Why Hugh Miller Still Matters

Synopsis of a talk given to The Friends of Hugh Miller charity AGM, May 2016

“The place where the natural world meets the arts is a fruitful, fertile place for both.”

                                                                                            Ali Smith (2015)1      

This quote actually relates to an art gallery dedicated to those who explore natural sciences through the medium of visual art and sculpture. To my mind, this quote could be equally attributed to the writings, and indeed the life, of Hugh Miller. His love of the outdoors, his fascination with geology and landscape, and his passion for literature, story-telling, folklore and poetry appear to feed off each other, resulting in ‘fruitful, fertile’ prose that still speaks volumes to us today. Indeed, the place where arts, the natural world and science meet have been explored on behalf of Miller a few times in recent years – the success of the two Betsey voyages in 2014 & 2015, and the Hugh Miller Writing Competition being examples of such projects.

On a more personal note, this quote gives me a nudge to continue exploring the blurred boundary lines between the arts and sciences that I seem to have found my way into in recent years. As an English and Scottish Literature graduate and former English teacher, it may come as a surprise to some that I now work as a freelance science writer and editor. My main task in this job is summarising academic journal papers into short pieces aimed at non-specialist audiences. I write press releases, research highlights and feature articles on subjects as diverse as genetics and biomedical science to earth sciences and climate modelling.

I would never claim that there isn’t a place for academic texts; of course there is. But equally, and perhaps more importantly in the case of explaining science to the general public (whoever they might be) and the media, there needs to be a ‘fruitful, fertile’ space in between – where science and good writing meet, and where Hugh Miller walks to this day.

Miller’s writing is a fairly recent discovery for me. I would argue that he has as much to contribute towards science communication today as he did in his own lifetime. His prose contains some magical elements, carefully and deliberately chosen, to draw in an audience of all ages and from all walks of life – just as the results of the Hugh Miller Writing Competition have shown us in recent weeks.


Hugh Miller’s statue, Cromarty

Walking in other worlds: Miller as explorer and citizen scientist

“…the best nature writers are those humble pilgrims who, with no particular competence to show off or prepared philosophy to air, wander – or rather saunter – into the world to see what it has to offer…”                                                                                     John Burnside (2012)2

First and foremost, Miller was an explorer. Someone who yearned to be outdoors, tramping the coastlines, “an explorer of caves and ravines… a climber among rocks,” Miller’s enthusiasm and excitement for what he could find and learn whilst out walking is palpable. He would do well to be promoted as a spokesperson in the argument for outdoor classrooms, for example, or as a figure to be admired among travel writers.

Let’s take a look at the scope of using Miller in the classroom. For a start, his work bridges subject areas – this is something I feel the current Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland at least has within its grasp, the chance to explore interdisciplinary projects should teachers find the time to do so. If teachers from Secondary school level Geography and English departments, for example, came together to create a mini-project on Miller, I can see a lot of elements in his writing that could be explored.

How about these as creative writing, or play-writing, prompts?

“The dizzy front of black basalt, dark as night… the fantastic peaks and turrets in which the rock terminates atop – the masses of broken ruins, roughened with moss and lichen, that have fallen from above and lie scattered at its base…” (Cruise of the Betsey)

“It was a delightful evening – still, breathless, clear – as we swept slowly across the broad breast of Loch Maree; and the red light of the sinking sun… lighted up into a blush the pale, stony faces of the tall pyramidal hills” (My Schools and Schoolmasters)

How about a lesson exploring his use of metaphor and similes, or his strong sense of place, and how landscape can influence the way in which people lead their lives?

How about exploring links between Miller and prominent writers in literature, such as Tennyson and James Robertson?

Perhaps as part of a secondary school science lesson, students could be asked to describe scientific specimens, fossils, flora and fauna using simple metaphorical language as Miller does. They could be given an assignment to investigate a creature or fossil and write a short piece about it for a non-specialist audience. This could teach them a great deal about how to manipulate language and consider the words and phrases used – it could tie into an investigation of how science is presented in the media, too.

Activities centred around primary school classroom nature tables or the chance to spend a school day scavenging on the beach or in the woods could be easily framed with a brief study of a passage from Miller. Or, in the case of younger children, some of his ideas could be brought into the outdoor classroom, summed up to say ‘if you learn to look carefully it’s amazing what you can discover.’

One of Hugh Miller’s strengths is in his choice of a ‘diary format’ for his geological writings – journals that document how he gradually pieced ideas together, musing the oddities and misfits that he found along the way (I’m talking about both fossils and people here!). If you like, he was a blogger for the Victorian era. Here’s an idea: why not turn excerpts from Miller’s work into a blog? One could post short, choice extracts from his explorations of Scotland; I wonder how many followers he might get? Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary is already up online in blog form, for example.

Miller actively encourages that people engage in citizen science, as he did. The idea of ‘citizen science’ has been bouncing around a lot on social media in the past 8 months or so, particularly with Sir David Attenborough calling for more people to actively study their own ‘backyards’. Those involved in science communication and engaging people in citizen science could do far worse than choose Hugh Miller as one of their pioneers of the concept. There is great value, as Miller clearly understands, in encouraging those with inclination and curiosity to explore and record their ‘local patch’.


A sense of perspective

From a young age, Miller appears to actively seek out different ways of looking at the world – quite literally – ‘learn to make a right use of your eyes,’ as he so keenly tells us. His sense of perspective is always changing – from the obvious – setting rocks and fossils into a wider landscape as well as poring over their intricate details and eye-catching coloration through a microscope – to the less obvious. He describes the view out from the back of a cave as looking at the world through the eyepiece of a telescope, where the scenes “formed a series of sun-gilt vignettes, framed in jet.” As the tide rises, and he and his friend realise they are trapped at the back of the cave, through his ‘cave-telescope’ the distant horizon and waves rolling inland become distinct and otherworldly, and we are there, trapped with him, wondering whether or not to be frightened.

