Landscapes in Stone series: The Geology of Scotland’s Most Famous Landmarks

  29 Apr '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Scotland is known for its visually striking landscape, from jagged cliffs to rolling hills – the natural scenes iconic to this northern nation. However, most people are not well-informed about the dramatic geological history behind many of Scotland’s well-known landmarks.

Alan McKirdy, an accomplished writer and geologist, has set out to share Scotland’s fascinating geological past and present in his (now completed) Landscapes in Stone series of books. This project took nearly a decade to complete, and chronicles Scotland’s remakable geological journey.

The land that has become Scotland as we know it now has travelled across the globe over the last 3,000 million years, from close to the South Pole to its current position. During these travels, there were many continental collisions, creating mountain belts as high as the present-day Himalayas. The Highlands of were formed in this way, while many of Scotland’s famous hills and islands were created due to ongoing volcanic eruptions. Read on to discover some intriguing facts about recognisable Scottish landmarks from these books, encompassing regions all around the country!

Arran – Machrie Moor

Starting off in Arran, often called ‘Scotland in miniature’ because, for such a small island, it boasts such a beautiful, varied landscape, with features of both Lowland and Highland scenery. The standing stones of Machrie Moor are among the island’s most popular attractions, dating back to the Bronze Age some 4000 years ago. McKirdy shares that the site includes stones of both granite and brick-red sandstone, forming six distinct rings. A number of these stones might have been transported to the area by ice and remained as the glacier melted.

Skye – Old Man of Storr

Among the many celebrated landmarks in the Isle of Skye, the Old Man of Storr is perhaps the most identifiable. This massive rock formation was created when, in the Jurassic Age, a thick pile of basalt lava rested upon weaker sedimentary rock. After a time, the sedimentary rock gave way, ‘resulting in enormous landslides and the creation of awesome labyrinths of huge blocks and pinnacles’ like the Old Man of Storr.

Edinburgh – Arthur’s Seat

Many tourists and residents alike are familiar with the fact that Arthur’s Seat, the highest peak in the city of Edinburgh, is actually the eroded stump of an ancient volcano. But did you know that the eruption took place over 350 million years ago? Arthur’s Seat, Castle Rock, Craiglockhart Hill, and several others in the area ‘are all prominent landmarks that were formed by eruptions during the early Carboniferous period’.

Cairngorms ­– Lairig Ghru

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The Cairngorms Mountain Range is one of the highest in the United Kingdom, and it was almost completely transformed in the geologically recent Ice Age. The Lairig Ghru mountain pass, an incised glen that runs north-west to south-east, is a popular hill-walking destination. McKirdy explains that ‘this iconic landform was carved by a fast-moving stream of ice that cut deep into the granite mastiff’.

Mull – Isle of Staffa

In this region, the Isle of Staffa with its iconic columnar-jointed rock formations and thriving puffin population draws thousands of visitors every year. Fingal’s Cave, with its distinct lines of basalt, formed due to cooling lava from the Mull Volcano eruption. ‘As the molten rock cooled,’ it ‘shrank into these characteristic six-sided columns’ that you see today.

Argyll – Loch Etive

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Loch Etive likely gets its name from the Gaelic name, meaning ‘little fierce one,’ a reference to the Celtic goddess associated with the loch. McKirdy describes its geological history, which is just as fascinating as its folkloric background, stating ‘the stunning mountains at the head of Loch Etive were carved from granites that were generated by colliding continents’.

Lochaber & Glencoe – Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis is well known for being the tallest peak in the United Kingdom, soaring to a height of 1,345 metres. Like many other mountainous areas in Scotland, it was formed hundreds of millions of years ago from volcanic activity. Ben Nevis itself erupted over 425 million years ago. On the mountain’s surface you can clearly see a line separating two generations of granite, which ‘were emplaced thousands, perhaps even millions, of years apart’.

The Outer Hebrides – St. Kilda

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St. Kilda is part of a chain of extinct volcanos in the Outer Hebrides that were active until about six million years ago. Its remote location and striking scenery make it a key tourist landmark in the area. Its iconic sea cliffs were shaped ‘by ice, wind, and water into the ancient St. Kildan volcano’. Now, the nooks and perches found in these cliffs offer safe nesting areas for sea birds during stormy days on the North Atlantic.

The Northern Highlands – Knockan Crag

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The Knockan Crag Nature Reserve in the Northwest Highlands offers an experience entirely devoted to rocks and geology. The rock art you see above is meant to represent ‘the planetary story told at Knockan, designed to enhance the visitor experience’. You can learn all about how the geological discoveries made here in the 19th century shaped our understanding of the world. The area itself was created by the collision of two continents many millions of years ago!

Orkney & Shetland – Old Man of Hoy

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The Old Man of Hoy is one of the most remarkable sea stacks in the United Kingdom. McKirdy explains that ‘it was formed by the sea exploiting weaknesses in the sandstone cliff and eroding it into the shape of an arch’. Eventually, the arch collapsed, leaving this incredibly tall pillar standing alone at the water’s edge.

Central Scotland – Stirling Castle

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Much like Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle is perched upon a high hill with exposed jagged rock. In geological terms, McKirdy elaborates that ‘the impressive ramparts are made from dolerite, a coarse-grained form of basalt. This magma didn’t quite make it to the surface and cooled more slowly at depth.’

The Small Isles – Askival & Hallival

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On the Isle of Rum, the most prominent peaks are called Askival and Hallival. They are frequented by geology enthusiasts and mountain climbers alike and are considered features of international geological importance. These mountains were made ‘from the solidified remains of the magma chamber that lay beneath the rum volcano’. It may be hard to imagine a hot, humid Scotland full of erupting volcanoes, but millions of years ago, those were indeed the conditions of the climate!

Southern Scotland – Siccar Point

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Last but not least, Siccar Point in Southern Scotland may not be the most familiar landmark on the list, but it is widely considered to be one of the most important places in the history of geology. This marks the site where James Hutton, the father of geology, went to test his ideas, which he then compiled into the 1795 book The Theory of the Earth, which ‘formed the basis for the modern science of geology’.

With a brief background in geology, the next time you visit one of these key landmarks in Scotland, you’ll have the ability to look into the past and understand the stories these rocks are telling. Like an artist with a trained eye observing a masterful painting, you can examine these beautiful scenes equipped with the ability to read their unique and dramatic geological history.

The Landscapes in Stone series make the perfect guidebooks to take with you on your travels throughout all of the major regions of the country. Southern Scotland, The Small Isles, and Central Scotland are available from 5 May, offering you the chance to own the complete set!

Browse the Entire Landscapes in Stone Series

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