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Sir James Hall of Dunglass, 4th Baronet, lived from 17 January 1761 to 23 June 1832. He was a geologist, geophysicist and politician. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Sir James Hall was born at Dunglass, Haddingtonshire (now in East Lothian). At the age of 15 he inherited the Baronetcy of Dunglass on his father's death. Hall was educated at Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh, and at the military college at Brienne in France, where a fellow student was Napoleon Bonapart. In 1786, at the age of 25, he married Lady Helen Hamilton Douglas, the daughter of the 4th Earl of Selkirk. They had three sons and three daughters.
From 1807 to 1812 Hall served as the MP for the rotten borough of Mitchell or St Michael or Michaelborough in Cornwall, a constituency comprising the parishes of Newlyn and St Enodor in which effective voting rights lay in the hands of just a few landowners.
Despite this, it is Hall's scientific interests and his life in Scotland for which he is primarily remembered. While a student at Edinburgh University he had studied chemistry under Joseph Black and natural history under John Walker. He became interested in geology and in the Spring of 1788 was playing host to James Hutton and John Playfair at the family home at Dunglass when Hutton noticed what is now known as Hutton's Unconformity, at Siccar Point, a pattern in the strata that later underpinned many of his theories.
Sir James Hall himself went on to publish his own research on the chemical composition of rocks, being the first to discover the composition of whinstone and basalt lava. He had the means to travel widely across Europe, looking at geological formations in the Alps and at Mount Etna. This allowed him to recognise the similarities between ancient rock formations in Scotland and much more recent ones with an undoubted volcanic origin in Italy. He became a pioneer in developing ways of subjecting rocks to high temperatures and pressures in the experimental environment, in the process doing much to help confirm the theories of James Hutton.
Hall also served as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He died in 1832 in Edinburgh and is remembered today by a small memorial on the wall of the semi derelict (but still roofed) Dunglass Collegiate Church.