Walking in the footsteps of James Hutton

EDINBURGH – The forecast this morning called for ‘heavy rain’, which is saying something in a country where it rains nearly every day. I figured there was no better day for a visit a cemetery… but more on that in a second.


When I arrived in Edinburgh yesterday with the group from the University of Illinois, we went directly to Holyrood Park and climbed up the Radical Road to the spot on Arthur’s Seat where James Hutton observed igneous rocks intruding through sedimentary rocks in 1785. While most of his original outcrops were evidently quarried out over 100 years ago, there are plenty of exposures remaining along a section at the foot of Salisbury Crags to provide a real sense of the cross cutting relationships he noted. This was a truly humbling experience. These exposures are among a select handful of outcrops that Hutton used to develop his thoughts on deep time, to formulate the Theory of Uniformitarianism, and to lay the foundations of modern geology.


This morning, I hid from the rain for a few hours and caught up on email, but I felt the need to pay Dr. Hutton a visit. After catching a ride into Old Town Edinburgh from my old friend, Robin Cathcart-Mudd (fellow UCSB alum), I set out to find the old Greyfriars Kirkyard. The kirkyard can be reached via a small, hidden alleyway directly across George IV Bridge Road from the National Museum of Scotland. Established in 1561, its cemetery is home of some of Edinburgh's most notable residents… and is purpoted to be one of the most haunted places in town.


Hutton’s grave lies in a southern section of the cemetery known as the Covenanters’ Prison. In 1679, there were no graves in this portion of the Kirkyard. Instead it was used as a prison to house more than a thousand supporters of the National Covenant during a turbulent period of Scottish history called The Killing Time (1661-1688). Tombs were added to this area in the 1700’s. The Greyfriars Kirkyard Trust has had trouble with people messing around in this portion of the cemetery and typically keep it locked up.


Dr. Hutton is buried here in the Balfour family vault (his mother’s family) and his grave is marked with a simple plaque that was not added unitl 1947, on the 150th anniversary of his death. in 1997, a Bicentennary International Conference celebrated his legacy with a eulogy by Professor Donald McIntyre that ended with, “today we have come to know that living creatures evolve, that the continents drift, that stars and galaxies are born, mature, grow old and die. We salute the memory of James Hutton, who opened our minds to these wondrous possibilities.”


I enjoyed my quiet moment with James Hutton on a cold, gray, rainy Scottish day. Such a small grave for such an important person. I wonder what he would say if he could see the impact he’s had on the scientific community.


If you wish to visit Hutton’s grave, please ask a Trust volunteer. They are very friendly and if they have time, are happy to unlock the gate.

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