The fact that he actively seeks out different ways of seeing the geological wonders of his world to me implies not just a natural, childlike curiosity and enthusiasm – which of course Miller has in spades – but also a deliberate attempt to reach out to as many people of all different ages and backgrounds. Miller sees, and therefore describes, the world through colour and texture, and he targets these for his metaphors with the very specific purpose of trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. He chooses two of the ‘easier’ ways of differentiating between rock types and fossils. His use of language is often very tactile, using touch and feel to describe his fossil finds, likening their markings to everyday objects.

He speaks the language of the working men and women of the time, he deliberately refers to his own childhood memories of wonder, playing at soldiers with different coloured shell armies on the beach, likening fossils found in rock to currants in a Christmas cake; he is pulling people in and helping them relate to his writing. Sometimes all it takes to help someone understand a complex concept is a carefully placed analogy, and Miller was fully aware of this in his work.


Miller as a champion of ‘geodiversity’

There’s something magical about geology that perhaps is forgotten in its current guise, at least maintained by the media, as being ‘just about boring old rocks’. Geology takes you off the beaten track. As you walk faultlines, dykes, ridgeways and rock lines, ancient plate boundaries and the remnants of volcanoes, you’re literally tracking deep time over the landscape. You’re bound less by well-trodden pathways and more by a kind of ‘trilobite sight’, as the writer Robert MacFarlane calls it. This, for me, is the pull of geology – the fact that, wherever I go, I will always see more than I bargain for, and I will almost never solely stick to the paths but rather wander off set routeways and roads into the wild places. These places offer new ways of seeing the world, and literally gives you different vantage points and chances to grasp something new.

In fact, to my mind it is always worth looking at the world through Miller’s eyes – or through the eyes of any Earth Scientist, perhaps. By this I mean the art of ‘extended vision’ – seeing a world in layers and folds, understanding it as a product of millions of years of formation, deformation and destruction, both on a large and a minute scale.

The fact that Miller is so good at retaining his perspective to involve the bigger picture is another element of his writing I feel we can learn from. Miller’s expressive language does not detract from the precise and accurate nature of his descriptions, but simply and effectively adds to them. His eagerness to describe not just the landscape, landforms and fossils he finds but the people that inhabit them is also really important. He would understand the more modern-day concept of ‘geodiversity’ in its true sense – namely an umbrella term that encompasses not just rocks, but landscape and landforms both past, present and ongoing into the future, and the people that live and work in these landscapes. I have been working voluntarily for the past two years with the Scottish Geodiversity Forum3 – a non-governmental organisation that provides a network through which diverse bodies involved in preserving Scotland’s landscapes and geology can communicate.

Geology is ‘not just about rocks (or dinosaurs)’, yet it appears to have this label attached to it – one which the geological community should perhaps be rallying against more firmly. Perhaps this is even more pertinent to ensure the future of geology for Scotland’s younger population, as geology as a qualification-bearing subject is no longer catered for in Scotland’s state schools. Could raising awareness of the breadth of geology as a subject through voices such as Miller’s be appropriate at this pivotal point?



I am no expert on Hugh Miller, nor would I ever claim to be, but I feel a remarkably strong affinity with him and his desire to encourage those around him to learn and understand, to question and dissect the landscapes around him. He spoke (or should I say speaks) to so many different people in so many different ways. The entries we received to the Hugh Miller Writing Competition are testament to the inspiration he still provides. The potential spin-offs and new ideas that the competition has generated are multiple.

Miller still matters as a figure to be admired in science communication – there is much to learn from his use of language and the variety of metaphors he used to describe his intricate scientific discoveries. There is much to learn from his ability to appeal across generations and to people from all different backgrounds.

Miller still matters as someone to be treasured and taught in our schools, and as a testimony of the power of self-education. His philosophy ‘to learn to make a right use of your eyes’, and to learn from practical investigation of the natural world is one we should be celebrating with our young people firmly in our sights.

Miller still matters because his voice resonates from the past into our present – even though his writing and scientific knowledge is dated in places, his attitude and aptitude as a citizen scientist is still to be admired. His writing reminds us to sit up and take notice, and take pride in, the landscapes and landforms around us.

Robert MacFarlane made the comment recently in a New Statesman article that “Powerful writing can revise our ethical relationship with the natural world, shaping our place consciousness and our place conscience.”4

Reading Hugh Miller has awoken something in me that will stay with me forever. The man himself will accompany me, in some way, shape or form, whenever I am out and about in Scotland’s stunning landscapes, and I look forward to absorbing all that I can learn from him.

All this, for me at least, is why Miller still matters.



  1. http://onca.org.uk/patrons/, accessed February 2016
  2. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/05/art-sauntering, accessed December 2015
  3. http://www.scottishgeodiversityforum.org
  4. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/nature/2015/09/robert-macfarlane-why-we-need-nature-writing accessed September 2015



Walking in other worlds: Getting to know Hugh Miller

This post was originally written as part of the promotional material for the Hugh Miller Writing Competition 2015-2016. It was originally published on http://www.scottishgeology.com, and on The Friends of Hugh Miller website (http://www.thefriendsofhughmiller.org.uk). As I mention it in my previous post I thought it appropriate to upload it here, too.

Blair Atholl, October 2015

The clearest, stillest autumn I can remember – true halcyon days of blue, yellow, red and orange hues. Leaves dropping through branches, spinning on impact but untouched by the wind. Each morning is icy, a thick layer of frost skimming every surface.

