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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Mary Elizabeth Lyell   [4 October 1847]


Monday Morning

My dear Mrs. Lyell1

I am much obliged for the Barnacles;2 the one marked Bergen is the right one; but it seems I must give it “locality unknown”: I do not think anyone could have called it a Conia. You shall have your specimens back, but having now passed your new shell, I shd like to leave it, till I go over all the genera again, which will be sometime hence, but I will pledge myself that your shells are returned.

Thank Lyell for his note,—what an awful joke it would have been if we had all subscribed for a horrid calf’s head! It will be grievous if the Coal Saurian turns out a fish;3 I will hope still that Agassiz’s positive assertions4 may be disproved by bones, as well as footsteps.—5

I enclose a letter from Chambers which has pleased me very much,6 (which please return) but I cannot feel quite so sure as he does: if the Lochaber & Tweed roads really turn out exactly on a level, the sea-theory is proved;7 (what a magnificent proof of equability of elevation, which does not surprise me much.) but I fear I see cause of doubt, for as far as I remember, there are numerous terraces near Galashiels, with small intervals of height, so that the coincidence of height might be cooked.8 Chambers does not seem aware of one very striking coincidence, viz that I made by careful measurement my Kilfinnin terrace 1202 above sea9 & now Glengluoy is 1203 according to the recent more careful measurements: even Agassiz would be puzzled to block up Glengluy & Kilfinnin by the same glacier10 & then moreover the lake would have two outlets. With respect to the middle terrace of Glen Roy, seen by Chambers in the Spean (figured by Agassiz,11 & seen by myself, but not noticed, as I thought it might have been a sheep-track) it might yet have been formed on the ice-lake theory, by two independent glaciers going across the Spean, but it is very improbable that two such immense ones should not have been united into one.— Chambers unfortunately does not seem to have visited the head of the Spey, & I have written to propose joining funds & sending some young surveyor there.12 If my letter is published in the Scotsman, how Buckland, as I have foreseen, will crow over me he will tell me, he always knew that I was wrong, but now I shall have rather ridiculously to say but “I am all right again”.—13

I have been a good deal interested in Miller,14 but I find it not quick reading & Emma has hardly begun it yet; I rather wish the scenic descriptions were shorter, & that there was a little less geologic eloquence.

With thanks, believe me, dear Mrs Lyell | Yours very sincerely | C. Darwin

Lyell’s picture now hangs over my chimney piece & uncommonly glad I am to have it. & thank you for it.—15


The cover is addressed to ‘C. Lyell Esqr e.’
Mary Lyell was an accomplished conchologist who did much of her collecting on travels with her husband. Charles Lyell, and probably Mary also, had been visiting CD at Down (see letter to J. D. Hooker, [5 October 1847]).
A fossil reptile had recently been discovered in the Saarbrücken coalfields, where previously only fossil fish had been found (see Horner 1848). The crucial issue was whether or not reptiles were present in formations older than the Red Sandstone. Georg August Goldfuss, to whom the remains were given for study, verified that the bones were indeed those of a crocodile in strata from the Carboniferous period (Goldfuss 1847).
Louis Agassiz believed in a progressive, non-evolutionary, appearance of organic beings on earth over time. In his view only invertebrates and fish had appeared before the Secondary period (see Agassiz 1842a, 1844, and 1846). For the opposing views of Agassiz and Lyell on progression, see Bowler 1976, pp. 47–53, 67–88.
Lyell had discovered fossil footprints, which Richard Owen later identified as reptilian, in the Nova Scotia coal formation (see C. Lyell 1843, p. 185). This was the first evidence of the presence of reptiles in the Carboniferous formations. On his second trip to North America, Lyell verified an earlier discovery of footprints of a reptilian quadruped in the coalfields of Pennsylvania (C. Lyell 1846).
This letter has not been found.
See letter to Charles Lyell, 8 [September 1847], n. 20. Kilfinnin is located in an apparently independent valley system approximately seven miles north-west of Glen Roy.
Agassiz 1842b, Plate 4, opposite p. 237.
CD considered the apparent existence of a shelf at the head of the Spey important. If this was a true shelf, according to CD, ‘there must have been a blockage at both ends of Glen Roy, which on any lake theory, seems improbable’ (letter to the Scotsman, [after 20 September 1847]).
William Buckland was a proponent of the glacier-lake theory. CD, apparently reassured by what Chambers had to say in the missing letter, seems to have regretted giving as much credence to that theory as he had in his letter to the Scotsman. See letter to Charles Lyell, [11 October 1847], in which CD informs Lyell that he has asked that the letter be destroyed, though he gives no specific reason.
Hugh Miller. CD recorded that he finished Miller 1847 on 6 October 1847 (DAR 119; Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV).
Almost certainly the same picture of Lyell that is now hanging in CD’s study in Down House.


Bowler, Peter John. 1976. Fossils and progress. Palaeontology and the idea of progressive evolution in the nineteenth century. New York: Science History Publications.

Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Goldfuss, Georg August. 1847. Über das älteste der mit Bestimmtheit erkannten Reptilien, einen Krokodilier, und einige neue fossile Fische aus der Steinkohlen-Formation. Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geognosie, Geologie, und Petrefakten-Kunde, pp. 400–4.

Horner, Leonard. 1848. A letter to the president [on the discovery of Saurian remains in the Saarbrück coalfields] [Read 16 June 1847.] Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 4: 17.

Miller, Hugh. 1847. First impressions of England and its people. London.

‘Parallel roads of Glen Roy’: Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin. By Charles Darwin. [Read 7 February 1839.] Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 129: 39–81. [Shorter publications, pp. 50–88.]


Thanks Mrs Lyell for barnacle specimens.

Mentions Agassiz’s classification of saurians.

Discusses letter from Chambers on "roads" in Scottish glens; views of Agassiz and Buckland on the glens.

Is reading Hugh Miller [First impressions of England and its people (1847)].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Mary Elizabeth Horner/Mary Elizabeth Lyell
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.63)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1122,” accessed on 8 December 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 4