Rocks are evidence in a detective’s investigation, but instead of a single crime scene, geologists like Jim Blair (pictured) are always figuring out at least half a dozen puzzles at once. For one thing, we learned on our afternoon with the Lochaber Geopark folks, how each rock, each mineral came to be in the first place. Sure, each was sedimentary, igneous, or metamorphic, as we all learned in grade school. But then, how did these layers come to be here, way north, when they were created in an equatorial ocean? And what volcanoes spewed which veins of lava, and were the volcanoes around here or elsewhere? And these layers, that seem so orderly until they get all mixed up: when did that happen, and why? If you are a good story-teller, plate tectonics and glaciers and erosion and fossils all play their parts in the story.
Jim showed us the series of layers under our feet (below). His walking-stick points to a single sedimentary layer which was pinched far later into a wrinkled series of strata. Under maybe fifteen miles of overburden this layer was cooked into metamorphic rock at a couple of hundred degrees Celsius. Hundreds of thousands of years passed, and these rocks which used to be fifteen miles underground, were eroded up to the surface, and then scoured by the glaciers a mere 20 thousand years ago to reveal this beautiful pattern by the riverside.
Imagine you are mixing ingredients in a bowl which you poured in, one after another, like eggs, then flour, then milk, then oil, then chocolate chips. Just a little stirring makes swirls that can be traced. But if you stir everything fully, the former separate ingredients are now a homogenous mix. What gives geologists joy is un-mixing the batter in their imagination. They are analyzing how a lot of forces combined to give us a salt dome or a vein of gold or a waterfall.
We were drawn to the Highlands of Scotland, because we are, both of us, northerners by temperament. During the summers when our children were still at home, our month-long camping trips took us to Newfoundland, Quebec, British Columbia, Northern California, Ontario, the Maritimes, and the cooler latitudes of Europe. And Australia, in their winter.
We love the kind of forests we’ve found here, pine and spruce and birch, and the cold streams of clear water rushing over rocks from mountains like we see all around us. We pull on fleece jackets, hats, and rain gear before making coffee in the back of our van. This campsite between the villages of Glencoe and Kinlochleven is on the site of a World War I prisoner of war camp on the River Leven, at 56 degrees north latitude, the same as southern Hudson Bay and the Alaska panhandle.
Here’s the view (below), as the sun finally comes up over the mountains. This part of Scotland was emptied of its farmers and herders in the 1700’s and 1800’s by the British government at the behest of the largest landlords. Half the land in Scotland, even now, in 2016, is owned by fewer than 500 people, most of them “Lairds” (Lords) and a lot of them not even Scots. The country feels spacious, if not empty: there are 5 million people in Scotland, and 56 million in England, which is not even twice as big as Scotland.
One of the remarkable sights we saw in our five days in the Highlands was this section (below) of the Caledonian Canal, built from 1803 to 1822. It’s called Neptune’s Staircase, and consists of seven locks, each one 180 feet long. The staircase lifts boats 60 feet in the hour and a half required to go from one end to the other. Soon after it was built, however, much longer ships came into use, and the locks have been kind of quiet.
The Caledonian Canal is the small, human-made section of that amazing diagonal cut across Scotland starting NE of Inverness and going between the S and the C in “SCOTLAND” in the map below. It’s called the Great Glen. It’s part of a very old fault where tectonic plates are sliding alongside of each other. When the fault was first formed, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Greenland, and the Canadian coast were all scrunched together and what’s now Inverness was, 400 million years ago, not far from Newfoundland. Since then, the Atlantic has been stretching wider and wider from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The most famous thing on the Great Glen is Loch Ness. We spent a long weekend with our son Carter and his wife of four weeks, Jennifer, right there: Loch Ness.
After lunch yesterday, some knitters piled out of their minivans and assembled ten cartons-full of Loch Ness Monsters and other plush toys they had made for this group photo. That’s the Loch in the background, and ten Loch Ducks. There is no scientific evidence for Nessie, but plenty of credulous knitters keep the legend alive.