Book review: Hutton’s Arse: 3 billion years of extraordinary geology in Scotland’s Northern Highlands (2nd edition), by Malcolm Rider and Peter Harrison

Jon Trevelyan (UK)

If you can see past the somewhat robust title (a reference to James Hutton’s discomfort riding around Scotland on horseback during his geological investigations), this is an interesting read, combining both geological science and humour in just about the right measures.

I know the Northern Highlands of Scotland and quite well, and have appreciated its gorgeous scenery for many years. And anyone who is reading this review will probably know, this beauty has been created by a geological history lasting over three billion years.

This new and updated edition takes the reader through that unimaginably long time in the context of Scotland’s rich geological heritage, introducing its rocks, visiting the relevant places, introducing famous researchers (Ben Peach and John Horne being perhaps the most famous, along with Roderick Murchison and Archibald Geike) and then broaching the geological theories that have been inspired by these. And like all good reads, the authors take these specific instances and then expand the ideas to cover the broad sweep of geological history and theory. For example, discussion of early Scotland during the red-desert world of the Torridonian leads inexorably to a discussion of modern Mars.

In this way, the subjects covered include the splitting of the North Atlantic Ocean, early continent formation, billion-year-old bacteria, snowball earth and climate change. All of this is written for non-specialists interested in modern geology, scientists and just those who are lovers of the Northern Scottish Highlands. I am not sure that I agree with the authors’ take on the fact that climate change in the past has occurred without the input of man. We know this is true, but that is not a reason to be complacent about what we are doing to the climate now. This, and the fact that there are few mistakes that a good subeditor could have dealt with, are the only (minor) quibbles I have about the book. It is well worth a read, particularly if you are on your way to, or actually in, the Highlands.

Malcolm Rider has been involved in the hydrocarbon industry for more than 30 years and is still very much involved in the industry by travelling the world, presenting specialist courses and advising on oil exploration techniques. Peter Harrison has lived in the northwest Highlands for 40 years, working as a teacher and geosciences educator. He also leads geotours for the North West Highlands UNESCO Global Geopark.

Hutton’s Arse: 3 billion years of extraordinary geology in Scotland’s Northern Highlands (2nd edition), by Malcolm Rider and Peter Harrison, Dunedin, Edinburgh (2019), 262 pages (softback and also available as an eBook), ISBN: 978-1-780-46093-2

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