OUR Icon this week was called “Daftie” at school and went on to become Albert Einstein’s scientific hero. James Clerk Maxwell is often, with increasing inexactitude, called “Scotland’s forgotten genius”. Online, you find oodles of opinion recognising his lack of recognition.

While it’s true that, perhaps because of personal reticence or the difficulty of his work (obviously not easy like Einstein’s), Maxwell was little known for a while, that’s really not the case now. In 1999, 100 leading scientists voted him third greatest physicist ever, after Einstein and Newton. In 2006, he topped a poll for Scotland's leading scientist, coming ahead of John Logie Baird and Alexander Graham Bell.

So, what did he do to deserve all this? Well, he only laid the foundations for almost all communications central to our lives today, and caused a revolution in physics, changing our views on the nature of light through his theory of electromagnetism – arguably the most significant discovery of our age. Oh, and he produced the first colour photograph – of a tartan ribbon.

Basically, if you’ve a mobile phone screen, telly, X-ray machine or fridge magnet about your person, you’ve him to thank for it. James had his mother, Frances, to thank when he was born on 13 June 1831 at 14 India Street (now home to a museum run by the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation) in Edinburgh’s posh New Town.

His father, John, was an advocate and hailed from the holders of the baronetcy of Clerk of Penicuik. His uncle was 6th baronet. When James was young his family moved to Glenlair, Kirkcudbrightshire, a house his parents built on a 1,500-acre estate. Honestly, what chance did the boy have?

The infant was full of curiosity about the world, pointing at objects and asking: “What’s the go o’ that?” Mother: “Eh?” Frances, who provided his early education, reported that he “investigates the hidden course of streams and bell-wires, the way the water gets from the pond through the wall …” So, weird kid.

At eight, he could recite long passages of Milton and all the 119th psalm. All together now, to the tune of Abba’s Waterloo: “I hold fast to your statutes, O Lord; do not let me be put to shame.”

Alas, when he was eight, the Lord gathered his mother unto Him, and his education was then overseen by his father and his father's sister-in-law Jane. In 1842, John took young James to a demonstration of electric propulsion and magnetic force – it’s what faithers did before the fitba’ – which made a profound impression on the laddie.

Aged 10, James was sent to posh Edinburgh Academy, staying with his aunt Isabella in the city. It was at this fine educational institution that he was called “Daftie” – not by the teachers, but fellow pupils – because of his rustic Galloway accent and home-made duds: tweed tunic, frilly collar and square-toed shoes with brass buckles. They weren’t even Nike.

Not so daft, of course. At 13, he won the school's mathematical medal and first prize for both English and poetry. At 14, his first scientific paper – ‘On the description of oval curves and those having a plurality of foci’ (not to be confused with the Barbara Cartland novel of the same name) – was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on his behalf by James Forbes, a professor at Embra Yooni.

At 16, Maxwell left school and, after deciding against working down the pit, went to the aforementioned yooni, studying fun stuff like logic, metaphysics, mathematics and natural philosophy. In his own time, he tested the properties of polarised light, and discovered photoelasticity, which is – well, you know what it is.

In 1850, Maxwell left Scotland for Cambridge Yooni, where he was elected to the secret Apostles group and tried to reconcile science with the Christian faith. He wrote an essay on this, which is unreadable, even by the windy standards of the time.

In 1854, he graduated from Trinity with a maths degree, scoring second highest in the final exam, earning him the title “Second Wrangler”. I see. On a fellowship, he remained at Cambridge for a couple of years until, in 1856, he accepted the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen. He was 25 and, among his achievements at this time, was marrying the principal’s daughter, Katherine.

When he wasn’t focusing on her, he was examining Saturn’s rings, concluding that stability could only be achieved if they consisted of small solid particles, an explanation verified by the Voyager spacecraft.

In 1860, Maxwell was laid off by Marischal – and his faither-in-law the principal tae – and failed in his application for a vacant chair at Edinburgh. But he got one at a King's College, London, and after recovering from a near-fatal bout of smallpox, moved to the English capital.

There followed a particularly productive period, during which he made the first colour photograph, developed his theories on the viscosity of gases, made advances in electricity and magnetism, and calculated the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field as aboot the same as the speed of light (it says here).

In 1865, he left King's and returned to Glenlair with Katherine, but returned – somewhat reluctantly – to Cambridge in 1871 to become first Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics. Eight years later, he died of abdominal cancer. He was 48.

The minister who visited him in his last weeks described his undaunted belief in “the work of the Holy Spirit”. His doctor said: “No man ever met death more consciously or more calmly.”

Maxwell is buried at Parton Kirk, near Castle Douglas. There’s a memorial inscription to him at Westminster Abbey. Should the foregoing appear over-portentous, Herald reader Peter Wright reminded us in the letters page that Maxwell was a Burns aficionado with a fine sense of humour, penning the lines: “Gin a body meet a body Flyin’ through the air. Gin a body hit a body, Will it fly? And where?”

Biographer Basil Mahon, author of The Man Who Changed Everything, said of Maxwell: "He was a very modest chap and, very unusually for a genius, a delightful man as well. He was full of fun and really enjoyed life."