EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Edinburgh's landscape of hills and valleys is not just a challenge to visitors arriving with suitcases, nor merely one of the features that gives the city its character and charm. It has also been, in a very real way, a major factor in transforming our understanding of our planet.
In the eighteenth century, James Hutton - who died on 26 March 1797 and was buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard - developed some literally groundbreaking theories that revolutionised our understanding of the earth beneath our feet, and the landscape of the city Hutton had been born in was key to some of those ideas.
Hutton had observed rock features in the landscape of the Scottish Highlands which indicated a difference in the ways in which the rocks had been created, and by extension represented significantly different periods of creation - that some rocks were considerably younger than other rocks beneath and around them.
This was in direct contradiction to the prevailing view of Earth at that time, the view laid down by the church that the planet had been created in the space of just seven days, a few thousand years ago...
In the cliffs of Salisbury Crags, around Arthur's Seat, is a stretch of rock known as Hutton's Section, one of the first examples Hutton found where the layers or strata of the rocks contravened the geological understanding of the period.
On the isle of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland, is the first described example of Hutton's Unconformity, the curious intersection of older and newer rocks jutting out of the surface of the planet.
In these sections, Hutton considered that molten rock - magma - had forced its way up from the liquid centre of the Earth, pushing around and between existing rocks, before cooling and solidifying.
Thus the modern understanding of Earth as a planet constantly shifting, renewing and changing started to be formed - we now know that Arthur's Seat was formerly an active volcano, something that wasn't known before Hutton - and by extension the consideration that the planet is continuing to shift and develop even under our feet today.
Hutton's theories led him to create the notion of 'Deep Time', a consideration of our planet's existence not in terms of hundreds or thousands of years, but millions and billions. His work helped to shape what we think of as the Scottish Enlightenment, and among his friends were other Edinburgh men men such as Adam Smith - founder of modern economics - and the philosopher David Hume.
Today in Edinburgh, an attraction called Dynamic Earth continues Hutton's work, entertaining and educating children about what's happening beneath their feet - and it's just a stone's throw from the site of Hutton's original investigations, bringing the modern science of geology right back to where it all started.
So as you struggle up the hills and steps of the Old Town, consider instead the importance this landscape has had on our investigations of our planet, and try to find it inspiring, instead of just tiring!
Explore more of Edinburgh's historic landscape with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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