Siccar Point and Hutton’s Unconformity


When I walked the Berwickshire Coastal Path in the winter I meant to go down to Siccar Point, the site of a famous feature known as Hutton’s Unconformity, and just didn’t have time, which I was disappointed about – so recently I finally got round to going back there, because it’s not often that you get to see Enlightenment science just sitting there in front of you!

An unconformity is a gap in the sequence of rocks – in this case the older rocks are 65 million years older than the newer rocks – and if I’m understanding it correctly, the point is that this gives time for the older rocks to have been worked on in various ways – squashed and folded and worn away. And the real point is the sheer amount of time this must have taken – Hutton‘s work in the 1780s is the start of the move from biblical time to geological time.

At Siccar Point the older rocks are greywacke (and definitely grey), tipped up until the strata are almost standing on end, and the newer rocks are red sandstone, still in vertical layers – Hutton’s trip there to study the rocks was by boat, but it’s all quite visible looking down from the top of the point.

Siccar Point

It’s probably only visible if you can land by boat, and even then possibly only to an expert, but one thing that really excited Hutton was that the older rocks still show ripple marks from having been laid down in water, as well as the results of later pressure – another sign of gradual processes, not one great cataclysmic event.

Rocks at the foot

Hutton owned farms in the area, and it seems to have been work on improving the land which first raised his interest in geology – he had already been involved in chemistry experiments and a chemical business.

It wasn’t on the signs at the point, but I know I’ve read somewhere that it was the mix of red and grey stones in the field walls that set him looking in this area for what he wanted, and it’s still a striking local feature today!

Finding David Douglas

I was still very interested in David Douglas after reading about him, so when I found out that a short film had been made about his life by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, I was pleased to see that it was also available from the Scottish Forestry Commission – and actually when I contacted them to see if this was still the case they offered to send me a copy for free, which was very nice of them (I’m not sure if they were pleased someone was still interested a few years later, or just hoping to get rid of it!)

It’s a good potted history of Douglas, with the inevitable focus on the second voyage with the surviving journals, but there’s plenty to look at even if you know the story – and it includes all my favourite quotes.

It’s been beautifully made – even artistically. There’s no attempt at reenactment (unless you count a brief piece of footage from a modern sailing ship) – instead it’s a mix of modern film of places he visited, and 18th and 19th century drawings and painting and engravings of those places, with a voiceover which is partly narration and partly readings from Douglas’s own writing. People mentioned are introduced by their portraits, and plants mentioned are again a mix of modern filming and some beautiful botanical illustrations. Apart from it being interesting to see contemporary ideas of the scenes, the contrast can be quite striking – particularly the change from a busy York Factory to an isolated relic.

Mixed in with this are interviews – with botanists and forestry people in the UK, and local experts in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, and this includes looking at specific artefacts – herbarium specimens at Kew, and accounts in the Hudson’s Bay Company archives in Manitoba, as well as visiting the sites of Douglas’s death and burial in Hawaii.

The sound is slightly out of sync with the the picture during the interviews, which makes them feel odd (possibly it’s like that all the time and it just doesn’t show during voiceovers, or possibly something went wrong fitting in the parts filmed in the UK) – and the voice used for reading Douglas’s own words is a bit disconcerting to a Scot, reminding me more of the Glaswegian Alan McManus than anyone from rural Perthshire. But it’s the right kind of voice, sounding slightly reluctant to be speaking in public, and anyway I forgave them that since they pronounced ‘Scone’ and ‘Menzies’ right!

The ending amused me – the film was made partly by the Scottish Forestry Commission, and so it finished with praise for Douglas’s trees, covering Scottish hillsides which were once bare. Forestry monoculture is not something which most people admire, although it had been done a bit better in the Perthshire landscape they were showing us than in some places (and there has been a lot of work done on more sympathetic replanting recently).

The website seems to have died just in the last few weeks, but there is still an archive copy with a lot of information about the film, including a full transcript, and short video clips – it’s well worth having a look.

Collingwood Society: Supplying the fleet

This month’s Collingwood Society talk was looking at the logistics of supplying a fleet, particularly Collingwood’s Mediterranean fleet – although it turned out to be more about naval supplies and administration in general, which was still interesting but not quite what I had hoped for.

Two books were mentioned as particularly inspiring on the subject – Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory by Roger Knight and The Command of the Ocean by N.A.M. Rodger, which is a more general naval history, as well as the logs of Cass Halliday, who was master of the fleet and in charge of its supplies. Rodger had claimed that the main developments of the period were financial and administrative rather than purely military or technical, and this was one of the themes of the talk.

We did start with a brief look at the Mediterranean fleet – the biggest at the time, with 119 ships and around 33000 men, just keeping busy – blockading the main French fleets and disrupting smaller shipping, supporting army movements and local allies, and carrying on diplomatic negotiations with all sorts of people in the area – I’d have liked to hear more about this, because I know that some supplies were bought locally, and that local allies were important in various ways, and I always enjoy details.

