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In search of the ‘true prospect’: making and knowing the Giant's Causeway as a field site in the seventeenth century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 September 2007

School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University of Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland, BT7 1NN. Email:


The phenomenon of the Giant's Causeway in the north of Ireland has attracted much attention over five centuries. This essay recounts the formative years between 1688 and 1708 of the Giant's Causeway as a field site and ‘philosophical landscape’ in the light of recent research on the historical geographies of scientific knowledge. This research has provided new perspectives on field science, emphasizing the spatial character of the field and its discursive formation in different spaces. A view of the field as a self-contained unit in which science is practised is rendered problematic. Instead, it is seen as part of a network of intersecting locales within which scientists and science circulate. This essay draws upon this work, exploring and mapping the spaces and techniques used by late seventeenth-century natural philosophers in London and Dublin to generate observational and conceptual knowledge of the Giant's Causeway. In doing so, the paper contributes to an understanding of the spaces of natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, of the knowledge networks within which the virtuosi operated and of the earth science field site.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2008

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2 W. Hamilton, Letters Concerning the Northern Coast of the County of Antrim, Dublin, 1790, part II, 5–6.

3 For recent accounts of the geology of the area see H. E. Wilson and P. I. Manning, Geology of the Causeway Coast: Memoir for One-Inch Geological Sheet 7, 2 vols., Belfast, 1978; P. Lyle, A Geological Excursion Guide to the Causeway Coast, Belfast, 1996; W. I. Mitchell (ed.) The Geology of Northern Ireland, 2nd edn, Belfast, 2004.

4 Short historical synopses of earth science at the Giant's Causeway are found in Wilson and Manning, op. cit. (3); and Tomkeieff, S. I., ‘The basalt lavas of the Giant's Causeway district of Northern Ireland’, Bulletin volcanologique (1940), 4, 89143CrossRefGoogle Scholar, with plates. See also Young, R. M., ‘Early notices and engraved views of the Giant's Causeway’, Ulster Journal of Archæology (1896), 3, 40–9Google Scholar; Anglesea, M. and Preston, J., ‘“A philosophical landscape”: Susanna Drury and the Giant's Causeway’, Art History (1980), 3, 252–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar, with plates; S. Rousham, The Story of the Causeway Stones, The National Trust, 1987.

5 ICOMOS, World Heritage List no. 369. Nomination: Giant's Causeway and Causeway Coast, Paris, 1986; IUCN, Nomination to the World Heritage List, IUCN, 1986.

6 M. J. S. Rudwick, ‘Minerals, strata and fossils’, in Cultures of Natural History (ed. N. Jardine, J. A. Secord and E. C. Spary), Cambridge, 1996, 266–86.

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10 See B. Latour, Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, London, 1999.

11 He had also been a member of the Dublin Philosophical Society, but this society had a rather shaky life and was not in existence at this point. It met formally from 1683 to 1687, from 1693 to 1697 and briefly around 1708. Many of its members were also Fellows of the Royal Society. See K. T. Hoppen, The Common Scientist in the Seventeenth Century: A Study of the Dublin Philosophical Society 1683–1708, London, 1970.

12 This letter was later published. See Redding, R., ‘A Letter from Sir Robert Redding, late Fellow of the R.S. concerning Pearl-Fishing in the North of Ireland’, Philosophical Transactions (1693), 17, 659–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Royal Society, Journal Book Copy, vol. 7 (1686–90), minutes of the meeting of 23 January 1689, 161–2. A comparison of his account with Sir Richard Bulkeley's later account, based upon second-hand accounts, suggests that Redding had actually seen what he reported. From his report on freshwater pearl fishing, Redding is known to have travelled around the north of Ireland in August 1688. It is plausible to assume that he not only heard about the Giant's Causeway but also paid it a visit out of his interest in rocks and minerals (see Robert Redding to Martin Lister, 28 September 1684, Royal Society, Letter Book Copy, vol. 10, a list of rock and mineral specimens from Ireland that Redding had sent to the Society).

