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The following article was published in the Earth Heritage magazine in 2003.

Walking and talking – exploring the story of the Earth at Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh

It is easy to forget just how amazing the Earth’s story is. We become blasé about the big concepts of continental drift and geological time. Introducing geology to the general public has for me reawakened this sense of wonder at the history of the Earth. Most people, if asked, would probably put the age of the Earth at only a few hundred million years. When you stop and think about it, the concept of even a million years, when measured against our short span on the planet, is mind-boggling. And when you start talking billions, it’s really pretty impossible to comprehend without some analogy or model to put human existence into perspective. Plate tectonics is another great concept that makes people go “wow!”. The idea of plates floating over the Earth’s surface is widely known, but once it’s translated into a local perspective it’s clear there are amazing stories that can captivate – Scotland’s journey across the planet, the collision of the rocks of Scotland and England, once separated by ocean, the ‘recent’ split of North America and Europe.

In 1997 I was in the Caribbean, where I spent two years at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory as part of the team monitoring the ongoing eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano. In these intense, worrying and often frantic months I’d learned a lot about the fascination and fear volcanoes cause, and how difficult it can be to communicate science to the general public. I’d seen how much of a barrier jargon and technical terms were for the layman, and how incomprehensible was the vastness of geological time and scale. When I returned to Edinburgh, I saw an opportunity to explain these themes at my local volcano, and Geowalks was born.

In the last five years thousands of people have joined me for guided walks of Arthur’s Seat and other sites in central Scotland. Arthur’s Seat is a fantastic resource for introducing geology to the general public, with superb examples which illustrate a varied and interesting history – not only of the creation of Edinburgh’s rocks, but how geology has influenced the shape of the landscape and human use of the area. From this local example, there are plenty of links to the larger concepts.

Robert Louis Stevenson described Arthur’s Seat as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design”. Occasionally from the city streets you catch an improbable view of craggy ramparts, framed by buildings. Its geological richness is complemented by a fantastic setting within Edinburgh, a spacious city park with a feel of the countryside. For some, the walk to the top is a challenge, and offers a new perspective on the city. For others, Arthur’s Seat is well known – many people have spent a life time exercising their dog or themselves in Holyrood Park - but their eyes are opened to an aspect of the hill’s story that they’ve never discovered before.

For the geologist, Arthur’s Seat is much more than a city hill: a spectacular and easily accessible example of an early Carboniferous basalt volcanic cone, much better preserved than any other volcanic vent in the Midland Valley. Sedimentary rocks, lava flows, vent agglomerate, intrusions and airfall tuff layers can be discovered in a short walk. The icing on the cake is Salisbury Crags, immediately adjacent to Arthur’s Seat but formed millions of years later by underground intrusion of magma rather than extrusive volcanic activity. Apart from the beauty of the Crags and their contrast with Arthur’s Seat, there is the connection with James Hutton, and the chance to see the rocks which Hutton used as evidence for his theories.

I am a geologist who likes telling stories, and Arthur’s Seat is a great example of how the Earth’s story can be told to the general public – a short walk, a generous helping of real rocks and enchanting views, laced with a bit of imagination and story telling, can fire people’s imagination and help them see the Earth with new eyes.


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