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Keith Westhead (1965-2018)

A runner, piper and British Geological Survey geologist, with Black Country wit

Keith WestheadMost Geoscientist obituaries focus on scientific achievement; they list publications and professional accomplishments, and include something personal as an added extra. This approach would be a disservice to Keith. His life/work balance was distinctly Scandinavian, perhaps the result of early exposure to Norway. He worked to live, not the other way around. His all-consuming passions were geology, the Great Outdoors, cars (including electric—he was an ‘early adopter’), music, cycling, running (11 marathons) and, strangely for a Black Country boy, the bagpipes.

A fine start

Keith came from a polymath Walsall family, with a strong scientific bent, including a biochemist father. His brother Steve recalls fossil hunting as kids, but Keith’s passion for geology truly ignited during A-level Geology at Queen Mary’s Grammar School. That led to a Geology degree from Leeds and PhD research on Norwegian Palaeozoic rocks (at Liverpool University).

Mystic arts and the BGS

Keith and I joined BGS on the same day in 1990. Mapping training began in Derbyshire. My October 1990 diary entry records ‘…tedious, gently dipping Coal Measures’. Our trainer, an intimidating type with piercing blue eyes, did his best to enthuse us. It clearly worked; Keith turned his back on Hard Rock and, for the remainder of his career, was a Soft Rock geologist. He joined BGS Exeter and was trained by Roger Bristow in the mystic art of mapping Chalk. Keith adapted brilliantly to Hardy country and ‘feature’ mapping. After Dorchester he moved to Weymouth and worked on the Purbeck Beds. Rejecting the status quo, his classic paper with Anne Mather on the Purbeck stratigraphy of Dorset is a prime example of original thinking. He then moved to Somerset and mapped Lower-Middle Jurassic strata. Several published BGS maps and memoirs resulted.

In 1994 Keith become Head of Enquires at BGS Keyworth. As an experienced field geologist, he brought a deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses inherent in geological maps and borehole records. He used these skills, and an early appreciation of the power of digital information systems, to completely overhaul Enquiries. He had a deceptively easy, but organised, way with colleagues and the public. Enquiries became an exemplar for geological and environmental organisations across the world and a huge commercial success for BGS.


In 2003 Keith transferred to Edinburgh and joined the Marine Geology Unit, remaining until retirement in August 2018. He was convinced that the subsea geology around the UK was neglected. As part of this work, he returned to his Dorset roots, producing a superb paper and offshore geology map for the Journal of the Geological Society.

Keith embraced his new surroundings and took up piping. He progressed rapidly, ending up as Pipe Major of Stockbridge Grade 4 Pipe Band. He competed in World and European Championships and toured the continent. Jamie, Keith’s son, followed in Keith’s footsteps, playing bagpipe solos at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh—a great source of pride for his parents.

Keith was funny, modest and gracious; a family man par excellence. He engaged with all his many interests during his final year, even managing to surf. His celebration on the 10th February 2019 was joyous, funny and, given the presence of 30 plus pipers and drummers, very loud. Keith is survived by his wife Helen and his children, Ellie and Jamie.

By Warren Pratt and Keith’s BGS colleagues