The Angry Corrie 71: Jul-Sep 2007

The other Hutton Inquiry

Hutton's Arse: 3 billion years of extraordinary geology in Scotland's Northern Highlands

by Malcolm Rider, Rider-French Consulting Ltd, 2005, ISBN 0 9541906 1 0, ix+214pp, 16.99

Review: Paul Gardner

GOOD TITLE, good enough for me to pick it up in the bookshop in the artists' village at Durness (well worth visiting, by the way, as is the chocolatier next door). The blurb on the back also looked hopeful, as I've always felt I should know something about geology but have never got round to it. Hutton's Arse is "a book for non-specialists interested in science, scientists and lovers of the Northern Scottish Highlands".

"Eccentric" is the word that comes to mind. Hutton's Arse consists of seven chapters, with each except the last hung on a specific geological feature in northern Scotland. Each feature is used to explain some geological principles, and the explanations are often good. The evocation of the enormous canyons that existed at what is now Stoer is excellent, as is the description of how they got there and what happened next. The principle of a thrust fault is compared to the construction of the Dornoch Firth bridge. Similarly, it's useful to know it took only 400 million years for humans to evolve from fish, compared to the 4560 million years during which the earth has been a recognisable entity. The earth is really very old, and for most of that time the only interesting thing happening on the planet was geology.

However, in many chapters the explanation of geological principles wanders around a bit. Questions are set up but often not directly answered. It's sometimes not clear when the argument goes from standard accepted geology to "new theories [...] which are not yet generally accepted", as it says on the back cover. Nothing wrong with new theories and iconoclasm, but in a book aimed at the non-specialist such as me, clear distinctions are needed between the rock-solid, the new theory, and personal speculation.

Personalities are introduced, but often too briefly to come alive. Probably the greatest coverage (in chapter three, one of the best) is given to the 19th-century geologist and writer Hugh Miller - but, after a biography of a page or so, he appears only as a source of quotations. Hutton himself doesn't appear until the last chapter, which turns out to be "not about James Hutton but is inspired by him".

His arse is even less prominent: he just complained about the amount of time he had to spend on a horse to explore remote areas. It is clear that the book's title was chosen only to grab attention and sales. It's annoying to realise that this tabloid trick worked on me.

image from source document

The eccentricity becomes more noticeable in chapter five, "The Coming Ice Age". Rider believes that "fashionable ideas are likely to be wrong". This sounds like someone who likes his own new ideas but damns those of others as "fashionable". And on the specific Volume of global warming, Rider seems to deny the problem because it's fashionable, and because humans are clearly far too puny to affect the planet the way big important geology does. Another ice age is likely sometime, he says, something with which most scientists would agree. Therefore we're all doomed, so stop bleating about unproven global warming. Fewer scientists would agree with this as a strategy. We may not be able to avert the risk of an ice age sometime in the next 10000 years, but we certainly can and should do something about the risk, within the next 50 years, of large-scale species extinction, widespread starvation and enormous movements of refugees prepared to risk their lives to get into the lucky countries.

Rider's strong dislike of windfarms in the Highlands appears in this chapter, and then forms the epilogue. I am a wind-turbine engineer, so I don't expect TAC readers to regard my views here as unbiased. But rarely have I read such an irrational rant on the subject. For example: "How can the blade of a bulldozer ripping up 6000 years of beautifully preserved archaeology be saving the environment?" Well, it doesn't. Extensive archaeological surveys have to be carried out as part of the planning application process, and any archaeological site found has to be protected during construction. There are many other such inaccuracies in the epilogue.

Errors actually litter the book. I'm not a geologist, so I can't tell if there are scientific errors, but there are plenty of mistakes in grammar, punctuation and particularly spelling, such as Lock Assynt, Connival, Malaig. Half of TAC's readership won't care about this; the other pedantic half will delight in finding them. There are also errors of fact. Canisp is a Norse name, not Gaelic. A document is dated 1907 in one place, 1914 in another. This is strange in a book otherwise beautifully produced: good pictures, nice paper, clear layout, good index.

It's certainly an interesting book to review, but is probably not the most solid single-book introduction to the geology of the northern Highlands. Those interested in the history of British science, or specifically geology, will find more in other books at lower cost. If, however, you spend time outdoors in the northern Highlands, then Hutton's Arse will help you see and understand more. You'll learn interesting disconnected chunks rather than a firm grounding in geology - things that are useful if you want to shine in pub conversations in Ullapool and Lochinver. Did you know, for instance, that glaciation as the major factor shaping the Highlands was only seriously proposed in 1840, and even then not generally accepted? Or that the blue-green slime which, over a very long time indeed, put the all-important oxygen into the atmosphere, actually did the job 20 times over, because for most of that very long time the oxygen just got used up rusting all the raw iron lying around?

Interesting subject, flawed book.

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