer of rhymes, some serious, some humorous. 

 

39. To comprehend both space and time: This seems a fair comment, given that Maxwell’s theory was the necessary precursor for Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

 

40. o’er vales o’ time: over a long lapse of time, several generations.

 

41. eponymial: an adjective coined for reasons of euphony from the word “eponym”, with reference  to “the year of Maxwell”.