Into this idyllic other-world, I bring Hugh Miller with me on holiday. It may as well be the man himself – his chatty, eloquent prose speaks from the page as though he is ever-present beside me. A testament in itself to the man’s life work, written as he tramped across much of Scotland, as eager to unravel the landscape’s riddles as many a geologist before and since. In many ways, however, Miller is unique. He is completely self-taught as a scientist, starting from a fairly humble background and training as a stone-mason in his home town of Cromarty on the Black Isle. From the outset, he aims to teach others about all that he finds – and, to this day, he succeeds.

It may be true that, in terms of today’s pared-down writing styles, Miller’s prose could be considered dense at times, and difficult to bear with in places. In reality, however, compared with contemporary Victorian prose, I believe Miller wrote clearly, succinctly and above all, with humour. He also had a fantastic ability to describe elements of geology and biology with great clarity, likening many details to phenomena from everyday life. He describes the arrangement of fish scales as overlapping tiles on a roof, the distorted basaltic columns on the Sgurr of Eigg as the ribs of a ship-wreck, and the cross-section of corals as daisies pressed into the surface of a rock, to name but a few.

As I read Miller in the locale of Glen Tilt and Blair Atholl, it is worth mentioning that it is in part thanks to Miller, together with a number of his contemporaries, that we have full and open access to the land here in Scotland. Miller was among a group of early campaigners who lobbied relentlessly for the ‘right to roam’, and he wrote about Glen Tilt in a Witness leading article: Glen Tilt tabooed, 1 September 1847 (Essays Historical and Poetical, Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell). The piece was a scathing attack on the Duke of Argyll, his gillies, and other “exclusives” who barred access to their property with “illegal violence.” He quotes the glen’s importance for Hutton’s theory, where he found “the most clear and unequivocal proofs in support of his views.”*

For Miller was not ‘just’ a geologist, he was a true polymath. A man for whom myths and legends, poetry and language, and indeed the state of the human condition held as much weight in his extended vision as the search for the origins of the land on which he walked. Miller’s extraordinary enthusiasm bubbles out of the pages of his geological journals – he clearly loves what he does and takes all the more pleasure in trying to decipher the puzzles he meets along the way. Some of his guesses on the bigger picture are a little wild – but that is stated from a standpoint 170 years’ worth of knowledge beyond that which he had. Then there are the times he gets it so very-nearly right – and I would argue that any hesitancy is over-ruled by the sheer beauty and inherent simplicity of his descriptions and theories. True, he envisaged a Scotland submerged under an ocean crammed with ice-flows at the time of the last ice-age in Rambles of a Geologist (1858) – but his ice-flows were capable of shifting enormous erratic boulders hundreds of yards, if not miles, from where they originated. He simply understood that there was no supernatural or earth-shattering earthquake scenarios at play when it came to mis-placed erratic boulders (much as he loved the folklore stories of giants in endless battles, hurling rocks at one another). At one point he takes great delight in teasing those who would suggest a single rock move 300 yards in an earthquake when nothing else in the area moved an inch.

His ability to map out Scotland according to the ‘rock trails’ by which he walked is something I find altogether extraordinary. His mind appears full of layers of complex boundary-lines and borders where different rocks meet and are displaced, and he is forever thinking in three-dimensions and seeing beyond what was immediately in front of him. And at the next moment he can be engaged in examining the microscopic intricacies of fish scales preserved in immaculate detail. Would he ever have been comfortable in some of the more-restrictive niches of today’s academia?

Another of Miller’s passions I love is how he actively encourages, nay almost demands, that people engage in citizen science. The idea of ‘citizen science’ has been bouncing around a lot on Twitter this summer, particularly with Sir David Attenborough calling for more people to actively study their own ‘backyards’. Those involved in science communication and engaging people in citizen science could do far worse than choose Hugh Miller as one of their pioneers of the concept. I love the passage in Rambles of a Geologist where Miller yearns for a local to study the Loch of Stennis on Orkney, which ends; “…set himself carefully to examine its productions, and that then, after registering his observations for a few years, he would favour the world with its natural history.” There is great value, as Miller clearly understands, in encouraging those with inclination and curiosity to explore and record their ‘local patch’.

I am no expert on Hugh Miller, nor would I ever claim to be, but I feel a remarkably strong affinity with him and his desire to encourage those around him to learn and understand, to question and dissect the landscapes around him. I do know this, however – that reading Hugh Miller has awoken something in me that will stay with me forever. The man himself will accompany me, in some way, shape or form, whenever I am out and about in Scotland’s stunning landscapes, and I look forward to absorbing all that I can learn from him.


*My thanks to Martin Gostwick, Secretary of The Friends of Hugh Miller, for his help in linking Miller with Glen Tilt and his campaigns on the ‘right to roam’.

At Rosemarkie & Cromarty: Celebrating Hugh Miller


The statue of Scottish geologist Hugh Miller (1802-1856) stands looking over the village of Cromarty on the Black Isle

Early morning. I’m crouched on the beach at Rosemarkie on the Black Isle, running my fingers through a patch of red sand that the sea has exposed in amongst the shingle. The tiny grains shimmer in the sunlight, not just reds but oranges and white, golds and silvers, greens and pale yellows. The few hundred grains of sand on my fingertip alone represent millions of years of geological history, each a fragment from a different part of the tale, each a remnant of deep time.


