The Ark, Origins of Marine Research in Scotland

Published on 22nd October 2019

The Ark

A copy of the letter from D. Robertson to E.M. Holmes mentioning The ARK

2nd May 1894: “…shell duplicates will be valuable for The Ark”.

This reference was found in a letter from Dr David Robertson, sent to renowned algologist, phycologist, bryologist – in other words, he studied marine flora – Edward Morell Holmes. Remarkably enough Holmes kept Robertson’s letters, along with those of 127 other correspondents. The Linnean Society has all of these letters in its archives.

When I read this line I immediately wanted to know...what was The Ark? This warranted some investigation.


E.M. Holmes

The Ark, as it turns out, was a 25 meter long lighter–a flat-bottomed boat that shuttled goods and passengers to and from larger moored ships (or by another account a barge)–that had been fitted out as a floating laboratory in the 1880’s by the father of modern oceanography, Sir John Murray. It was taken in 1885 to the Isle of Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde in western Scotland, whose bays were notably rich in marine life. The research pursuits of The Ark inspired Dr Robertson, a medical doctor, to found the Millport Marine Biological Station, which opened in 1897, sadly just after he died. This station in turn gave birth to a long line of research facilities, now culminating in the Field Studies Council, Millport. Even now the Robertson Museum and Aquarium at Millport is open to visitors between March and November. It so happens that the Linnean Society visited this very station last year as part of their annual field trip.

Dr Robertson and his wife Hannah, an algologist in her own right, were indefatigable collectors of algae, seaweeds and mosses. Robertson’s last letter to Holmes was dated 1896 – at age 90, the very year that he died. That letter mentions that he “has sent some Punctaria undulata” to Holmes; Robertson was still out in the water, beaches, buoys and dunes until his late 80’s collecting specimens, despite complaints in his letters of rheumatism, storms, biting cold, and rough seas. Robertson, Hannah and their daughter Minnie wrote 121 letters to Holmes over the 19 years from 1891 to 1910. Letters, packets and lists of fresh and mounted specimens, and drawings were the e-mails, Instagram and Twitter feeds of today. But under our current digital regime would we still be able to lay hands on Robertson’s mention of The Ark, the contents of the fragile letters hand-written by pen and nib dipped in ink, and the dried and pressed 130 year old specimens?

Judith Thompson, Volunteer