Despite the contained area of the Mediterranean there were still some pretty big distances involved – 1300 miles and 6 weeks to Gibraltar from the stores at Plymouth, and another 1100 miles from Gibraltar to Malta, which was the main central base by this stage of the war – and planning was going on 12 months in advance, because the victualling yards in England had to have the supplies in stock to be able to send them out. But despite the difficulties, it seemed to be working well – the fleet surgeon of the time complained that he had nothing to do, whereas there had been an outbreak of scurvy in the Atlantic.

The victualling board, based at Deptford, had responsibility for feeding the army overseas as well as the navy at home and abroad – a total of about 230000 men. Locally the Deptford yard provided fresh food, but mainly it was sending out dried and preserved food to other depots and as ships’ stores – slaughtering huge numbers of animals and salting the meat, and baking on a large scale.

Scotland was the main source of beef at the time – cattle brought down from the Highlands to the tryst at Falkirk, and then walked on south – but pigs can’t be droved in the same way, because they get thin, and so the main area for farming pigs was in South London, where they were fed on brewery waste! There was also a nice detail about the cows – they were generally shod for the long walk south, once they were walking on roads, but a cow can’t lift up one foot at a time, and so has to be shod while lying down.

In the Mediterranean there were agent victuallers at Gibraltar and Malta, where ships would be resupplied, and some food was bought locally by ship’s pursers – an example was given of bullocks being bought at Constantinople for the local fleet and brought onto the flagship, which then sent them out in boats to each ship.

As well as food and other stores, the dockyards were also sending out guns and ammunition, and taking ships back for repairs and refitting – a ship would generally serve for about three years before being sent home for a complete overhaul.

There were six dockyards operating in this period, all along the south coast to be within reach of the Admiralty overseers – mainly working on repairs rather than building, and the ships that were being built were mainly smaller ones – there was much more work for frigates than for ships of the line. (Apparently by this stage a quarter of the navy’s ships of the line had been built by other countries and taken as prizes, which is a useful way of getting new ships, although it would be interesting to know how many British-built ships were in other navies!)

The navy was the biggest user of guns and used the heaviest guns – the army tended to want lighter guns which could be moved from place to place. A new development of the period was carronades, with a shorter barrel and larger mouth – these were named after the Carron works at Falkirk which produced them, and had originally been designed for the merchant navy, as they could be fired by a much smaller crew. A more accurate type of long gun was also introduced by the Blomefield works – these were bored from a single piece of iron rather than by cast in pieces in a mould, which made the bore smoother and the shape more uniform, and the method was a closely guarded secret.

Government spending of the time was almost all either military or on loan repayment – in 1793 loans brought in about 70% of the government’s income, although this had fallen to about 20% by 1811, largely due to the introduction of the income tax and increased tax income.

This led to an interesting cycle – if trade could be increased, there would be more income, which meant more taxes paid on it – and more money could then be spent on the navy, which was needed to protect the trade routes, and promote the increase of trade. The Baltic fleet in particular was created not for any specific military purpose, but to protect the important Baltic trade.

Overall an interesting talk, even if it didn’t tell me nearly as much about Collingwood’s fleet as I would have liked.

Throwback: The Collingwood monument


For all my writing about monuments, I never seem to have got round to what for me is *the* monument – Collingwood at Tynemouth. I don’t visit as often as I once did – I don’t end up in Newcastle by myself as much – but I try to get down for Trafalgar Day when I can, and it’s still a nice place to go.

These pictures are from the first time I ever visited, in December 2009 – you can tell that by the amount of frost on the ground!

Monument inscription

As it says on the inscription, the monument was erected in 1845 – 35 years after Collingwood’s death. So on the one hand they were in no hurry, but on the other he was obviously still remembered and well thought of at the time.

The statue on the top is looking a bit weather beaten, and I’ve always found it a bit amusingly classical, but I like the way it stands looking out to sea.

Collingwood statue

The four cannon at the base of the monument are from Royal Sovereign, Collingwood’s ship at Trafalgar. The second time I visited, for the 200th anniversary of Collingwood’s death in March 2010, they had somehow rigged them up to pretend to fire.


I love this next photo – the statue stands out surprisingly well from all around, because it’s at the top of a steep bank, but I just like the idea of Collingwood casting a long shadow on his surroundings!

Collingwood’s shadow

I’m not sure why Tynemouth – it doesn’t seem to be personal connection, and part of me thinks that a memorial in Morpeth would be more appropriate (although there is one now) – but it does mean that there’s a wonderful view of the river, and the high and low lights (the old lights must also be in the picture, although they’re harder to pick out). And it also means that everyone entering or leaving the river has Collingwood watching over them, which I think was probably in the minds of the people who chose that site.

View of the Tyne