Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me. Time and place have had their say.
– Zora Neale Thurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
Arran rocks! They’re all over the place: which is why Arran is the classic destination for geology students doing fieldwork, and why Aerran played a pivotal role in the development of our understanding of the geological story of the earth. A walk last week along the Arran coastal way between Sannox and Lochranza offered some striking examples of the twists and turns in that geological story.
We parked at North Sannox picnic site and followed the well-defined shore path through a stretch of birch woodland through which we caught glimpses of the Firth of Clyde. The ditch alongside the pathwas filled with watercress and fringed with wild garlic. I can eat watercress without accompaniment, and I wolfed down a sprig or two: it zinged with pepperyness, much sharper than the shop-bought variety.
Here, too, were clumps of Water Avens, a frequenter of damp places such as riversides and wet woodlands. The flowers varied in colour from greenish-white to pale pink. Its roots apparently smell like cloves and have historically been used to flavour drinks such as beer, and to cure a variety of medical ailments. The Ortus Sanitatis in 1491 reckoned that, ‘Where the root is in the house, Satan can do nothing and flies from it, wherefore it is blessed before all other herbs, and if a man carries the root about him no venomous beast can harm him’, while Culpepper stated:
‘It is governed by Jupiter and that gives hopes of a wholesome healthful herb. It is good for the diseases of the chest or breath, for pains and stitches in the sides, it dissolveth inward congealed blood occasioned by falls and bruises and the spitting of blood, if the roots either green or dried be boiled in wine and drunk. The root in the spring-time steeped in wine doth give it a delicate flavour and taste and being drunk fasting every morning comforteth the heart and is a good preservative against the plague or any other poison. It is very safe and is fit to be kept in every body’s house.’
So: a one yard stretch of waterlogged ditch offered a tangy herb, a powerful food flavouring, and a plant with many medicinal applications.
Soon we came to Fallen Rocks, an imaginatively named collection of colossal boulders, the result of what must have been a terrifying landslip that hurled great sandstone boulders, studded with pebbles and conglomerate, from the cliffs to the sea.
The geology lesson is continuous: the rock fall means it’s possible to distinguish the different strata in the rock: alternations of sandstone and conglomerate reflect the different time periods and conditions in which the sediments were laid down, sometimes in warm seas or lagoons, or during periods in which fast-flowing rivers deposited the coarser, pebble-strewn layers. All of this, as I understand it, in the Carboniferous period between 359 and 299 million years ago.
put your hand
on the hollow rock
place your hollow
hand on the rock
from high places
keep their composure
you will have to go
all round it
to see it
have to stay
to know it
– Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places
There’s another story told by the level nature of the path along this stretch, with the cliffs set well back from the shore (as on most of Arran’s coastal way). It’s the story of glaciers and ice sheets that once covered Arran. The weight of all this ice pushed Arran downwards into the earths’ crust. But, once the ice began to melt, Arran began to rise again, resulting in the raised beaches that fringe the island. This uplift – or ‘rebound’ – after the melting of the last ice age has been a gradual process – and is still continuing today.
I stopped to take this photo of the raised beach because, apart from the usual puzzlement when I encounter one of these lost shoes (why so frequent? why always only one?), the abandoned shoe reminded me of something. There’s a great song by the Texan songwriter Terry Allen, co-written with David Byrne (now there’s a couple out on their own astral plane), called ‘Wilderness of this World’, in which the sight of an old shoe on the highway provokes thoughts about the transitoriness of human life on a planet that just keeps on spinning, and in the vastness of time geological forces mean that the desert falls to the ocean:
There’s an old shoe
Out on the highway
That tells us of the
Wilderness of this World […]
And the desert falls
Down on the ocean
And that motion is all
We’ll ever know
It just keeps on spinning
This bunch of dancing fools
Run crazy across the
Wilderness of this World
Past Millstone Point we came to the lovely, whitewashed Laggan cottage, located miles from any road, its two windows (covered when we passed with trompe l’oeil curtains) facing the shore, the front door a few steps from the sea.
