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Dr John S. Smith

The Geographer

Kessock Bridge History, Cromarty Bridge History, Dornoch Bridge History, A9 History, Scotlands Bridges

Dr John Smart Smith  1940-2004


John Smart Smith was born in Aberdeen on 14th February 1940. His father John A R Smith, was a civil engineer who was at that time a captain in the Royal Engineers, but had previously worked in various locations, including Perthshire and Caithness.

His mother, Vera Campbell, was originally  from Edinburgh. 

John’s paternal grandfather was also a civil engineer who worked for the noted firm of Pearsons, owned by 1st Viscount Cowdray.

After the war, John’s father was employed by Aberdeen Harbour Board.


Educated at both primary and secondary level at Aberdeen Grammar School, John was particularly keen on English literature, geography and botany. As a teenager he enjoyed working at West Cults Farm for Mr. Charlie MacDonald, was taught how to fish by a Fred, a former German POW who worked there, and with his father’s help built his own henhouse in the garden and sold the eggs locally.

For a while he considered a future in agriculture. 


In 1959 John went up to Aberdeen University, where he was an extremely diligent student who spent a huge amount of time in the library. Known as “Big John” because of his 6’4” height, he was in those days a quiet and somewhat reserved character.


Originally intending a career in English, which he studied to advanced level, he eventually decided on Geography instead.


A key influence in this decision was the dynamic South African born head of department, Professor Andrew C. O’Dell. A noted expert on Shetland, Scandinavia and  the geography of railways the professor came to national prominence when he discovered the St Ninian’s Isle Viking treasure in Shetland in 1958.  Before his untimely death in 1966, O’Dell was the driving force behind the renovation of Tarradale House near Muir of Ord, the ancestral home of the eminent geologist Sir Roderick Murchison, as a University field centre.


John first came to Ross-shire as an enthusiastic member of student work parties at the house, soon developing a keen interest in, and love for, the landscapes of the Highlands. In the beautiful pitch pine lined library at Tarradale, he wrote his undergraduate thesis on “The Black Isle: an essay in Physiographic Evolution”, subsequently graduating M.A. in Geography with First Class Honours in 1963.

In addition, he was awarded the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Silver Medal as well as the Lyon Prize for the most distinguished Arts student in the University that year.


John was awarded a D.S.I.R. postgraduate research grant and commenced studies on “Deglaciation and Shoreline Evolution of the Moray Firth”, with Professor Kenneth Walton as his supervisor.


The then rapidly expanding Geography Department was keen to secure John’s services and he was appointed as assistant lecturer in 1965.


O’Dell ran a tight ship and had no time for slackers or vagueness. The  professor inculcated in John a belief in the essential unity of Geography which made him a vigorous opponent of undue specialisation and the use of jargon.


Together with Ken Walton, John read and translated much of the extensive French literature on geomorphology. Like his engineer father, he was a neat draftsman, producing excellent field sketches, and especially block diagrams.


His longtime colleague, Sandy Mather, recalled John being in charge of a group of younger students at a summer archaeological dig in Unst under the auspices of the Geographical Society .

The young lecturer had a reputation of being serious and scholarly but  before long his exuberant humour burst forth and eventually he was regaling the students with a very creditable Roy Orbison impression.


It was while carrying out fieldwork for his Ph.D that John first encountered Reay Clark, who more or less politely asked him why he was wandering across his fields at Edderton.


John was promoted to lecturer in 1968 and was awarded his doctorate the following year. He became a senior lecturer in 1974.


In the late 1960s he joined two expeditions led by his good friend, the Irish scholar Francis Synge, to carry out fieldwork on Scandinavian shoreline changes. Operating on shoestring budgets, they covered immense distances on unsurfaced oil bound roads, right up to the Arctic circle and the Russian border.


Over time, John built up a reputation as a lecturer with a wonderful rapport with his audience, in both University and extra mural settings. Instrumental in his success was his enthusiasm for photography, illustrating his talks from a large collection of colour slides.


His publications included work on shoreline changes, beaches, salt marshes, and botanical studies, but also local history, land use and archaeology. 


John ‘s links with the Highlands were strengthened by his marriage on 23rd March 1967 to Gillian Campbell, a secondary school geography teacher from Dingwall, whom he had met when she was a student in the department.

At his father in law’s cycle shop in the town, a noted social hub in those days, he met many of the local ‘worthies’.


For more than four decades John was involved with the practical management and upkeep of Tarradale House, continuing to participate in volunteer work parties from staff and students, and in the 1960s and 70s, regularly driving up from Aberdeen to cut the grass.


Ably assisted by Gillian in the kitchen, he sometimes hosted resident groups, including an annual weekend visit by the great and the good of the University Court. These occasions featured notably ambitious menus, designed by his colleague Alastair Smith.