I’m astonished by the richness of this beach. The shingle and boulders gleam so brightly with large crystals, pyrites, garnets and mica schist that reflect the light with an intensity rarely found on the beaches further south on the East coast of Scotland. I’m not surprised that the local geologist, Hugh Miller (1802 – 1856), described how as a young boy he would “fling myself down on the shore… and bethink me, as I passed my fingers along the larger grains, of the heaps of gems in Aladdin’s cavern, or of Sinbad’s valley of diamonds.” (My Schools and Schoolmasters, 1854)

I thought this was perhaps a young boy’s imagination run wild, but now that I’m here, close to his local patch, I understand exactly how his fascination with geology began, in amongst these ‘gems and jewels’. Hugh Miller is why I am here – much of my time over last winter has been spent organising and running the first ever Hugh Miller Writing Competition; today was to be the awards ceremony and associated celebrations in Miller’s hometown of Cromarty.

Competition logo

The competition encouraged entries inspired by the geological and landscape writings of Miller, and was run by the Scottish Geodiversity Forum, in partnership with The Friends of Hugh Miller and other organisations1. The judges were looking for entries in prose and poetry, from adults and under-16s, and we were genuinely bowled over by the high quality of many of the entries. Clearly, Hugh Miller is a source of inspiration to many, even today, and for this reason alone his legacy should, I hope, continue to grow and flourish for generations to come.

Having not been to Cromarty since I was a child, I was curious about the village and slightly unsure of what to expect. For many, of course, the Cromarty Firth is the domain of oil rigs and shipping, and they certainly made their presence felt on the drive across from Rosemarkie. I caught myself wondering many times as the afternoon passed what Miller himself would have made of all this, and the rather in-your-face changes that his birthplace has undergone over the past century or more.

However, on reaching Cromarty itself it was as though a magic spell was cast – the obvious industrial imprint on the landscape fell away, and in its place was a lightness of touch, a cool edge to a spring breeze, and an unexpectedly strong sense of Hugh Miller’s presence. As our prose winner in the competition, local Cromarty teacher Jane Verburg, said in her piece: “Sometimes I sense you about the place. I have walked the Vennels and felt the fringes of your shepherd’s plaid brush my arm. I have been at the corner of Church Street at Lammastide and seen you heading off to the Clach Malloch, hammers stuffed into your pockets. Once I saw you and Lydia up in the woods, giggling.”2

Hugh Miller’s birthplace cottage, Cromarty

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced this sensation – and don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in ghosts – but there is something about Miller’s strength of spirit in his writing that weaves in and out of your head once you’ve read his work and, quite simply, he won’t let go. I wrote a piece back in the autumn, when I spun headlong into reading as much Miller as I could in preparation for the competition (I’ll post it on here); it was as though I had brought the man himself with me on holiday. He began walking with me in the October countryside around Blair Atholl, encouraging me to ‘make a right use of your eyes’, and showing me intricacies in the landscape I might otherwise have missed.

The day warmed under deep blue skies, and our winners gathered at noon to be taken on a tour of Hugh Miller’s museum and birthplace cottage. The cottage is quaint and pretty, its thatched roof stands out as the only one left among the surrounding houses. The churchyard where Miller carved many a headstone in his early career as a stonemason – including the last one he ever made, for his young daughter – is just a few hundred yards further down the road. A swallow nips and darts across the street as I make my way to the Old Brewery, where the awards ceremony and a talk given by myself were to take place.


At this point, I feel I should extend my thanks to one man in particular – Secretary of The Friends of Hugh Miller, Martin Gostwick. Bitten by the Miller bug just like myself, it is down to the enthusiasm and hard work of Martin and his lovely wife Frieda that Miller’s legacy has been rebuilt in recent years in the village of Cromarty. They have helped restore much of what Miller would recognise as his own place, his own Cromarty, in the museum and cottage, and The Friends of Hugh Miller – a charity set up by Martin – has the potential to go from strength to strength. I was given a lovely welcome by Martin, and indeed many of the members of the charity and other people in the audience that day.

We were delighted to hand out twelve awards for the Writing Competition, including two under-16 winners; full details of the winning entries and entrants can be found at www.scottishgeology.com/hughmiller. The entries provided new insights into Miller and his legacy which deserve far more exploration than I can do justice to here; the Forum and the Friends will be looking into one or two potential competition spin-offs soon.

Once my talk was finished, our winners and their families were taken on a walk along the Cromarty shoreline by local geologist, Dr Peter Scott. I decided, once my own family had headed back to our tent at Rosemarkie, to explore the village further and visit the man himself (or, at least, the statue of Miller that stands on a large pedestal on the hill above Cromarty, looking out along the coastline he loved). The blossom trees are bent double under the weight of flowers, and there are bluebells everywhere. When I reach the top of the wee hill, a crow is perched on Miller’s head, determined to ruin every photo I try to take. I can’t help but feel Miller himself would have been laughing at my frustration. Move the crow eventually did, 20 minutes later…

When I arrive at a local restaurant to meet Martin, Frieda, and some of the judges and competition winners for dinner, I am told with great excitement that one of the entrants found a fossil fish on the beach during the walk with Peter. Not just any fossil fish, but one of the best specimens to come off the Cromarty shoreline in years. I am lucky enough to be shown it – the size of a small dinner plate, the fish is preserved complete (a delight in itself) and the scales are clearly defined. A glass or two of wine later and we are discussing the possibility that Miller had a hand in this particular moment – after all, what were the chances…?


1 The Scottish Geodiversity Forum: www.scottishgeodiversityforum.org

The Friends of Hugh Miller: www.thefriendsofhughmiller.org.uk

Full list of associated partners for the competition available at www.scottishgeology.com/hughmiller

2 Learn to Make a Right Use of Your Eyes by Jane Verburg, 2016: Full text available www.scottishgeology.com/hughmiller



Geology in winter: The Ardnamurchan Ring Complex

This should have been published back in January, somehow it fell by the wayside. Still, it is a source of wonderful memories, and my girls continue talking about Ardnamurchan.

