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Issue 46 - The forces of nature

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 46
August 2009


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The forces of nature

John Hannavy explores Scotland's dramatic landscape and the writers it has inspired.

Thomas Pennant was hugely – and understandably – disappointed when a large swell made landing on the spectacular island of Staffa impossible during his journey through the Hebrides in 1772. He was especially disappointed, as Staffa had only been ‘discovered’ earlier that year – at least as far as the scientific and geographical communities in London and Edinburgh were concerned.

Joseph Banks claimed the glory for its ‘discovery’ although he did acknowledge that ‘an English gentleman, Mr Leach’ had told him a few weeks earlier of this magical island.

In his published account of his journey to Staffa, Banks relates how his guide told him of the island’s famous ‘Cave of Fhinn’ – or Fingal’s Cave – and I hope I am not being too churlish to suggest that if the cave already had a name, it had been ‘discovered’ a long time before Banks sailed into its jaws. Indeed as the island was owned by Lachlan McQuarrie of Mull and Ulva, and he and Joseph Banks were well acquainted – and would become much closer when they were both active in the establishment of the penal colony at Botany Bay – it is perhaps fairer to attribute to Banks only the first published account of the island.

He was undoubtedly impressed with it, writing: ‘Compared to this what are the cathedrals or the places built by men? Mere models or playthings, imitations as diminutive as his works will always be when compared to those of nature. Where is now the boast of the architect? Regularity the only part in which he fancied himself to exceed his mistress, Nature, is here sound in her possession, and here it has been for ages undescribed.’ Banks thought it grander than the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, and assumed it to be a separate freak of nature. By the time his account was published in Pennant’s book A Tour in Scotland in 1776, geologists had already recognised that the two were linked across the seabed.

What survives on Staffa, and along the west coast of Mull, is the result of intense volcanic activity more than 60 million years ago, when a massive outpouring of molten basalt lava came into immediate contact with what was then an equatorial ocean. The volcanoes which formed Staffa had already been in the equatorial oceans for more than 500 million years at that time. The lava cooled quickly, cracking and taking on the striking columnar shapes we see today.

It is hard to think of Scotland being equatorial, let alone having numerous highly active volcanoes, but it was those volcanoes which shaped so many of the features we recognise today – such as the rocky volcanic rims on which sit some of our major castles.

It is hard to imagine the forces of nature which formed Scotland’s rugged landscape, although geologists can tell us that the rocks which form the great mountains are at least one billion years old, and many of them three times that age. During those three thousand million years, the movement of tectonic plates has assembled rocks from many different parts of the earth’s surface and brought them to what we now call Scotland, forcing some of them thousands of feet up into the air, and in so doing, created the mountains which define the Highlands, and the turbulent air movements which give the country its infinitely variable weather patterns.

As the continental plates moved and ground against each other, features we recognise today – such as the Great Glen – were created as fault lines, giant cracks in the surface.

Through successive Ice Ages – the last of which ended only about 10,000 years ago – glaciers scarred and shaped the landscape, at one point covering the country with ice up to one mile deep. As the glaciers moved and the ice slowly melted, taking accumulated sediment with it, water filled the hollows left behind, forming the lochs and river valleys which define the landscape today.

While parts of the landscape seem to have been perpetually barren, other areas developed as huge forests, becoming home to a rich variety of fauna and flora, including human kind. Although our 8,000-year presence is a mere blink of an eye when considered against the age of the landscape and its rocks.

Within two thousand years of humans settling in Scotland, we were erecting monuments – some of the earliest chambered burial cairns have been dated to the 4th and 3rd millennia BC – that’s 5,000-6,000 years ago. In the second millennium BC – 4,000 years ago – our ancestors’ creative side came to the fore with the appearance of the earliest examples of Neolithic and Bronze Age art.

In many sites across Argyll – but particularly rich around Cairnbaan – flat expanses of rock are covered with enigmatic ‘cup and ring markings’. The reason for the creation of these carved patterns, and the purpose for which they were intended, are lost in the mists of time, but they do seem to coincide with gathering places such as hilltops and communal burial grounds, so they must have fulfilled an ancient ritual role.

And for less than 500 of that 8,000-year occupation – since the Hystory and croniklis of Scotland was published in 1541 – have we been writing about the country, its history and its people. For even fewer years have writers tried to express in words their reaction to this dramatic landscape.

And despite the impressive start made by the likes of Banks, Pennant, Boswell and Johnson, their publications did not trigger any great number of such books.

They were the intrepid explorers, ‘discovering’ Scotland much as Livingstone, Burton and others discovered Africa.