I am regularly surprised by the number of secrets Edinburgh manages to conceal – the latest being a little memorial garden to the geologist James Hutton, tucked away just behind one of the university sports halls, where I’ve delivered exam papers dozens of times, but invisible until you know it’s there.
Hutton was born and brought up in Edinburgh, attending the Royal High School and the university before going to study medicine in Paris and Leiden, although his family had Berwickshire roots, and it was while living on a family farm in the Borders that he first became interested in geology.
He returned to live in Edinburgh in 1770, to a house in St John’s Hill on the site of the current garden, which was a fashionable area on the edge of the old town at the time. (It’s just on the edge of respectability now – St John’s Hill itself is all fairly new flats, but the garden has university buildings on one side and the road running up to the Dumbiedykes flats on the other.)
The main block is carved with Hutton’s most famous statement, ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ – geological processes, as he saw them, were never in a finished state, but constant – rocks were being worn away now to be deposited elsewhere later, as today’s rocks had been deposited in the past, while pressure and heat were distorting and transforming rocks in the same ways as could be seen in ancient rocks.
The smaller rocks are from locations where he had made discoveries supporting his ideas – schist from Glen Tilt with granite veins running through it, where the granite has penetrated older rock while molten, and conglomerates from near Dunblane containing pebbles of older rocks.