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Looking south-west from Ardnamurchan Point; the aftermath of Storm Frank


I love being outdoors in the wind, in the rain, in midwinter. Under grey skies and after the rain something shifts in the rocks around me. Far from dull, their every fold and twist is magnified by the dampness. Their contours and layering stand out, unusual patterns are magnified in droplets of water, crystals shimmer in any weak glimmer of sunlight, and the colours shine brighter than the surrounding vegetation.

This New Year I spent a week in Ardnamurchan with my young family. Truth be told, there wasn’t a huge amount of scope for geological wanderings – the little I did was with my daughters, or in brief moments alone on the beach as the kids’ kites were flying overhead in the ever-present wind. Two moments stand out, however, and both occurred on the same morning.

The second day we were there proved to be the best forecast. We set out from our cottage for Sanna Bay under gradually-thinning cloud. Secretly I knew that the short drive from Kilchoan would take us through the centre of the Ardnamurchan ring complex – the remnants of a volcano active as the Atlantic Ocean formed. A friend (a geologist!) had remarked before I left; “Ardnamurchan in winter? Well, it’ll be… bleak. Not much to look at!” I had hoped he might be wrong, either that or he might be pulling my leg; suffice to say he had quelled my enthusiasm to the point where I was genuinely astonished as we drove towards the edge of the volcanic centre.

In front of me were the obvious signs of a landscape heavily deformed, rising up at an angle and bending in a lengthy but clear curve – at the same moment my husband and I turned to each other and said “it’s like an ancient version of Lanzarote!” At this point, I took a gamble. I turned to the children in the back of the car – we’re going to drive through a volcano which is now extinct. I had no idea what to expect. The chances were the kids wouldn’t ‘get it’ at all.

Sure enough, the road cut through the wall of black lumpy rock in front of us and as we came up over the edge of the ring complex my mouth dropped open. We were snaking our way down and across the base of an obvious circular incline in the landscape – around us on all sides (save a break towards west and Sanna Bay itself) were steep walls of rock. The kids were twisting around in their seats, looking from one side of the car to the other – are we inside a real volcano? Is this where the lava was, mummy? Look how big it is!

On satellite images the ring complex is clearly visible. Spanning around 7km in diameter from west to east and 6km from north to south, the entire structure is what remains of a series of concentric intrusions during volcanic activity around 60 million years ago. The volcano itself has long been eroded away by ice and the elements – what we were really doing was driving into the former magma chamber. The complex has been heavily studied by geologists and remains a key site for university students to visit during their degree – suffice to say I won’t go into too much detail here as there are many other resources available.

Once down on the shore and the beach I took a few minutes to wander off across the rocks which cut their way in clear dyke formations across the bay. The rock here is informally known as eucrite; a type of gabbro formed deep underneath the Earth’s crust – an igneous rock rather than volcanic (and further evidence that the ring complex is really the remains of a volcano’s deep interior). The crystals in the rock are large, making it coarse-grained and liable to reflect the winter sunlight. This was my second highlight – the sun came out for an hour, and the rocks came alive following the rain the night before, the deep grey-silver surface shining like crinkled tinfoil. A look with a geologist’s loupe reveals a cityscape – streets and buildings, facades and crevices.

From Sanna I succeed in persuading the kids to walk up a nearby ‘hill’ so that we could look back on the whole ring structure. As we did, a golden eagle soared overhead and out towards the lighthouse. For the rest of the week, all the girls wanted to do was ‘drive into the volcano’ again. I think they ‘got it’.


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The Ardnamurchan Ring Complex, as seen from Sanna Bay

All text and photographs are copyright L. Reid 2016


Immortalised in stone: James Hutton in Glen Tilt

Early October, 2015


On a day of slate-grey, copper and bronze, I find myself birling through Glen Tilt from Blair Atholl on a mountain bike. I’m on a little kind of pilgrimage to find the spot which helped one man to turn the geological world of his time on its head.

Birch and rowan trees blast a yellow and red glow into the valley sides, lighting my way like candles all along the river edge. Deer roar, the sound echoing and reverberating off the u-shaped glen as the autumn rut unfolds on the slopes above. The sound is extraordinarily eerie, a sound centuries old, a sound that doesn’t just slot into the landscape but is an inherent part of it. It’s almost as though the hills themselves add emphasis to the rut, enhancing it.

James Hutton, the well-respected ‘father of geology’, visited Glen Tilt in September 1785 – 230 years, almost to the day, before me. He, like me, was searching for something – evidence to support his suspicions about the inner workings of the Earth, and how rocks were created. At the time, ‘Neptunism’ was a prevailing theory for how rocks and minerals were formed – namely through crystallisation in the oceans. Hutton believed that the Earth’s ‘heat engine’, and volcanism, were at the crux of rock and mineral formation. He began searching for places that would back up his theory of ‘Plutonism’.


The southern half of Glen Tilt is composed of Dalradian metamorphic rocks dating from the Ordovician period (around 485 to 443 million years ago). These rocks were formed when parts of Scotland lay submerged under the Iapetus Ocean, south of the equator. As I ride alongside the River Tilt the water helps show off the bedrock in all its glory – silver-shot rock layers tilt up at an angle, like pages in a book with the spine pressed down horizontal. The birch trees scatter the dark slabs of rock with leaves, like gold coins strewn across table tops.

Further north, the rock compositions begin to change, and not unnoticeably, even to someone who has never studied geology. A stream-cut rift in the valley side reveals pink, crystalline rock – granite. Glen Tilt holds clues to its make-up stemming from the Caledonian Orogeny, a series of mountain-building phases which took place in Northern Europe as the Iapetus Ocean closed and the continents of Laurentia, Avalonia and Baltica collided. The granite in Glen Tilt formed during one of the magmatic periods that occurred in the creation of the Highlands. When Hutton was alive, the common belief was that granite was the original ‘primeval’ rock layer – that it underlay everything and that all other rocks on top of it were younger. Hutton suspected otherwise and at Glen Tilt, he reasoned, somewhere the two types of rock had to meet. This is what he was looking for.


