James Hutton in Edinburgh: celebrating the city’s contribution to geology
POSTED ON October 27, 2023 BY James Garry
Edinburgh is a city of geology
In this Guest Blog Angus Miller, Promotion Coordinator of the Edinburgh Geological Society, explores the fascinating geology of Edinburgh and the city’s contribution to our understanding of geological science.
Edinburgh is a city of geology. Everywhere you look, you can see the impact of events that happened hundreds of millions of years ago that have created today’s landscape of crags and valleys; indeed, there is a good case to be made that the capital city of Scotland would be elsewhere, if it wasn’t for the random volcano 340 million years ago that created the tough rock of Castle Hill! Geology has not only given us the landscape of the city, local rocks have been useful to people in many other ways, from building stone to fuel.
Edinburgh’s varied geology has been used by people for 10,000 years, as well as being a barrier to the city’s development at times. Stevenson described the city as a “dream in masonry and living rock” and today the stunning natural and built cityscape is one of the main reasons for Edinburgh’s popularity as a tourism destination. It is perhaps not so readily appreciated that local geology has also had a profound influence on our understanding of how the world works. As we approach the tercentenary of the birth of James Hutton (1726-1797), it is time for the city to start to better appreciate Hutton’s life and impact. He established the science of geology, presented Charles Darwin with the concept of ‘deep time’, and began to elucidate the amazing history that is encoded in the rocks of the Earth.
The details of James Hutton’s life are scant, but well explored in an excellent new biography by Ray Perman: James Hutton – the Genius of Time (published by Birlin in 2022). Different periods of Hutton’s life seem very disparate: he gained a medical doctorate from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, spent almost 20 years farming in the Borders, then returned to Edinburgh where he lived for almost 30 years at St John’s Hill, under the shadow of Salisbury Crags. Throughout these different episodes, you get an impression of a lively and humorous man, passionately interested in a range of subjects, and forever questioning orthodoxy, exploring new ideas, never hesitating to explore and get his hands dirty.
Hutton died at St John’s Hill on 26 March 1797, and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. There is now a small memorial garden at the site of his house, sandwiched between the Pleasance sports centre and a multi-story car park. While there is no full-size Hutton statue in Edinburgh, he appears in many of the illustrations of the Scottish enlightenment, and three times in and on the National Portrait Gallery. More importantly, there are many sites across Scotland where you can visit the rocks that inspired him, and follow the development of his ideas. These include granite intrusions in Glen Tilt and Arran, and unconformities at Jedburgh (now mostly obscured), Arran and Siccar Point in the Scottish Borders. Most of these places seem virtually unchanged since Hutton saw them, allowing us to be transported back in time to the 1780s, to try and imagine the excitement of Hutton and his companions as they explored these special places, and started to understand how the rocks had formed and what they tell us about the workings of the Earth. One of Hutton’s friends, John Playfair, captured this perfectly, describing their 1788 visit to Siccar Point “the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time: and while we listened with earnestness and admiration to the philosopher who was now unfolding to us the order and series of these wonderful events, we became sensible to how much farther reason may sometimes go, than imagination can venture to follow.”
Sadly, for the last five years it has not been possible to walk in Hutton’s footsteps to examine the rocks of Salisbury Crags, a place where he strolled many a time from his house at St John’s Hill. For many decades after his death, geologists went to wonder at, and argue about, the rocks there. Including Charles Darwin, who was more interested in rocks than anything else in the 1830s and visited at least twice, before and after the Beagle voyage. The site, known as Hutton’s Section, lies at the base of Salisbury Crags, the junction between the tough igneous rock of the Crags and the layers of underlying, older sandstone. It is now behind a high fence. Following rockfall on the Radical Road, Historic Environment Scotland decided the risk of injury was unacceptable, and the famous walking route was closed in 2018. Frustratingly, Hutton’s Section lies just a few metres behind the fence. The section of cliff here was described as being of lower risk to Park users in the only published technical report on the rockfall hazard, by Fairhurst in 2018. The position of the fence appears to have been decided on convenience rather than risk, and the restriction on access to Hutton’s Section is unnecessary. Visitors and local people are prevented from examining the rocks, from walking in the footsteps of James Hutton, and the opportunity to appreciate his great vision of the ever-changing surface of the Earth driven by great, unseen processes over vast lengths of time. It matters!
Hutton’s Section: The famous section at the base of Salisbury Crags where James Hutton explored the nature of igneous rocks, helping to demonstrate his theory that rocks were formed by different natural processes operating over unimaginable timescales. The site has been closed by Historic Environment Scotland since 2018, and is now behind a high fence.
Edinburgh Geological Society
The Edinburgh Geological Society (EGS) is one of the UK’s foremost geological societies. It was founded in 1834 in Edinburgh, Scotland, with the aim of stimulating public interest in geology and the advancement of geological knowledge. The society organizes a full and varied programme of excursions and lectures that bring together everyone from complete beginners to professional geologists interested in exploring the geology of Scotland and beyond.
The Radical Road- Past, Present and Future?
Booking is now open for the free free public meeting to discuss the history and use of the Radical Road . This will be chaired by Rob Edwards, journalist and broadcaster, and is organised by the Edinburgh Geological Society, Ramblers Scotland, The Cockburn Association, Mountaineering Scotland and ScotWays. Historic Environment Scotland have been invited to attend.
Free, please book in advance: here