Author: Suse Coon

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Tuesday, March 26th, 2013 at 6:41 pm
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The Father of Geology, James Hutton

On 26 March 1797, James Hutton, the East Lothian farmer turned geologist and founder of the Oyster Club, died. His studies into the formation of the earth helped form the basis of modern geology.

Born in Edinburgh on 3 June 1726 his father, William Hutton, was a merchant who was Edinburgh City Treasurer, but he died while James was still young. It was his mother, Sarah Balfour, who saw to his education at the High School of Edinburgh and then the University of Edinburgh. Although a “student of humanity” and apprenticed to a lawyer, he was more interested in science and attended lectures in medicine. After three years he went to study medicine in Paris and in 1749 became Doctor of Medicine at Leyden with a thesis on blood circulation.

When Hutton inherited the Berwickshire farms of Slighhouses, a lowland farm which had been in the family since 1713, and Nether Monynut on the Lammermuir Hills, he returned to Edinburgh and formed a partnership in a chemical works with his friend, James Davie. He lived at Slighhouses where he introduced a number of improvements such as enclosing and draining the land, crop rotation and ploughing techniques.  He recorded his ideas and innovations in an unpublished treatise on The Elements of Agriculture.

While working the land, he found that the shape of it fascinated him and, in a letter in 1753 he wrote that he had “become very fond of studying the surface of the earth, and was looking with anxious curiosity into every pit or ditch or bed of a river that fell in his way”.

In 1768 Hutton returned to Edinburgh, letting his farms but continuing to carry out experiments at Slighhouses investigating agricultural improvements and natural history. The marl pit he created can still be seen. He had a house built in 1770 at St John’s Hill, Edinburgh, overlooking Salisbury Crags which became the Balfour family home. A memorial garden marks the spot in the Pleasance today. It contains 5 boulders which demonstrate his theories. Two of them show granite veins in metamorphosed schist from Blair Atholl and three are conglomerates from Dunblane.

He said: “A vast proportion of the present rocks are composed of materials afforded by the destruction of bodies, animal, vegetable and mineral, of more ancient formation” ‘He developed the theory that land comprises layers of rocks which are constantly being eroded and deposited in the sea but which sometimes fold and break through each other over long periods of time due to extreme heat, possibly volcanic activity. Since the Bible held that the age of the earth was a mere 6000 years old, he needed to find evidence to overcome resistance to his theories. He found a number of “unconformities” throughout Scotland, in Salisbury Crags, on Arran,  at Inchbonny and Siccar Point on the east coast.

Fundamental to his theories was the idea that cyclic processes caused the disruptions, similar to orbits in astronomy and blood circulation in the human body, which of course he knew something about. Only after 25 years of research and study, did he feel able to publish his Theory of the Earth or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe, which was presented to meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He would have been very excited by experiments carried out by Sir James Hall in 1798 demonstrating the igneous nature of basalt and granite.

Hutton also advocated a form of evolution for living creatures too using the development of different species of dogs (natural selection) to support his ideas. He was not an atheist, however, but thought the mechanism was evidence of benevolent design in nature.

This was the time of the Scottish Enlightenment and Hutton, keen to share ideas and knowledge with the great thinkers of the day, founded the Oyster Club, where Edinburgh intellectuals as well as visiting thinkers like James Watt and Benjamin Franklin could meet. He was also involved in the construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal, both as a shareholder and as a means of sharing and increasing his geological interests. Hutton’s statue  by David Walter Stevenson on the outside of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery shows him with a hammer in his right hand and a rock specimen in his left hand. A frieze in the Gallery shows him amongst a number of worthies including Rabbie Burns and Thomas Telford.

He was buried in the Balfour family vault in Greyfriars Kirkyard, unmarked until 1947, when a plaque was erected to mark the 150th anniversary of his death.

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