14 P. B. Ellis, A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, London, 1987.

15 Kohler, op. cit. (8), 192; see also Livingstone, D. N., ‘Making space for science’, Erdkunde (2000), 54, 285–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Driver, op. cit. (8), 267.

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18 Cole, C., ‘A draught of the Gyants Causway which lyes near Pengorehead in the County of Antrim’, Philosophical Transactions (1694), 18Google Scholar; Foley, S., ‘An account of the Giants Causway in the North of Ireland’, Philosophical Transactions (1694), 18, 170–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, , ‘Answers to Sir Richard Bulkeley's queries relating to the Giant's Causway, wrote down when we were upon the Causway’, Philosophical Transactions (1694), 18, 173–5Google Scholar; Molyneux, T., ‘Some notes upon the foregoing account of the Giants Causway, serving to further illustrate the same’, Philosophical Transactions (1694), 18, 175–82Google Scholar; Sandys, E., ‘A true prospect of the Giants Cawsway near Pengore-head in the County of Antrim’, Philosophical Transactions (1697), 19Google Scholar; Molyneux, op. cit. (1).

19 M. J. S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, Chicago, 2005.

20 S. Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Science and Civility in Seventeenth-Century England, Chicago, 1994.

21 B[ulkeley]., op. cit. (17), 708.

22 Lund, R. D., ‘“More Strange than True”: Sir Hans Sloane, King's Transactioneer, and the deformation of English prose’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture (1985), 14, 213–30Google Scholar.

23 W. King, The Transactioneer with Some of his Philosophical Fancies: In Two Dialogues, Los Angeles, 1988 (first published 1700), 54–5.

24 King, op. cit. (23), 55.

25 D. Outram, ‘On being Perseus: new knowledge, dislocation, and Enlightenment exploration’, in Geography and Enlightenment (ed. D. N. Livingstone and C. W. J. Withers), Chicago, 1999, 281–94, 283.

26 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 209.

27 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 214, 218.

28 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 218.

29 See Shapin, op. cit. (20).

30 Withers, C. W. J., ‘Reporting, mapping, trusting: making geographical knowledge in the late seventeenth century’, Isis (1999), 90, 497521Google Scholar.

31 Foley, ‘Answers’, op. cit. (18), 173–4.

32 Foley, ‘Answers’, op. cit. (18), 173.

33 Foley, ‘Account’, op. cit. (18); Royal Society, Journal Book Copy, vol. 8 (1690–96), minutes of the meeting of 27 June 1694, 247.

34 Rudwick, op. cit. (19).

35 Cole had previously sent a drawing to the Royal Society in 1690, A Demonstration of a Strange Appearance in the Air over Coleraine on Whitmunday 1690 Between Two & Three in the Afternn. Royal Society, Southwell Papers 1611–1700, MS 248, So.23.

36 Owen Lloyd to Richard Waller, 31 October 1693 (Royal Society, EL/L5/126).

37 Christopher Cole to Owen Lloyd, 30 March 1694, in K. T. Hoppen (ed.) The Papers of the Dublin Philosophical Society (microfiche archive; henceforth DPS papers), 377; Owen Lloyd to Richard Waller, 31 March 1694 (DPS papers, 378); Owen Lloyd to Richard Waller, 13 June 1694 (Royal Society, EL/L5/128).

38 Foley, ‘Answers’, op. cit. (18), 175.

39 B. J. Ford, Images of Science: A History of Scientific Illustration, London, 1992.

40 Rudwick, M. J. S., ‘The emergence of a visual language for geological science 1760–1840’, History of Science (1976), 14, 149–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar; D. Topper, ‘Towards an epistemology of scientific illustration’, in Picturing Knowledge: Historical and Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art in Science (ed. B. S. Baigrie), Toronto, 1996, 215–49.

41 W. B. Ashworth, Vulcan's Forge and Fingal's Cave: Volcanoes, Basalt, and the Discovery of Geological Time, Kansas City, 2004.

