By David Cox
A rocky, remote outcrop in Scotland inspired the realisation that the Earth was millions of years old – and led Charles Darwin to his theory of evolution.
“Just a bit further, round the next bend,” my guide Jim said, as our fishing boat pitched and rolled in the choppy waters of the North Sea. It was hardly reassuring. But as we lurched from side to side, I reminded myself that the purpose of our trip was worth it. We were re-tracing a 230-year-old voyage that forever changed humanity’s perspective of the history of the Earth – and even of time itself.
Our destination was Siccar Point. I’d visited earlier that day, but on foot. Standing on the cliffs high above the point, about an hour’s drive (and a short coastal walk) east of Edinburgh, I had felt the undeniable sense of being at a boundary. Far below, steep shards of grey rock plunged into the frothing sea. At the clifftops all around, though, the rocks took on a reddish tinge.
But to really appreciate the wonder of Siccar Point, probably the most famous geological site in the world, you have to see it by boat.
Suddenly Jim tapped me on the shoulder. “Up ahead,” he pointed. As we drew closer, I began to make out the outcrop’s telltale layers. Up close, the contrast between the vertical sheets of oceanic rock along the bottom of the cliff and the horizontal layers of sandstone high above were clearly visible.
Back in 1788, few people understood the significance of that contrast. It took an Enlightenment thinker – 62-year-old farmer James Hutton, who made this journey around Siccar Point more than two centuries ago – to realise that it proved the existence of ‘deep time’.
Long before Hutton arrived, Siccar Point was a site of historical and geographic importance. More than 1,000 years earlier, the ancient Britons built a small hill fort here to warn off invaders from the north. But no-one had realised how Siccar Point illustrated the story of the Earth itself.