Home Heritage the Arts Sir James George Frazer: Anthropologist and author

Sir James George Frazer: Anthropologist and author

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sir_james_george_frazerPROBABLY the most honoured academic ever to be educated in Helensburgh was Sir James George Frazer, a leading social anthropologist, folklorist and classical scholar of his time.

Sir James was a key figure in the early stages of the modern studies of mythology and comparative religion, and greatly influenced writers and thinkers such as D.H.Lawrence, T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Born in Brandon Place, Glasgow, on January 1 1854, he attended what was then called Larchfield Academy (later Larchfield School, now part of Lomond School) while living with his parents at Glenlea, 16 East Argyle Street.

For his exceptional services he was created a Knight in 1914 and awarded the high honour of the Order of Merit in 1925.

He was made LL.D. (Oxon), Ltt.D., F.R.S., F.B.A., F.R.S.Edin., Litt.D. of Durham and Manchester, and from France received the honour of Commander of the Legion d’Honneur. He also received honorary doctorates from the universities of Paris and Strasbourg.

But despite such wide recognition, he never forgot his old school, and in 1904 he became of a member of the Old Larchfieldian Club. He also presented the prizes one year.

When he received the Freedom of the City of Glasgow in April 1932, Sir James recalled his schooldays in glowing terms.

He added: “When I think of the famous men on whom a similar honour has been bestowed in the past, I am proud to be deemed worthy of being added to that illustrious company. I am humbled by reflecting how far the talents and achievements of these eminent men excel my own.”

James George Frazer was the eldest of four children born to his father Daniel Frazer and his mother Katherine Frazer, nee Bogle. His father Daniel was a wealthy middle-class pharmacist and founder of Frazer & Green, Druggists, in Glasgow, who led the family as devout followers of the Free Church of Scotland, into whose doctrines James was raised.

In the mid-1860s his father bought Glenlea (pictured below) and moved to the burgh. James was enthralled with his new home and the burn at the foot of the garden, and he would spend hours after school roaming around Helensburgh and Garelochside.

There, surrounded by hills and forests, the loch breeze rippling his shirt and blowing through his hair, he would listen to the faint bells of the burgh churches.

Until his middle years he spent most of his holidays at home, and later he would associates these bells with the ‘Bells of Lake Nemi’ in his epic book ‘The Golden Bough’.

At Larchfield Academy, tutored by his headmaster, Alexander Mackenzie, he excelled in Latin and Greek. He entered Glasgow University in 1869 and studied Latin under George Gilbert Ramsey, Rhetoric under John Veitch, and Physics under the great Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thomson), originator of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

In 1874 James moved to Cambridge and began studying at Trinity Collage. He graduated with first-class honours in Classics in 1878, and because of a dissertation on Plato, he was elected to a Title Alpha Fellowship in 1879. Over the coming years his fellowship would be renewed three times, in 1885, 1890 and 1895.

Next he moved to London and entered the Middle Temple to study Law. This he did mainly to appease his father, who felt he was wasting his talents on academic subjects and needed a trade.

Four years later, in 1882, James was called to the bar, but he never took up practice. Instead he chose to continue his preference for philosophy and anthropology.

He returned to Cambridge and embarked on a programme of research and writing, starting first with a translation and commentary on Paesanias, a Greek travel writer of the second century — a work he finally finished with six volumes in 1898.

One method he used in his research was to send out questionnaires to missionaries, doctors and administrators throughout the empire. He requested information on the customs, habits and beliefs of local inhabitants, a mammoth undertaking. His comparative study of the incoming information led to his first book, ‘Totemism’, published by Adam and Charles Black in Edinburgh in 1887.

In 1890 Macmillan published what became his most celebrated work, ‘The Golden Bough’. This first edition was in two volumes and became an instant classical best seller, and he published two further larger editions. The second edition in 1900 was in three volumes and the third in 1915 had twelve volumes.

James spent the next six years travelling extensively in Europe, before returning to Cambridge where he met and married Lilly Grove, a French widow with two growing daughters, in 1896. A devoted wife and a French authority on the ethnology of dance, Lily did much to promote his work in France, Germany and Italy.

Glenlea326In 1904 James studied Hebrew, and in 1910 he accepted the post of Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Liverpool. But he never liked the noise and bustle of the large industrial city and longed for the tranquility, peace and quiet of Cambridge.

He returned to Cambridge a year later and continued his research, writing, and translating old manuscripts from Hebrew, Latin and Greek.

In 1914, at the start of World World One, he was knighted. Sir James and Lady Frazer spent the war years in a small flat in the Middle Temple in London, to which his nominal membership of the bar entitled him. Lady Frazer devoted herself to guarding his peace, and encouraging him to write and continue his researches.

During the post war years they travelled much of the continent together pursuing his research. Then in 1930, while giving a speech at the annual dinner of the Royal Literary Fund, Sir James was suddenly struck down with blindness as his eyes filled with blood.

Despite this handicap, he simply engaged secretaries to write his dictation and continued with his work until he died on May 7 1941. Just a few hours later his devoted wife also passed away, and they were buried together side by side in St Giles’s Cemetery in Cambridge.

Sir James is best remembered for ‘The Golden Bough’, which greatly inspired early pioneers of the Wicca and Witchcraft movement.

While his books contain a mass of ethnographical information, academics and scholars of today — while respecting his early work — dismiss his findings and theories as belonging in the past.

Nevertheless his work is considered instrumental in the development of the academic study of religion during the late 19th and early 20th century. He paved the way to study religion as a cultural rather than theological phenomenon, and saw a progression from magical through religious to scientific thoughts and beliefs.

  • Glenlea photo by Donald Fullarton.
Last Updated ( Monday, 26 April 2010 09:49 )  

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Second Winter Open Meeting

Cleland-Sneddon-wThe next Winter Open Meeting will be held at Helensburgh Civic Centre at 7.30pm on October 25. Cleland Sneddon will speak about childhood holidays in Rosneath. All welcome.

Winter Talks 2017-18

  • Wednesday September 27 2017 — AGM; then Professor John Hume: History of local churches
  • Wednesday October 25 — Cleland Sneddon: Childhood holidays in Rosneath
  • Wednesday November 29 — David Bruce: Greatrex, Forger and Photographer

  • Wednesday January 31 2018 — Mike Thornley: The Glenarn Garden
  • Wednesday February 28 — Bruce and Nicola Jamieson: Developing the Mackintosh Club
  • Wednesday March 28 — Richard Reeve: A Brief History of the Rosneath Peninsula

Meetings in Helensburgh Civic Centre at 7.30pm.

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