42 Foley, ‘Answers’, op. cit. (18), 175.

43 L. Herrmann, British Landscape Painting of the Eighteenth Century, London, 1973.

44 P. D. A. Harvey, The History of Topographical Maps: Symbols, Pictures and Surveys, London, 1980.

45 Anglesea and Preston, op. cit. (4), 255.

46 Withers, op. cit. (30).

47 See E. S. Casey, Representing Place: Landscape Painting and Maps, London, 2002.

48 Foley, ‘Answers’, op. cit. (18).

49 Richard Bulkeley to Martin Lister, c. June/July 1694 (DPS papers, 381).

50 Cole to Lloyd, op. cit. (37).

51 Cole to Lloyd, op. cit. (37). Hoppen, op. cit. (37), notes that the ‘printed enquiries’ to which Cole refers suggest that the Dublin Philosophical Society was redistributing William Molyneux's 1682 Queries for a Natural History of Ireland.

52 Rudwick, op. cit. (40).

53 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 211.

54 Cole to Lloyd, op. cit. (37).

55 Richard Bulkeley to Martin Lister, 13 April 1697 (DPS papers, 389); Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 211. Bulkeley noted that Sandys's drawing cost the Dublin Philosophical Society £13, and was ‘very curious and instructive’.

56 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 212.

57 Hamilton, op. cit. (2), part II, 14–15.

58 See Rudwick, op. cit. (40).

59 B. Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, Cambridge, MA, 1987, 227.

60 A. Larsen, ‘Equipment for the field’, in Cultures of Natural History (ed. N. Jardine, J. A. Secord and E. C. Spary), Cambridge, 1996, 358–77.

61 Foley, ‘Answers’, op. cit. (18), 174.

62 Molyneux, op. cit. (18).

63 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 222.

64 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 222.

65 Royal Society, Journal Book Copy, vol. 9 (1696–1702), minutes of the meeting of 20 October 1697, 66.

66 William Molyneux to Hans Sloane, 4 November 1697 (Royal Society, EL/M1/99).

67 William Molyneux to Hans Sloane, 13 November 1697 (DPS papers, 392).

68 Royal Society, Journal Book Copy, vol. 9 (1696–1702), minutes of the meeting of 22 December 1697, 77. The comment recorded in the minutes immediately after Mr Wilson's is intriguing: ‘Dr Hooke said that Glass plates were long since made Con Cave for Watches by the help of fire melting down plates on a fire Stone Concave.’ Such a comment might have been provoked by the concavo-convex surfaces of the Causeway stone just seen. If so, perhaps Hooke was proposing that the shape of the Causeway stones was the result of the action of heat. However, the comment is ambiguous and may also relate to a discussion on glass that evening. The minutes of the same meeting also record that a letter from a Mr Gray was read, ‘giving some Experiments about making Concave Speculums easy’. The discussion about lenses could have equally been stimulated by the Causeway specimen. The minutes of this meeting are somewhat confused and may not be in chronological order, as the presentation of the Causeway specimen and Sandys's drawing are recorded after Mr Wilson's comment on the specimen.

69 Molyneux, op. cit. (1).

70 Latour, op. cit. (59), 227.

71 Quoted in A. Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Chicago, 1998, 488.

72 Molyneux, op. cit. (18), 176.

73 Molyneux, op. cit. (18), 176.

74 Molyneux, op. cit. (18), 177.

75 Molyneux, op. cit. (18), 177.

76 Molyneux, op. cit. (18), 177.

77 Molyneux, op. cit. (18), 180.

78 Quoted in R. Laudan, From Mineralogy to Geology: The Foundations of a Science 1650–1830, London, 1987, 39.

79 Molyneux, op. cit. (18), 180.

80 See Ashworth, op. cit. (41).

81 Molyneux, op. cit. (18), 181. Translated this reads, ‘The greatest Irish stone is basalt or touchstone, standing with at least five corners and at the most seven; full of knots, it has numerous joints which are alternately and skilfully interlinked, but easily separable.’