For decades John led several departmental field trips based there, and also regularly conducted various other groups, notably the Workers Educational association, on tours of the Northern Highlands.


His in-depth knowledge of the area was reflected in his authorship of several of the Geography department’s groundbreaking series of detailed beach reports, produced for the Countryside Commission.


During the 1970s he acted as environmental consultant to the Highland Board for the Moray Firth sub region, conducting extensive fieldwork each year along with technicians and students, to produce a series of eleven Ecological Survey Reports investigating the impact of developments on the environment around the Three Firths.


In the 1980s, he edited the Sutherland and Caithness volumes of the Third Statistical Account of Scotland.    


When Professor Walton, was appointed Vice Principal of the University, John was entrusted with taking on his first year Unity of the Physical Environment course, which inspired so many students to continue with the subject to degree level.

Together with William Ritchie, John taught Coastal Geomorphology  to final year  students.


His abiding interest in history, with a special interest in Scottish castles, and archaeology, was put to good use when his colleague Ian Ralston moved to Edinburgh and John carried on the honours level course on the Prehistoric Geography of North Britain.


He was always very particular in preparing his lectures, hand writing a new version each year, to take in the latest research.

Marking students’ work always included comprehensive grammar and spelling correction. Woe betide anyone who forgot a scale or a north point on a map! For John, feedback and engagement with his students was not a burden but a pleasure and his office door was always open.


He also enjoyed the banter with his good friends among the technical staff and cartographers in  the basement tearoom.

By contrast, he dreaded staff meetings and committees  and welcomed any excuse which enabled him to leave early or avoid them altogether.


Another bugbear was the age of the internet (which he always maintained would eventually blow up) and email, which he steadfastly resisted, preferring his old Imperial 66 manual typewriter, the sound of which echoed down the corridors of the department, long after everyone else had switched to the computer.


John Smith had no time for intellectual jargon or political correctness. He took no prisoners in “clearly, forcefully but never hurtfully” expressing his opinions, which were distinctly conservative, with both a big and a small “C”. That said, he never engaged in party political discussions in the staffroom.


John strongly believed in building links between the university and the wider community and was always willing to speak to various church Womans’ Guilds and other clubs and societies, although he was never keen on formal after dinner speeches.


His Tuesday evening local history classes for the general public, held over the winter months at Marischal College, annually attracted attendances of well over a hundred  Aberdonians from all walks of life.


For over thirty years, John acted as honorary secretary to the Deeside Field Club. This involved arranging monthly excursions for two or three busloads of (mainly) “wifies”, to places of interest all over the North east, followed by a traditional high tea at a hotel before returning to the Granite City. Given the advanced age of some of these ladies, it was sometimes a source of considerable stress!


An avid book buyer and subscriber to academic journals (which eventually filled two rooms in the house), of an evening John usually had a book open and a notepad and pen in his hand.


His hobbies also included pop music (of which he had an encyclopaedic knowledge), watching John Wayne and war films, gardening, and a Saturday morning game of golf at the local Deeside Club in Bieldside.


However his greatest pleasure was going for “a run” in the car with the family, an activity which always involved observation of the landscape, with geographical features and farming practices pointed out and explained. Even on his days off, John was still the teacher!   



From the foregoing, it can be seen how John Smith became an enthusiastic member of

the Three Firths project.

In 1979-81, he could look towards Inverness from his tattie patch at Tarradale and watch the steady progress of the Kessock Bridge, with “the gap” narrowing on every visit.


The day of the opening ceremony was memorable, with a terrible thunderstorm and torrential rain.

At the ceremony, Her Majesty the Queen Mother, whom John greatly respected, carried on smiling even though the water was pouring off the roof of the marquee and the red carpet she walked on was floating on huge puddles. It was one of his proudest days, as was the opening of the Dornoch Bridge, when the weather was much more pleasant and the day was rounded off with a congenial gathering at Reay Clarke’s garden at Edderton Farm, with all the local luminaries present.    


Tragically, my father died of  meningitis in 2004, after a period of declining health. The closure and subsequent sale of his beloved Tarradale House was a shattering blow to him. But right up to the end of his life he thought nothing of driving to Ullapool for a day trip or Skye for a holiday. Nothing could keep him from his favourite places! 

Latterly he had been working only part time but was reluctant to retire completely, I think because he still enjoyed lecturing so very much. He was a man whose enthusiasm for learning was infectious and whose greatest joy was to impart his knowledge to others.


He is sadly missed. In many ways “JSS” was a throwback to earlier, and some would say, better days in University life, when excellence in teaching was of paramount importance.      


by his son, John A. R. Smith

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