Trip report: Siccar Point, Berwickshire, Scotland (“a geologic pilgrimage”)

Who travels to Scotland and passes on the opportunity to visit Edinburgh so that they can walk through fields of cows and look at rocks? We do.

In July 2014, we were in Scotland visiting family and exploring as much as we could in the time we had (about 11 days). One of my earth-and-space-science-teaching-husband’s must-dos for the trip was to visit Siccar Point, an area of geologic significance about 35 miles east of Edinburgh near the village of Cockburnspath.

We arrived at a small parking lot off the beaten track to find just one other car. As we got ready to start our short hike to Siccar Point (about 1km), an older gentleman arrived back at the gate. I asked him if it was worth the walk, and he said it was a “geologic pilgrimage”.

Remains of St. Helen’s Chapel not far from the parking lot.

The Scottish Borders Council has put together a Border Brains Walks Guide (2011), which includes information about the “James Hutton Walk” at Siccar Point. From this publication:

What Sir Isaac Newton did for our understanding of space, the Berwickshire farmer and doctor James Hutton did for our understanding of the planet and the immensity of time. Before Hutton’s investigations into the rocks and strata at Siccar Point, the Earth was assumed to be only 6,000 years old, but he proved this figure almost a million times too small. Scientists today think the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

More information can be found on the Scottish Geology website and on the Edinburgh Geological Society website.

Walking to Siccar point.

We headed towards the Atlantic Ocean, and joined a path which runs along the edge of the cliff. We walked through 2 fields, separated by a gate. The cows weren’t bothered by us at all. In fact, we were more wary of the cows! They were on both sides of the path, and since we didn’t want to get too close to them, we carefully made our way closer to Siccar Point. One little guy quite enthusiastically expressed his desire to play!

Playful cow!

Finally we reached the point where the trail headed down a very steep path to the ocean. We held the fence as we climbed down, and at times, found it easier to go down the hill backwards.

Scottish coastline.
Navigating the steep hill.
The path down to the rocks.

We were rewarded at the bottom with a beautiful spot and gorgeous views. We even found a small cave with bird nests and climbing hooks.

Spot the black and grey bird in the brown nest!

We were completely alone the entire time, from the moment we left the older gentleman, to the time we returned to our car.

We decided not to rush our visit to Siccar Point and spend as much time as we wanted, scrapping our plan to head for Edinburgh!

This. This is Siccar Point.

More detailed information from my husband Alasdair:

James Hutton (1726-1797) is considered the father of modern geology.  Prior to his ideas taking hold, it was believed that all geological features were created in catastrophic events (earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.).  This is now referred to as ‘catastrophism’.  Hutton, a Scotsman who spent a great deal of time in the farmlands and wading in streams, observed that he could feel the particles in those streams hitting his ankles, and also observed them slowly wearing away the banks and depositing soil elsewhere.  He realized that, given sufficient time, simple and slow processes such as these could account for most – if not all – of the geological features we observed.  This included erosion and deposition, as well as events resulting from continental drift.  Scholars at the time worked out that the time required was on the order of at least 2 million years.

More rocks at Siccar Point.

Hutton’s Unconformity refers to a geologic feature that doesn’t follow one of the three basic principles of stratification: 1) sediments deposit in horizontal layers, 2) a single layer should be present at the same level throughout a region, and 3) layers are deposited in order of time – oldest at the bottom and youngest at the top.  Some features, though, seem to deviate from these rules, as a result of the catastrophic events mentioned earlier (and some slow events as well).  In this case, the layers are not horizontal as they would have been as deposited, so we can deduce that after they were deposited, something happened to tilt the region and create this ‘unconformity’.  Future geologists, finding this tilted layer buried under more sedimentary rock layers, would be able to determine in what order the layers were made, and pinpoint (geologically) when the event happened to cause the unconformity.

Not sure what this little bird had in its beak.

We had a great time exploring the area, and would highly recommend making the trek to Siccar Point!

2 thoughts on “Trip report: Siccar Point, Berwickshire, Scotland (“a geologic pilgrimage”)

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