82 Molyneux, op. cit. (1). The greater scope of vision inherent in such a space can be further seen in the discussions between Thomas Molyneux and Edward Lhuyd. Lhuyd had discovered a basalt formation in Wales, and sent an account of it, accompanied by a drawing, to Thomas Molyneux, who advised him to compare a specimen of the Welsh basalt with a specimen of Causeway basalt in the Repository at Gresham College. See Thomas Molyneux to Edward Lhuyd, 4 May 1699 (DPS papers, 402).

83 Molyneux, op. cit. (18), 176.

84 Molyneux, op. cit. (18), 177. This comment reflects the prevalent conception of nature as art and God as the artisan; cf. L. Daston, ‘Nature by design’, in Picturing Science, Producing Art (ed. C. A. Jones and P. Galison), London, 1998, 232–53.

85 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 210.

86 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 219.

87 Davies has observed that Woodward ‘was evidently the first fully to appreciate the vital importance of field-work in geological studies’, this around the 1690s. G. L. Davies, The Earth in Decay: A History of British Geomorphology 1578–1878, London, n.d., 75.

88 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 209.

89 J. G. Simms, William Molyneux of Dublin, Dublin, 1982.

90 Davies, op. cit. (87); R. Rappaport, ‘The earth sciences’, in The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 4: Eighteenth-Century Science (ed. R. Porter), Cambridge, 2003, 417–35; Rudwick, op. cit. (19).

91 Strange, J., ‘An account of two giants causeways, or groups of prismatic basaltine columns, and other curious vulcanic concretions, in the Venetian State in Italy; with some remarks on the characters of these and other similar bodies, and on the physical geography of the countries in which they are found’, Philosophical Transactions (1775), 65, 547CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

92 Anonymous, , ‘A letter from Dublin to the author of the miscellaneous letters, giving an account of some petrifactions, with animadversions thereupon’, Miscellaneous Letters (1696), 2, 4957Google Scholar. This issue is incorrectly numbered.

93 See S.G.A., ‘An account of, and reflections upon the two essays sent from Oxford to a nobleman in London, concerning some errors about the creation, general flood, and the peopling of the world; as also of fables, romances, and the state of learning’, Miscellaneous Letters (1695), 1, 561–6Google Scholar.

94 Anonymous, op. cit. (92), 49.

95 Anonymous, op. cit. (92), 49–50.

96 Anonymous, op. cit. (92), 50.

97 Molyneux, op. cit. (1), 221.

98 See J. A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Chicago, 2000.

99 S.G.A., op. cit. (93).

100 For Samuel Molyneux's diary of his tour in the north of Ireland, see S. Molyneux, ‘Journey to ye North, August 7th, 1708’, in Historical Notices of Old Belfast and its Vicinity (ed. R. M. Young), Belfast, 1896, 152–60; note that Young mistakenly attributes this account to Thomas Molyneux.

101 Molyneux, op. cit. (100), 157.

102 Molyneux, op. cit. (100), 157, 158.

103 Although Samuel Molyneux did redistribute copies of his father's questionnaire on Irish natural history, he also made the effort to go and see natural phenomena for himself, further evidence of the beginning of a shift away from collating data obtained through eyewitness reports; see Hoppen, op. cit. (11), and idem, op. cit. (37).

104 Molyneux, op. cit. (100), 157.

105 Klonk is more concerned with ‘inaccuracy’ and ‘errors’ in these images than with their intellectual importance and conceptual significance. C. Klonk, ‘Science, art, and the representation of the natural world’, in The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 4: Eighteenth-Century Science (ed. R. Porter), Cambridge, 2003, 584–617. Porter's history of geology mentions them only in passing and wrongly attributes Sandys's drawing to William Molyneux. R. Porter, The Making of Geology: Earth Science in Britain 1660–1815, Cambridge, 1977. Rudwick, op. cit. (40), while admittedly dealing with later geological illustration, still does not mention its predecessors from the pens of Cole and Sandys.

106 Hoppen, op. cit. (11).