I’m still searching. Around eight miles from the Glen Tilt carpark is Forest Lodge, a large sporting lodge run by Atholl Estates. I know that Hutton’s spot, his ‘eureka moment’ if you like, is close by, but I didn’t anticipate quite what I would find there. As I come out of the well-managed copse of trees surrounding the lodge I meet a curve in the river, two deep pools created in amongst otherwise tumbling rapids. The river sides are bare rock, and I’m standing about 15 feet above the water. This is the place where two rock types met, and meld, and twist together in patterns not unlike marbled paper. Grey meets red meets pink.


Two huge salmon – two feet long – leap in the pools below my feet. I’m standing where Hutton once stood, at the same time of year. The fish slam their bodies up against the current, their tails whipping the air before they smack back down into the river. Hutton, on his visit here in his quest for evidence for his ‘Theory of the Earth’, made the same seemingly effortless leaps against the prevailing currents of thought at the time. He transformed the Earth from solid mass to a dynamic, fluid and ancient system driven by heat; a perpetual recycler of rocks and minerals – and, above all, a product of deep time.

For Hutton realised, in this spot, that the granite was younger than the metamorphic bedrock. He understood that the only way the two rocks could have part-mixed together was if one of them was molten at the time. The granite had to have been injected into weaknesses in the Dalradian rocks. I’m standing here, on my own, having not seen a soul since leaving Blair Atholl, and I get it. That kick of sheer satisfaction. That moment where everything falls into place – the split second where everything just fits.

The tinest hint of a breeze. The candle trees flicker. The river ploughs onward, shaping the beautifully-patterned rocks into swirls and curls that echo the eddies in the water. There are a few places where I’m there just long enough to leave a piece of my heart and soul behind. This is one of them. Glen Tilt. Hutton’s breakthrough and a fleeting glimpse of the power of our planet, immortalised in stone.


All text and photographs are copyright L. Reid 2015

My thanks to Angus Miller for the fact-checking, proof-reading and positive encouragement over the last wee while!

At Blackwaterfoot: Forces and footprints

Volcanic sill at Blackwaterfoot, Arran

I’m astonished by the power of the enormous cliff that appears as you walk around the coast from Blackwaterfoot on the Isle of Arran. The sill – the name given to a feature created by intrusive magma finding its way in between horizontal layers of sedimentary rock – is unique in its surroundings. Its columnar joints seem to still be on the move, powering up from within the Earth.

To me, a place like this has as much of the awesome force of the Earth’s heat engine as an active volcano – to generate such an enormous chunk of porphyritic rock needs a phenomenal amount of energy. The rock formed from magmatic crystal slush oozing out across between the horizontal layers of sedimentary rock which had been laid down millions of years before. There are interesting additions to the sill, too, with horizontal cracked dykes radiating out from the sides, digging deep into the sea a short distance away, rooting the sill to the spot.

‘…with dark, vertical teeth…’

I jump at the chance to walk along the base of the sill’s scree slope, with the magmatic rocks’ impressive, almost over-bearing, presence up above me. As it swallows half the sky with dark, vertical teeth, it reminds me a little of walking beneath the crags in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. I ponder once again the doors that open – like the folds and flaps in a picture book – once you learn a little of how to read a landscape. To be lucky enough to see the inner workings of the Earth drawn out on the surface, etched with millions of years’ worth of wind and water erosion and ice-carving, telling stories from beneath the surface.

Further along the coast and we find ourselves battling brambles and nettles to reach a dark, damp, tumble-down rockfall. On a now vertical slice of Triassic sandstone, 3 pointed, sharp toe prints appear, facing upwards. The pad of the foot is an indentation a few centimetres deep. The whole footprint measures around 16 centimetres long. It is thought to be the footprint of a Chirotherium – a crocodile-like creature which roamed a semi-arid landscape when Scotland lay just to the north of the equator around 270 million years ago.

Chirotherium print

I do wonder what she would have made of us, scrambling under overhanging tree-branches – all the time leaving our own shoed footprints in the iron-rich, red mud – to find the evidence of her own walk, albeit in a completely different environment, pressed into sand like an impression in playdoh.

West coast, Isle of Arran

All text and photographs copyright L. Reid 2015


Extended vision: Inspiration from geology

Lochranza, Isle of Arran

I’m standing listening to the seaweed popping in the early morning sun on the shore near Lochranza on the Isle of Arran. Oystercatchers chirrup and peep, striding through the shallows. The sliver of beach is peppered with oval-round granite pebbles, mixed with sandstones and schists – the formation tale of this part of the world scattered underfoot.

Standing on a shore such as this I’m both reminded of the past and engaged with the present at one and the same moment – a glimpse of deep time held in the palm of my hand; pebbles offering tangible links to a long-distant past. Millions of years old, worn away from the moment of their conception, altered beyond their origins by crystal and mineral growth, heat, pressure and above all, time.

Stack up the pebbles on the beach and you have a succession of ages represented – Precambrian through to Triassic, Permian to the Paleogene. With it comes the palette that helps paint the island – silver grey granite, jet black glassy pitchstone, bright New Red Sandstone, and butter yellow Triassic. I find an unusual piece of orange-red igneous rock, fine-grained and interspersed with feldspar crystals – possibly iron-washed in surrounding sediments before being smoothed by the tumbling sea millennia later.