Laggan Cottage was part of a thriving community over a century ago, but now stands alone in the wild – a memory of a time when the sea was the only way here. The cottage has been a haven for artists, and so impressed Scottish author Paul Story that it became the seed for Creggan Cottage in the first novel in his Dreamwords series. This video was compiled by Story over a period of four weeks in the summer of 2010, when he stayed there. Most of the scenes were taken within a few steps of the cottage
Soon after Laggan cottage you encounter the reason for its existence – the ruins of Duchess Anne’s Salt Pan, built in 1710. These workings are of a kind found in only one other location in Scotland, on the neighbouring island of Bute. Salt being vital to preserve meat and fish, it was a valuable commodity.
The discovery of coal nearby (another gift from the Carboniferous era) made it possible to extract the salt from sea-water. Coal was burnt under iron salt pans for the ‘lumpmen’ and ‘wallers’ to skim off the salt from the evaporating brine. The resulting salt was then shipped out – it was highly prized, as Arran salt salt was particularly pure.
The ruined building here is the old pan-house, where the furnace and iron pans were located. There are traces of other, smaller buildings that stored fuel and salt, with workers’ cottages inland.
The coal was dug from pits, now filled with water like the one above. The process proved uneconomic and the Salt Pan fell into disuse after only 20 years.
There’s a remarkable stretch of shoreline a little further on, where red sandstone outcrops on the beach (above and top). The colour and weathering of these rocks evoked a sudden nostalgia for Liverpool and the Wirral, where you see this stuff everywhere.
These sandstone strata were laid down in the Permian era, which followed the Carboniferous (between 250 and 290 million years ago). At that time, Arran was situated somewhere between latitudes 13 and 30°N (roughly where the Sahara is today) and it would have been in a Sahara-like landscape that these beds would have been laid down, deposited in wind-blown and river systems.
A mile further, and we reached the Cock of Arran, a huge sandstone boulder deposited on the beach, which, before its head fell off, resembled a cockerel.
Beyond lay the Scriordan Rock Fall, which was to prove a the most stressful section of the walk. It’s the result of a massive landslip of the rock strata which resulted in an avalanche of rock covering about a mile of the shore. At low tide, you can bypass the fall by keeping low on the beach. But it was high tide and we had to clamber and scramble over the boulders. The way through turned out to be slow, tortuous – and worrisome when our dog, jumping down from a boulder, fell awkwardly and began limping as if she had strained a leg muscle. There was nothing for it, but to carry her over the rocks, hoping I wouldn’t slip and injure myself going one-handed. But all was well: we got through, and the dog recovered rapidly, pausing only to take stock of the terrain that she had traversed (above).
Now the way was straightforward: the path was level once again, meandering along the raised beach and past the attractive fisherman’s cottage at Fairy Dell (below).
We were now approaching Hutton’s Unconformity, a site of great importance in the history of geology. It was here, in 1787, that James Hutton noticed that one strata of very old rock which was inclined nearly vertically was overlain by another strata of much younger sandstone which was almost horizontal. Since sedimentary rocks are deposited in horizontal layers, it takes eons for geological processes (such as heat, pressure and folding) to force them up at an angle, and longer still for erosion to wear them down. Hutton deduced that, between the two kinds of rock at different angles there was a huge time-gap, which could not be explained by the contemporary orthodoxy, promulgated in 1645 by Archbishop Usher, that the earth was a mere 5000 years old. Based on his calculations from the Bible, Usher reckoned that the earth began at nightfall on Sunday 23 October 4004 BC.
The nomenclature of the Uncomformity appeals, seeming to refer not just to the geological circumstance, but also to the radical significance of Hutton’s deduction. He was then able to put forward a theory about the geological history of the earth that was to have as profound an effect upon society as did Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, as he was the first to propose that the earths’ surface had evolved over an immense period of time, far in excess of Biblical time.
