HE was the Scottish fossil hunter whose conversion from creationism to the theory of evolution at the behest of Charles Darwin helped vastly expand our understanding of the natural world.

Hugh Falconer uncovered a treasure trove of extinct animals including a dwarf elephant which was only as tall as a dog and a giant swan six and a half feet from beak to tail.

And after reading The Origin of Species, he altered his worldview and developed a theory that evolution can happen rapidly in response to environmental pressures which still influences scientists more than a century after his death.

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But while the achievements of the Forres-born naturalist are held in reverenced by learned men and women the world over, it appears that councillors in his home town are less impressed after that the only museum dedicated to his life and times is to shut at the end of the month.


The Falconer Museum 

Moray Council have withdrawn £80,000 worth of funding for the Falconer Museum which houses much of the collection he built up over his lifetime and have left it up to volunteers to run.

But they say they cannot take on the task and the museum is now likely to close, perhaps for good.

The Friends Of The Falconer Museum in Forres said it was furious that the museum is to be closed, and feel they are being blamed for the decision.

Chairman of the Friends group Dr John Barrett said he feels the blame for the closure of the museum is now being placed at the door of the volunteers.

He said: "We feel as if the council is shifting blame for the closure on to us, because we will not keep the museum open. We are a group of volunteers who raise money to support and highlight the museum - we do not have the time or ability to run it full time."

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Born in Aberdeenshire in 1808, Hugh falconer led the life of a Victorian doctor and man of science, studying biology, geology, paleontology and anthropology as well as medicine.

Taking up a position as assistant surgeon-general to the East India company in Bengal, he studied the fossils of the subcontinent and may have been one of the first people to identify an archaic ape.

In 1834 Falconer was asked by a Commission of Bengal to investigate the commercial feasibility of growing tea in India. On his recommendation tea plants were introduced, and the resultant black tea became competitive with Chinese teas.


Charles Darwin 

During a bout of ill-health he returned to the UK in 1842, bringing with him 70 large chests of dried plants and 48 cases of fossils, bones and geological specimens, before returning to India for a second time.

Later switching to botany, he became superintendent of the Calcutta Botanical Garden and professor of botany in the Medical College, Calcutta in 1847, but continued his studies of fossils - sending casts to institutions across Europe. 

He left India in 1855 and returned to Europe, where his studies continued - including identifying a species of elephant which once lived on Malta and only grew to a very short size because of the genetic phenomenon known as island dwarfism. He died in London in 1865.

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Founded in 1971, the museum set up in his name was run by the Falconer Trust set up by Hugh and his brother Alexander, and was transferred to the local authority in 1992.

Dr Barrett said: "In the transfer of the museum to Moray Council the title deeds state that the museum will be run by the local authority.

"We have been told by the council's lawyers that unless we are willing to take the matter to court, then the museum will close at the end of October - never to open again.

"We feel the legal obligation of the transfer in 1996 gave the council a property of great value. But it doesn't seem that way, and they have now decided that they will close it - rather than realise its worth.

"The museum, and the agreement the council signed to keep it open, is as important as the statutory services the council provides. It is an offence to close the museum."

A Moray Council spokeswoman said: "The Falconer Trust transferred ownership of the museum to the council in 1996. At the same time the council signed an agreement with the remaining trustees, that the council would assume responsibility for the management, administration and financing of the museum, but nowhere does the agreement state that the museum must remain open and functioning - that is a matter for the council to decide."

A meeting to discuss the closure is being held on October 22.