2.2 Geology

History of Geological Research

By Kristian Pedersen

Geological research in south east Scotland has a distinguished pedigree, extending back to the very origins of the discipline with James Hutton’s studies of formations in Edinburgh and along the coasts of East Lothian and Berwickshire. It is not surprising that this landscape evoked such fascination, as the south east of Scotland affords sharply contrasting formations: from the low rolling landscape of the Forth Valley, to the stark hills of the Southern Uplands and Lammermuirs, to the flat expanse of the Lower Tweed.

Scenic photograph of the coastline. There is heather growing on the cliffs on the hills near the water.
The Berwickshire and East Lothian Coastline © James T M Towill (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Much subsequent research has been lavished on this region, much of it economically orientated and aimed at understanding the coal-producing Carboniferous formations. A significant number of studies have concerned the closure of the Iapetus Sea and the troughs, sutures, and accretionary prisms associated with this process (e.g. Beamish and Smythe 1986; Chadwick and Holliday 1991; Harinarayana et al 1993).

Geology and its Influence

A cursory summary of the solid formations is necessary, as these are relevant economically but also culturally. The importance of the rocks can be subsumed in one of the following five categories:

  1. Influence on topography
  2. Development of soils
  3. Raw materials for the production of stone tools
  4. Building materials
  5. Economic resources

A small corpus of literature has addressed the cultural significance of the solid formations. It is here apposite to only outline the cardinal studies, and to emphasise that there remains a significant amount of research to be undertaken in this vein. The influence on topography has been the subject of popular publications, which have explained the processes that formed the landscape familiar to us now (Clarkson and Upton 2006; 2010). This is pursued, too, in the pedological treatments of the region, but from the perspective of how the rocks contributed to the characteristics of the soils (Ragg and Futty 1967).

Lithic Raw Material

The distribution and accessibility of raw materials exploited during the Stone Age (Late Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, and the first half of the Bronze Age) is understood only in its lineaments (Wickham-Jones and Collins 1980). A seam of Cretaceous rock dips into the North Sea at Flamborough Head in Yorkshire and continues northward, coming within 40 km of the present coast. Embedded in this rock is flint, which washes up on the shores; this is often no larger than a fist in size, and is more commonly encountered as small pebbles. It is often riddled with fractures, possibly from being rolled in the sea, but also because it has been dragged in the glacial ice-sheets and thereby subject to immense pressures and/or frost-shattered.

Terrestrial deposits produce chert of various types, depending on whether these formed in the Ordovician and Silurian rocks of the Southern Uplands, or the Carboniferous rocks of Midlothian, East Lothian and the Lower Tweed Valley. As the flow of the ice-sheets here was west to east and into the Lower Tweed, chert pebbles from further afield might occur in the till deposits, but it is not certain whether this was ever a significant resource.

Photograph of the cliffs at St Abbs. There is a house on the cliffs to the right hand side.
The cliffs at St Abbs, just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, display Silurian rock © HES

Less commonplace were tools produced from other local resources, such as baked mudstone which occurs along the Firth of Forth, and the agates and quartzites that are found sporadically distributed throughout the region. Little interest has been exhibited in the quarrying and utilisation of locally occurring igneous and metamorphic rock in the production of axes.

Photograph of the cliffs of craigleath. The cliffs are in various shades of grey, with seabirds nesting on the rocks.
The geology of Craigleith seen from the Firth of Forth © Lisa Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Building Materials

The building materials afforded to the inhabitants of south east Scotland has been studied by architectural historians and geologists, particularly in relation to the origins of the stones used in the construction of buildings in Edinburgh and other large centres of population. As a rule, local stone was favoured in most building works prior to the 18th century and continued to be preferred for most vernacular architecture until the 20th century. The exception to this was the construction of large, high-status buildings, which sought out more exotic stone, or stones with particular characteristics, for aesthetic or status signifying purposes.

Economic Resources

The distribution of local quarries is well documented on many maps; however, there is poor chronological evidence for their utilisation. Moreover, the ultimate destination of these rocks – to buildings locally, or for use in building walls, bridges and so on – is rarely ever known. There is a similar uncertainty in the locations of mine shafts in those parts of the region where coal was extracted. Good maps and records exist for the 19th century, whereas there is little documentation for the earlier phases of mining. Most of the coal extraction occurred in Midlothian and East Lothian, but there may also have been some exploitation of the resource in the Lower Tweed Valley. It is a resource confined to the Carboniferous deposits, so wherever rocks of this era occur, there is a possibility that bell pits exist.