Visiting Lochranza in 1787, Hutton explored the coast to the north of the village. From his observations at Lochranza and elsewhere, he proposed that the earth was much older than had been previously thought. It was at Lochranza where the length and complexity of the Earth’s history was first fully appreciated. In the National Portrait Gallery there’s a delightful portrait by John Kay of Hutton, the frock-coated gentleman farmer, chipping away at a rock face which may, perhaps, bear the image of Archbishop Usher.
Hutton was on the fringes of the gifted group of intellectuals sometimes called the Edinburgh Enlightenment; his circle included economist Adam Smith, philosopher David Hume, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), and James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. Although he also is cast as a champion of scientific logic over religious irrationality, Marcia Bjornerud, in her book Reading The Rocks, suggests that in fact his interest in things geological seems to have sprung from a deeply felt spirituality:
As a landowner in a wet climate, Hutton was aware of how much soil was lost to the sea by erosion each year, and as a religious man, he was troubled by the thought that God would allow the continents simply to be worn progressively away. He therefore began to seek evidence for the rejuvenation of the land and intuitively understood that such evidence could be found only in rocks. He recognized that the rocks exposed on the seaside cliffs of eastern Scotland were formed from sediment that had been derived from older continental rocks. And in this single insight, the Scottish farmer simultaneously articulated the central precept of geology and made a compelling argument for an Earth that was far older than the 6,000 years allotted to it by the Church.
In his one great treatise, The Theory of the Earth, published in 1788, Hutton showed remarkable understanding of the principles that underpin modern geology:
The ruins of an older world are visible in the present structure of our planet, and the strata which now compose our continents have been once beneath the sea, and were formed out of the waste of pre-existing continents. The same forces are still destroying, by chemical decomposition or mechanical violence, even the hardest rocks, and transporting these materials to the sea, where they are spread out, and form strata analogous to those of more ancient date.
Once round Newton Point, the port of Lochanzra came into view. It’s a sight that the geologist Andrew Crombie Ramsay knew well, and here there is a viewpoint marker that bears a quotation from his Geology of the Island of Arran:
There is perhaps no scene on Arran which so impresses the beholder with a feeling of solitary beauty as the first glimpse of Lochranza. The traveller may perhaps be somewhat fatigued with his protracted journey as, on a still summer evening, he rounds Newton Point. But tired and hungry though he be, and with the very smoke of the little inn curling before his eyes, let him pause for a moment at the entrance of the loch and seating himself on a granite boulder, quietly contemplate the placid scene before him.
As we approached Lochranza the ferry from Claonaig on the Kintyre mainland was just arriving at the jetty. This is an isolated place, at the far end of a wild mountain glen, and, facing north, said to be one of the wettest places in the British Isles. But on this particular evening it was balmy, the shoreline fringed with erect yellow flag and the sea like glass. Sir Walter Scott liked the place, writing in The Lord of the Isle:
On fair Lochranza streamed the early day,
Thin wreaths of cottage smoke are upward curl’d
From the lone hamlet, which her inland bay
And circling mountains sever from the world
Our long walk over, we waited for the bus to take us back to our car at Sannox at a stop across the road from the Arran Distillery, built in 1995, which produces the Arran Single Malt and isone of the major industries on the island. We had some time to spare, so I stepped across and bought a couple of bottles. After all, as Holinshed wrote in his Chronicles in 1577:
It sloweth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth flegme, it relisheth the harte, it lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirits, it cureth the hydropsie, it repelleth gravel … and trulie it is a sovereign liquor if it be orderlie taken.
Then it was on the bus for the ride back through Glen Chalmadale with the jagged peaks of Torr Neaden Eoin so close it seemed you could reach out and touch them.
- On Arran: Millennia deep
- Return to Arran, where the world was stilled
- Walking Arran: Iron Age forts, a Viking burial and Buddhist pilgrims
- Walking Arran: two glens and the dog on top of the world