‘The palette that helps paint the island’

A hand-lens varies colour still further, finding intricate details in crystal refraction, half-rainbows and mica-shot deep silver. Miniature versions of the valleys and hills pattern the pebbles around the bay; patterns which replicate themselves in the northern slopes when you raise your head.

I love the ‘extended vision’ geology can give you. Not just by looking inward at ever decreasing intricate details of crystals and sand grains, but looking outward, too. To look beyond what is in front of you in the landscape and find an imprint of the past – to ‘see’ another landscape high above the outlines that are currently there, drawing invisible lines out across the sky.

The Arran granite, for example, which forms the mountains in the northern half of the island, started out as a huge intrusion around 5-6 km below the surface. After 60 million years of erosion the granite now forms the skyline, and is still being eroded away to this day. At the time of its inception, when as a molten mass it rose up beneath the Earth’s surface to form its gigantic bubble, the land that is now Scotland was part of the landmass including North America. The surface would have been a desert landscape, underpinned by layers and layers of sedimentary rocks. The igneous, granitic bubble represents part of the beginnings of the Atlantic Ocean, the stretching, thinning and breaking of the crust; the time of the volcanoes along Scotland’s west coast.

Remains of a granite ‘bubble’ in the distance

Follow these invisible lines in the landscape, imagine a different picture; at times I try projecting it into the future too. Landscapes, however solid they may appear, are completely transient. Parts of Scotland have been swamp, ocean floor, desert, rainforest, Himalayan mountain landscape, and may well be once again. In geological terms our lifetimes are pinpricks, the land we walk on and build on is part of an ever fluid, dynamic system. The lines and outlines we see now will never be the same again, however slowly the changes occur to our eyes.

All text and photographs copyright.

Why is ‘Geodiversity’ important to me?


‘Geodiversity’ is a fairly new, umbrella term that encompasses the immense variety of rocks, fossils, minerals, soils, landforms and geomorphology, together with the processes which govern all of these, on Earth. Ok. Put it that why and it actually sounds rather wide-reaching and complicated! Put simply, geodiversity is about the landscape around us, what forms that landscape and how it is formed, together with why we should pay attention to preserving it. It is about valuing the amazing variety of landscapes around us.

The much wider-used ‘biodiversity’ – the variety of life within any given ecosystem – is almost always directly underpinned by, and indeed affected by, the local geodiversity. This includes ourselves, and the ways in which we as human beings are affected by, interact with, and indeed at times interfere with, the planet’s geology, landscapes and landforms.

The term ‘geodiversity’ is not just another piece of academic jargon, aimed at those working in academic institutions; I would suggest it has been coined for quite a specific purpose. It is about (re)connecting people with the land; asking politicians, teachers, scientists, those working in industry, local people – everyone – to take notice of their local area and help look after it.

Geodiversity, to my mind at least, is a modern term for a fairly ancient set of concepts. The idea of being aware of the land, both physically and ‘mentally’ or emotionally, and the idea that we bear responsibility for looking after the places in which we live and work; both of these older cultural ideas seem pertinent in a discussion of geodiversity. This is perhaps particularly true in localized geodiversity ‘hotspots’, and sites of special scientific interest, of which Scotland and the rest of the UK is lucky enough to have a great many. But it is also equally valuable in those places we take for granted, in our local neighbourhoods, as well as in the areas where we have taken natural resources from the land over recent decades.


Personally, I am intrigued by the fact that everywhere I walk in Scotland, indeed everywhere I look, there are remnants of every stage of Scotland’s journey across the globe. Scotland has an incredible and unique geodiversity – our small country’s geological history takes us from our origins near the South Pole to where we are today, and the journey is documented in our geological record. It is (at times literally) a melting pot of geological information – the diary of our country’s travels, with all its twists and turns, jolts and violent interventions. Few other countries in the world have such an astonishing variety of rocks, fossils, minerals and landforms of all ages. Our oldest rocks are 3 billion years old, through them we look directly into ‘deep time’; ancient rainforests gave us our rich oil and coal deposits; our beautiful mountain ranges tell the story of continents colliding; and our landscape is peppered with the remains of extinct volcanoes. Our entire country’s story is written in our geodiversity.


In tribute to all this, there are a number of people in Scotland who are working hard to advance knowledge of geodiversity in the hope of promoting, and ultimately protecting, the landscape and all the life it sustains. The work of the Scottish Geodiversity Forum and all its partners is testament to this drive for recognising the importance of geodiversity (for more details see www.scottishgeodiversityforum.org), and England recently followed suit with their own Geodiversity Charter (for details, see http://www.englishgeodiversityforum.org).

It is undoubtedly true that I write this from a standpoint of great privilege, particularly given the events in recent months elsewhere in the world. I am lucky to live in a geologically ‘placid’ part of the Earth. Scotland is now free from massive earthquakes, from the threat of volcanic eruptions, and from the terrors that geological forces of planet Earth can throw at us. Perhaps it would come as a surprise to some to learn that our own landscapes were formed by these self-same forces, albeit millions of years ago. Large scale events around the world that make the news can perhaps also help us to ‘sit up and take notice’ of our own surroundings – and to recognise the immense value there is in understanding how our own landscapes came about, and learn how to preserve them.

Learning to be aware of geodiversity, and considerate of how the landscape around you is used, is my main point here. If you can learn a little about your local spot and its history, and help care for it, in some small way, then this is what I think geodiversity is ultimately about. Geodiversity covers the immensity of geological time – an unfathomable scale. It is about the past, the present, but perhaps most importantly, looking ahead to the future. And the best way each of us can do that is by starting small, on very much a local scale, and look out for chances to preserve and protect the landscapes and landforms right on our doorsteps.

