Charles Niven's Grave at Banchory-Devenick

Brief biographical note

Charles Niven Prof. Charles Niven circa 1915

Charles Niven was one of 5 talented sons of Charles N. Niven living in mid-19th century Peterhead, a small fishing port in NE Scotland. Our Charles was born in October 1845. He enrolled in King's College Aberdeen in 1859, witnessed the fusion of King's College and Marischal College in 1860 and graduated with first-class Honours in Mathematics from the University of Aberdeen in 1863, picking up prizes and scholarships on the way. [The other brothers, George, James, John and William were also MA graduates of King's College; only James has made it into the Dictionary of National Biography by 2011, the only one not to obtain 1st class Honours]. Following in the footsteps of some of the best students from Scottish Universities, Charles enrolled in Trinity College Cambridge for his BA and emerged in 1867 at the age of 21 as Senior Wrangler, the coveted highest place in the University of Cambridge. As was noted in the press at the time, he had also achieved an honour never previously won by any under the grade of Senior Wrangler: he had carried off the Sheepshanks Exhibition (an astronomical scholarship), previously held by the Hon. J. W. Strutt (The future Lord Rayleigh). A Fellowship of Trinity College followed and he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Queens College Cork, the Department that had had the logician George Boole as Professor from 1849 until his untimely death in 1864. Niven spent 12 years at Cork, publishing papers on mathematical physics of sufficient stature in the areas of mechanics, heat and electricity that he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1880.

1880 also saw Charles Niven appointed to the Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, succeeding Professor David Thomson who had taught him in his 3rd year in 1861/62. Niven's theoretical studies tailed off quite quickly as he concentrated his efforts on teaching. This involved teaching both Junior and Senior Honours Natural Philosophy (i.e. Physics) classes every day of the week with frequent demonstrations, exams and exercises every week, all over years when new discoveries were being made at an ever increasing rate. He had just one assistant until the 20th century. Niven oversaw the introduction of the BSc and PhD degrees, the introduction of women students, the teaching of Medical Physics and other changes in the University. He taught for 42 years, a period that saw the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity, the invention of the gramophone, the radio, motor-cars both diesel and petrol, electric lighting and power for public use and even the first steps towards television. Niven organised the move of the Natural Philosophy Department from King's College to larger premises at Marischal College that had facilities for more students to engage in practical work. There was no 'retirement age' then nor a national pension scheme and Niven worked until 1922 when he became seriously ill. He retired aged 77 but did not recover from his illness, dying on 11th May 1923.
Laboratory in 1905
In one of the new Natural Philosophy laboratories in 1905

Charles Niven had married Mary Stewart, the second of five daughters of Sir David Stewart (King's College graduate of 1855 and knighted 1896) and Lady Stewart of Banchory and Leggart. Lady Stewart was a daughter of David Brown, Principal of the Free Church College, Aberdeen. In 1877 David Stewart had inherited the combworks in Aberdeen started by his father and the business grew in David's hands until by the beginning of the 20th century it was the largest such business in the world. Horn was the main raw material and 100,000 horns a week were imported into his factory in Hutcheon Street. The Nivens had 3 daughters and a son, all commemorated on the gravestone at Banchory-Devenick.

Funeral of Professor Niven, Aberdeen

The report in the Scotsman newspaper of the funeral of Charles Niven on 15th May 1923 reads "The funeral of Emeritus Professor Charles Niven, LL.D., F.R.S., who for 42 years occupied the Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, took place yesterday from King's College Chapel to Banchory Devenick United Free Churchyard. At the university chapel a service was conducted by Principal Sir George Adam Smith and the Rev. Charles McGlashan, Oldmachar Cathedral, and Professors Fulton and Cowan. The chief mourners were Mrs Niven (the widow, daughter of the late Sir David Stewart of Banchory-Devenick), Mr Charles D Niven, B.Sc. (son), and Miss Niven and Miss M S Niven (daughters.) At the graveside a short service was conducted by Professor Fulton and the Rev. Dr J Ironside Still. The pall-bearers were:- Mr Charles D Niven (son), Dr James Niven, late Medical Officer of Health, Manchester (brother); Colonel D B D Stewart; Banchory House; and Dr George L. Stewart, Ipswich (brothers-in-law); Professors Harrower and Reid, Aberdeen University; Dr Fyvie and Dr Geddes, of the Natural Philosophy Department, Marischal College. Floral tributes, in addition to family wreaths, were forwarded from the Natural Philosophy Department, the Association of University Teachers, the students and the sacrists of King's and Marischal Colleges, and others."


Banchory-Devenick United Free Church no longer exists as a church, for it has been converted into a house "St Devenicks on the Hill". The churchyard at the edge of a wood near the back of the house still stands in good condition. Just east of the house you pass through a metal gate (latitude 57° 06' 23.4" N, longitude 2° 08' 46.5" W on Google Earth) onto a wide track leading into the woods. The track soon bends left and 50 metres in front of you is a second metal gate leading into the churchyard. Niven's grave (and that of his family) is in the corner on your right. The inscription reads "Here lie the remains of/ Charles Niven F.R.S. D.Sc. (Dubl) LLD/ Senior Wranger 1867 Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge 1868 - 1877 Professor of Mathematics Queens College/ Cork 1867 - 1880 and thereafter 42 years Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University of Aberdeen/ born in Peterhead September 14th 1845 died in the Chanonry Old Aberdeen May 11th 1923/ In 1917 during the great European War he exponed to the Admiralty for the destruction of the submarines/ the theory of the location of sound in water/ also of his eldest daughter Alice Margaret born 17th May 1888 | died 16th May 1894/ to whose memory her grandfather Sir David Stewart inscribed a tablet/ in the mausoleum he erected in this churchyard/ and of his youngest daughter Mary Stewart born 10th March 1895 - died 23rd December 1937/ Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy/ and of his wife Mary second daughter/ of Sir David and Lady Stewart of Banchory Leggart/ born 28th November 1865 - died 8th November 1954/ There shall be no night there/ and of his daughter Lucy Barbara born 10th August 1890 - died 17th December 1959/ she shall be praised/ and of his son/ Charles David Niven M.A. B.Sc. Ph.D. Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada/ born July 16th 1897 - died in Ottowa Canada Sept 30th 1968/ I know that my redeemer liveth"

In the corner on your left, placed in an enclosure surrounded by a metal railing, is the impressive mausoleum erected by David Stewart in 1895 for his family, the year he retired from being Lord Provost of Aberdeen. One of the plaques inside commemorates David Stewart's own family and a small one to the right Charles and Mary Niven's first daughter, who died a day short of her 6th birthday. Several photographs are included below. The grave is a lasting tribute to a talented and much loved professor of two Universities. The final portrait is a fine large posthumous oil painting owned by Peterhead Academy, presently on loan to the University of Aberdeen, hanging in their Picture Gallery.

Niven plot Niven gravestone Stewart mausoleum Stewart mausoleum Stewart family plaques St |Devenicks on the Hill
Niven family plot
Niven gravestone
Stewart mausoleum
Stewart memorial
David Stewart family plaques
St Devenicks on the Hill
St Devenicks on the Hill The roadside gate Up the path Graveyard entrance
Posthumous portrait
Mary Niven
St Devenicks on the Hill
The roadside gate
Up the path
Graveyard entrance
Posthumous portrait
Mrs Mary Niven 1894

Web page by John S. Reid, September 2010/ September 2011