Monday, August 18, 2008

Following the Trail of James Hutton in the Rain

I went on a country trip this morning with a colleague who specialised in geology, which he taught for many years at university. Our expedition was to visit Slighhouses farm, deep in the Berwickshire countryside, south of Edinburgh that once belonged to James Hutton, author the ‘Theory of the Earth’ (1788).

It was Hutton's passionate interest in what we now call geology that led him to announce that the world was not a mere 6,000 years old, as was confidently fixed by Bishop Uusher from his time-line for the Biblical Eden Garden, but which was appropriately of an age for which there was ‘no vestige of a beginning. No prospect of an end.’

James Hutton was a close friend and intellectual confident of Adam Smith and when Smith died in 1790, Hutton and his other close friend, Joseph Black (a professor of chemistry at the university of Edinburgh (previously the chair at Glasgow) were Smith’s joint executors.

On Smith’s detailed instructions, they burned 16 volumes of his unpublished papers, among which was the ms of the long-promised (since 1759) book on how civil government ‘ought’ to be arranged (Lectures in Jurisprudence) , but (and forever in the gratitude of scholars), they arranged the posthumous publication of Smith'sHistory of Astronomy’ in 1795.

‘Slighhouses’ is still a working farm (now worked by the Marshall family). The farm house still stands and is in the traditional 18th-century style.

It was raining fairly heavily (at least to me, but maybe not to a farmer – or a duck) so we did not have an inclination to hang about. A mile or so up the road we stopped at a Farmers Shop (owned by the Marshalls’) in which they have mounted a professional-looking museum exhibition about James Hutton, his geological works (his discoveries of the ‘uncomformity’ at Siccar’s Point on the nearby coast, and at a nearby River Jed at Jedburgh), and his connections with the Scottish Enlightenment.

My friend, Norman Butcher, explained the geology of these discoveries and the importance Hutton’s geological speculations. As a close friend and regular dining companion of Smith’s at his Sunday soirées at Panmure House and the more risqué nearby Oyster Club, Smith would have been well aware of the challenges of Hutton’s work to the widely believed Biblical accounts.

Going back nigh on 50 years, I remember how geology students used to moan about their compulsory fieldwork, incessantly accompanied by cold and rain that were their main features, compared to warm library sessions of we economists. Today, I understand how they felt…



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