The Scots who created Modern Geology

The Geology Trail at Knockan Crag

Have you ever looked around you at the rocks, the hills and the almost sculpted geological formations like Salisbury Crags and wondered where they came from? Just 250 years ago, lots of people were convinced that it was all to do with the Great Flood, as described in the story of Noah in the Bible. The fact that we DON’T think that today is largely due to the work of the Scots who helped create modern geology.

Hutton InscriptionLet’s start here in Edinburgh. How many people have heard of the Hutton Memorial Garden (right)? It’s just off the Pleasance on the corner of Holyrood Road. In fact, how many have any idea who Hutton was or why he should be commemorated with a garden? In his time (the second half of the 18th century in the Scottish Enlightenment), James Hutton (below) was as respected as the economist Adam Smith or the philosopher David Hume.

We don’t know much about him today because he wasn’t the best of communicators. He was one of the first people to give a lecture at the newly formed Royal Society of Edinburgh. But reports from the time tell of him reading his paper, mumbling and using some of the most impenetrable language they’d ever heard. It’s only thanks to his friend, John Playfair, that he’s credited with being the Founder (some say the grandfather) of Modern Geology. After his death, Playfair translated Hutton’s jargon into English and that’s how we now know what he was trying to say.

Hutton_NGS_Raeburn345He was the first person to suggest that the planet’s core must be hot. He was also the first to insist that the Earth must be much older than the accepted theories of the day. He was even the first to hint at what we now call tectonic plates and to explain some of what’s going on in the ground beneath our feet. That started debates which were to run all the way through to the 20th Century.

Enter two more characters from Scotland’s geological hall of fame. Ben Peach and John Horne (below) spent years in the North West Highlands. The geology of that part of Scotland is some of the most complex, diverse and fascinating in Europe. What Peach and Horne achieved there is quite remarkable for the time.

Peach and HorneImagine the scene. Here we have two middle-aged Victorian gentlemen, dressed in tweeds, capes and sturdy boots. You can imagine them sweating in the summer warmth, hopelessly trying to fend off the clouds of midges. With the help of bearers, they had to carry heavy, unwieldy and cumbersome equipment into the hills.

In a place known as Knockan Crag, they found what is now called the Moine Thrust, a long section of ancient rock which had been tilted almost vertically, buckled and twisted by forces deep inside the Earth and then forced up through and over the much younger rocks below. Faultline at Knockan CragIt was the first thrust fault to be discovered anywhere in the world. They proved that Hutton had been right.

But one of their other, really important achievements was the series of beautiful, colourful, detailed maps they produced. Each layer of rock could be clearly seen. And their accuracy was stunning. When the British Geological Survey re-mapped the area about five years ago using modern technology, they found that Peach and Horne’s measurements were out only by a couple of metres.

So if James Hutton was the Grandfather of Modern Geology, then Peach and Horne much surely be the fathers. Geologists from all over the world pay homage to them. It would pay more people to do the same – to take a closer interest in the rocks around them, perhaps by taking a closer look at Salisbury Crags or visiting Our Dynamic Earth, a modern temple to their discoveries.

Monument to Peach and HornePeach and Horne have their own memorial on a craggy outcrop near a hamlet called Inchnadamph north of Ullapool. Most people don’t even notice it as they drive past. Like Hutton’s Memorial Garden, there isn’t a sign to say it’s there.

Hutton’s Garden is a haven of peace overlooking Holyrood Park. It’s on the site of his long-demolished home. It looks rather like a Zen Garden but it’s worth a detour to see it. Perhaps appropriately, this single block of sandstone forms the centre piece. On it is carved the final sentence of Hutton’s treatise which reads: “…we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

Previous articleNew Life for Achiltibuie Smokehouse?

David Calder has been a broadcast journalist for over 30 years. Before
moving to the Caledonian Mercury, he worked for the BBC (national and
regional) as well as parts of ITV and the World Service.

He worked for prestigious programmes such as The Money Programme, You & Yours, Today and The World at One. He spent two years making mini-documentaries for
Radio 5 Live and was a regular correspondent for CBC (Radio Canada).
He was a regular reporter on various news and current affairs
programmes on BBC Scotland as well as producing or presenting
(sometimes both) science, legal affairs and arts programmes. As well
as his contributions to the Caledonian Mercury, he is also a freelance
producer in Scotland for the satellite channel, Al Jazeera.

  • k ross

    Cleary your photo of the Hutton Memorial Garden was cut and pasted since thieves have removed the brass plaque in recent months.