Throughout his career, Patrick Geddes affirmed the importance of his childhood experiences as a formative influence on his later interests. On the surface, his family background does not appear out of the ordinary, but in the sphere of education and mental development his early life was exceptional. Taught to read and write by his father, he was a precocious child who had read extensively over all manner of subjects before he went to school, however this played a secondary role to the direct experience of life in nature. When Geddes was two years old and partly for his benefit, the family moved to a stone built, two storey cottage on Kinnoull Hill overlooking the River Tay. This house, already set in a landscape of great natural beauty, was surrounded by a rambling garden which Geddes learned to cultivate under the sympathetic supervision of his father. Here he first observed the unity and interrelationship of natural phenomena and it was the source of his fascination with life and growth in general. He later recalled the family ritual of a regular evening walk where they would observe the gradual change and development in individual plants and the garden as a whole. The experience had such a profound effect on his later outlook on life that he maintained an unshakeable faith in the superiority of a practical “vitalist” education above all other approaches to learning and, as far as was possible, he tried to create similar conditions for the teaching of his own children at the “home school” near Lasswade.


In Paris Geddes encountered new and formative influences in the student societies of the 1880s:

Auguste Compte’s Positivism, Humanism

– the work of Frederick Le Play (1806-1882)

– Elisee Reclus and Prince Peter Kropotkin, leading members of the Anarchist movement (albeit of the non-violent kind)

– Edouard Demolins, from whom he adopted the best remembered of his diagrams ‘Place-Work-Folk’


Clearance and wholesale demolitions of old buildings was leaving great gaps in the fabric of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Similar programmes had been carried out all over Europe, and in his travels Patrick Geddes had seen some of the effects of clearances in Germany and France. The work of Camillo Sitte, the great German city planner, to confront these problems was a great influence on the young Geddes.

Geddes was soon involved himself in the renovation movement through his connections with the ‘Secular Positivist’ debating group, led by Dr and Mrs Glasse at the Greyfriars Church.