Jan 212015

Elspeth Jajdelska, University of Strathclyde

salisbury crags 2

Salisbury Crags is a ridge of rock on one side of Edinburgh’s mountain, Arthur’s Seat. In the late eighteenth century, Edinburgh scientist James Hutton, known later as the ‘Father of Geology’, used the Crags to develop his theory of the earth as an ancient system of heat and rock in constant (if slow) change. This was a radical departure from the idea of the earth as created in seven days some few thousand years ago. Hutton’s account had its own poetry – ‘we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ – but his description of the Crags themselves is detached and factual: ‘These masses of whinstone are from three or four to an hundred feet thick, running parallel in planes inclined to the horizon’ (Theory of the Earth, vol.1, 1795).

Charles Darwin recorded one visit to the Crags in both human and geological time. In a letter to his cousin, he mentioned that ‘a solitary walk on Salisbury crags’ had called up ‘old thoughts of former times’ as a medical student in the city. But in his field notes he describes the crags in the language of geology.

Hutton’s discoveries had surprisingly little impact on literary descriptions. The late eighteenth century had already seen a shift in feelings about mountains. In the 1690s, the Leeds diarist Ralph Thoresby had described mountains as hazards, ‘dangerous, terrible and tedious’, hellish enemies of man, which could be tamed by God alone, breaking them with ‘earthquakes and tempests’ (Diary of Ralph Thoresby).

Walter Scott, however, followed the taste of the romantics, for whom mountains were sublime and even gothic. In The Heart of Midlothianhe writes that, ‘The valley behind Salisbury Crags…has for a background the north-western shoulder of the mountain called Arthur’s Seat, on whose descent still remain the ruins of what was once a chapel, or hermitage, dedicated to St. Anthony the Eremite. A better site for such a building could hardly have been selected; for the chapel, situated among the rude and pathless cliffs, lies in a desert’.

Hutton’s findings were easily incorporated into this romantic view of the Crags. William Hazlitt wrote of them as the work of Nature the artist, operating at a scale beyond human capacity: ‘No imagination can toss and tumble about huge heaps of earth as the ocean in its fury can. A volcano is more potent to rend rocks asunder than the most splashing pencil’ (from The Elgin Marbles).

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