With its characteristic hills and valleys, ploughed into ridges and troughs, Edinburgh is a city very much shaped by geological influences. Although much of the ground beneath your feet in Edinburgh was shaped primarily by the effects of the last ice age, the most visible influences on the cityscape are the three extinct volcanoes whose outcrops still dominate the city today.
The rock on which Edinburgh Castle is built is the plug of a volcano, believed to be around 350 million years old. The summit of the rock is 130 metres above sea level, and it was on this exposed by defensively significant site that human occupation in the city began approximately 3,000 years ago.
At the other end of Princes Street, graced by the columns of Playfair's unfinished National Monument, is Calton Hill. A second volcano site, the hill here is only 103 metres high but is easily climbed and affords a fantastic 360-degree panoramic outlook across the city and further afield to Fife, over the Firth of Forth (the estuary of the river Forth) to the north.
The most dramatic of the volcanoes, however, is Arthur's Seat. Situated at the centre of Holyrood Park to the east of the city centre, it rises to a height of just over 250 metres, and is a worthy attraction to visitors wishing to stretch their legs and gain a new perspective on the city. The lower slopes of the hill are easily climbed, whilst the final stretch is a little more challenging, so solid footwear and a willingness to scramble as required are advised.
The name Arthur's Seat has no solid derivation. Some people attach it to the Arthurian legends of Camelot, but a more grounded explanation is likely to be a corruption of the Gaelic phrase Àrd-na-Said, meaning 'the height of the arrows', indicating the highest altitude that an archer could attain with an arrow fired from his bow. (If you're fortunate you may still witness the Royal Company of Archers, the Queen's official bodyguards in Scotland, who still practice in the grounds of Holyroodhouse at the base of Arthur's Seat.)
Viewed from the city centre, in front of Arthur's Seat is a ridge of imposing cliffs, called Salisbury Crags. If scaling the full height of Arthur's Seat feels too much for you, there are paths which run along the base of the crags - called the Radical Road - and also along the top, both providing picturesque outlooks over the city. The creation of the crags came about when the volcano collapsed in on itself, and as the surface crust fell into the crater the land broke off and pivoted upwards. On the smoother side of the crags, between the ridge of clifftop and Arthur's Seat itself, is further evidence of prehistoric human occupation, dating back several thousand years.
It was whilst excavating sites around Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat in the latter part of the eighteenth-century that James Hutton discovered what he considered to be evidence for dating the Earth's mass. Prior to this time it was widely accepted that Earth had been created according to the terms laid out in the Christian creation myth - that is, within seven days, and probably only about 6,000 years previously. Hutton uncovered layers in the rock which seemed not to make sense, as the lower layers of rock - those which had been deepest underground - bore evidence of being younger than the rocks at the surface.
This observation gave rise to his theories about the way in which the Earth shifts and recreates itself, a process of ongoing change and difference, which in turn led to our current understanding of structures such as the tectonic plates which support Earth's massive landmasses. These insights coincided with the so-called Scottish Enlightenment, and earned Hutton the moniker the Father of Modern Geology. You can still visit the site of Hutton's excavations in Holyrood Park, where the exposed layers of his work bear the name Hutton's Unconformity.
Within Holyrood Park are a number of natural and man-made lakes, and the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel, dating to the fifteenth century. Along with a plethora of plants and wildlife - Historic Scotland run the ranger service responsible for maintaining the park itself - Arthur's Seat and Holyrood Park are an integral part of Edinburgh's scenery. And, what is more, access to the park and to Arthur's Seat is completely free of charge, making it an economical choice for visitors too!
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