All text and photographs copyright L. Reid 2015

On the trail of a nation’s favourite fossil

Recently, though albeit a little quietly, the public voted for their top five favourite fossils originating from Scotland. The poll was organised by the Scottish Geodiversity Forum to promote Scotland’s fossil record as being one of the most diverse and interesting in the world, as well as encourage public engagement with the range of fossils on their doorstep. Many people were intrigued to learn of Scotland’s fossil record, and were amazed that Scotland laid claim to so many species spanning many millions of years.

From giant sea scorpions to trilobites, from ammonites to fossilized dinosaur footprints, from some of the earliest life on earth in the form of stromatolites and early land plants, we are lucky enough to have them all. So which fossil came out on top as the public’s favourite? With dinosaurs in the running you may be surprised to hear that it was actually the Devonian fish that won the poll.

As the Scottish Geodiversity Forum’s resident science writer, I was in charge of compiling and writing the publicity on the poll, including the write-ups on each of the candidates. This led me on my own ‘voyage of discovery’ into quite beautiful, ancient landscapes and seas. I ended up with so many favourites that I couldn’t decide which I really wanted to win. When the results were announced at the end of March, I was delighted – how wonderful that the public choose something a little unexpected.

So why did the fish win? My initial reaction is two-fold. Firstly, they are beautiful. Many of the fish fossils are immaculately preserved – they could almost leap off the rocks as though they were still alive. The intricate detailing in their fish scales, their tails and heads intact in many specimens. They are fossils that are easy to understand and anyone and everyone can ‘see’ them, without having to imagine the rest of a creature from a vertebrae or leg bone (no offence to the dinosaurs!).

There is also the historical link with one of Scotland’s highly respected geologists, Hugh Miller. An avid fossil collector, Miller’s own personal collection of over 6000 fossils – including many Devonian fish – now makes up the main body of the fossil collection at the National Museum of Scotland. He meticulously pieced together hundreds of fragments of Devonian fish specimens, genuinely fascinated by interpreting how they looked and how they lived. His discoveries still provide science with new insights into these creatures today.

But perhaps there is also something else in the choice of the Devonian fish: the appeal of the unknown, the mysterious depths of the oceans, which enticed people to claim the fish as their favourite. There is, for me at least, a mythical quality about the ‘age of the fishes’. Back in the Devonian period, 417 to 354 million years ago, Scotland lay south of the equator, enjoying a seasonal climate and warm seas. In these seas, fish had evolved rapidly, and a dazzling array of different fish of all shapes and sizes flourished. These fish then swam into the rivers and lakes of the land which would become Scotland, a landscape patchworked with Old Red Sandstone.

Alternating seasons led to these lakes and rivers drying up periodically, at times causing mass fatalities in the fish populations. Scotland’s Devonian fish fossils have therefore been found, in certain places, in large groups – preserved during their vain attempts to stay alive in the little pools in the middle of dried-up lakes. Some of the sandstones in which the fish are preserved have since been used as building and pavement stones – so the Devonian fish also decorate the streets of our towns and cities, a quiet reminder of ancient life and Scotland’s geological history.

Are we also curious as to the metamorphoses of the rest of life on Earth from these creatures? The fact that early tetrapods – the link between amphibians and reptiles – came in close behind the fish in the poll suggests perhaps so. Whatever the reasons, I am thrilled the public voted for the Devonian fish – and I hope the poll helps all those involved with studying and preserving our fossil record to promote their cause and raise public awareness of the importance and diversity of Scotland’s fossils in future.

Sources and further information:





All text copyright L. Reid 2015

Into the blue

I spent the day walking the blurred boundary lines between land and sea, sea and sky. An intertidal no man’s land, as Robert MacFarlane said in his book The Old Ways (Penguin). A world of merging blues, greens, silvers and golds. A world washed clear of footprints twice a day; evidence of all visitors swept away.
My eyes skim the surfaces like a stone over water – flitting over before settling, focusing, sinking in. Looking at the pebbles at my feet I can’t help wondering where each one came from. Every colour, every crystal, every chip and change in texture; they all hold secrets.

Today I feel immensely lucky, scrambling up and over ancient lava flows and solidified ash, carved and moulded by the sea. Walking the shoreline in total peace, far from the quiet bustle of the town of North Berwick, I’m able to pick out the story that the rocks tell through landforms and shapes. Not that I can place everything, but that for me is not the point – I never claim to be an expert in all the geological intricacies and details. Rather, I’m a bit of a magpie, a jack-of-all-trades, I’m intent on unfolding stories from the landscapes in front of me.
Odd that this world of blue and green was once the realm of volcanoes. Looking up, the series of igneous islands that line up along the East Lothian coastline stand out against the sea and sky. The result of an intensive period of volcanic activity in the area around 350 million years ago, Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat, the Bass Rock, and Berwick Law are but a few of the ancient volcanoes that made the landscape what it is today.

The volcanic rock I’m scrambling over is fine-grained, the surface polished smooth by the work of the waves. It’s watercolour-washed; blue-grey to green, matched to its surroundings. Cylindrical pothots pepper its surface, ranging from thumb-sized perfect seats for pebbles to those holding sizable rock pools; water snatched from the sea and held, warming in the sun, until surrendered again on the next high tide.

Time hangs suspended in the air above the sea. All slows, simplifies. I’m honed in to the sound of water rippling, barnacles popping and crackling in the sun. Light, reflection, blue air, stillness. An oystercatcher, stark against the background, smart in his black and white suit with vibrant red legs. I close my eyes and he is still there, vibrant against the shimmering heat haze.

Somehow, yet again, I have lost hours wandering the fringes of the sea. Alone in no man’s land.

All text and photographs copyright L. Reid 2015