The heritage trail at Siccar Point, Scotland
Commemorating an idea that did not work
High above the cliffs on the Scottish coast—60 km east of Edinburgh—is an interpretive billboard that overlooks a rocky point.1 It is part of a heritage trail opened in 2006, celebrating the life of James Hutton, a local farmer and physician who became known as the ‘father of modern geology’.2 He proposed the geological philosophy of uniformitarianism—that present geological processes are the key to understanding the rocks.
The locals are keen to capitalize on Siccar Point, claiming it is the most important geological site in the world.2 The story goes that these rocks led Hutton to conclude the earth was not made in six days. Rather, faulting and folding were important processes in the evolution of the landscape.3 The sign at the site says the rocks proved geological time was virtually unlimited, contrary to the few thousand years, which most people believed at that time.1
But Hutton did not discover deep time, he assumed it. That was partly because Hutton’s knowledge of geology in the late 1700s was seriously limited. He did not know that the lower Silurian rocks were turbidite beds, deposited rapidly from underwater density currents that sped across the ocean floor as fast as 100 km (60 miles) per hour.4 Neither did he know the upper strata were of a terrestrial origin, deposited from a vast expanse of fast flowing water that covered a large part of the continent, depositing thick, cross-bedded strata.5,6
But most significantly, Hutton assumed Noah’s Flood never happened. He did not appreciate the enormity of that global catastrophe, which involved faulting, folding, and immense deposition and erosion. During the Flood, the rocks at Siccar Point were eroded in days or weeks, not over millions of years.
Hutton is hailed as a father of modern geology for his philosophy of uniformitarianism, but ironically geologists now acknowledge that uniformitarianism does not work. Toward the end of his career, Derek Ager, professor of geology at Swansea, Wales, said of uniformitarianism, “We have allowed ourselves to be brain-washed into avoiding any interpretation of the past that involves extreme and what might be termed ‘catastrophic’ processes.”7
Hutton’s friend (and popularizer) John Playfair, who accompanied him by boat to Siccar Point in 1788, is famous for his impressions of that trip. He is quoted on the sign. “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”
However, as the son of a Presbyterian minister, it is unfortunate that Playfair did not connect his Bible with the world around him. A better response would have been, “The mind was sobered to look upon the enormity of God’s judgment at the time of Noah.”
Re-posted on homepage: 21 October 2020
References and notes
- Interpretation board, Siccar Point; geograph.org.uk/photo/2143249. Return to text.
- International interest in new James Hutton trail, Berwickshire News, 21 June 2006; berwickshirenews.co.uk/news/local-headlines/international-interest-in-new-james-hutton-trail-1-237894. Return to text.
- Siccar Point, Gazetteer for Scotland, 2011; scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst5590.html. Return to text.
- Fine, I.V. et al., The Grand Banks landslide-generated tsunami of November 18, 1929: preliminary analysis and numerical modelling, Marine Geology 215:45–57, 2005. Return to text.
- Browne, M., et al., Stratigraphical Framework for the Devonian (Old Red Sandstone) Rocks of Scotland south of a line from Fort William to Aberdeen, British Geological Survey, Research Report RR 01 04, p. 50, 2002; nora.nerc.ac.uk/3231/1/Devonian.pdf. Return to text.
- For a detailed geological analysis of Siccar Point see: Walker, T., Unmasking a long-age icon, Creation 27(1):50–55, 2004; creation.com/siccarpoint. Return to text.
- Ager, D., The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record, Macmillan, London, p. 70, 1993. Return to text.
- After this the landscape was eroded by ice sheets in the post-Flood Ice Age. Return to text.