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A Journey into Scotland : Bibliography Part Four

Geography and Geology

Bouldering: Definition: The sport of climbing without ropes or other technical gear on boulders or relatively small rock faces. (Which is pretty much how I regard my ability and knowledge as a geographer)

I left school when I was 16. It wasn’t that I was giving up on learning. I always had an idea that I might want  top-up at some time. It was just a huge desire to get off someone else’s carousel and  find one of my own. Anything I did find wasn’t anything to write home about, but at least I could write home. In reality I was progressing from one job to another just as soon as each revealed that it didn’t have much to reveal. A girlfriend took me to the theatre about this time and that excited me more than what I was doing for a envelope of notes and coins and a payslip. Between jobs I signed on for some courses at night school. It wasn’t a sudden kindling of ambition but I was drawn to the warmth of the promise of a better place.

Camping on the strand, Arisaig

Camping on the strand, Arisaig

I didn’t stay out of work for long (standing in line to be quizzed, probed and insulted by a junior clerk in return for a giro cheque wasn’t my idea of a good career move) and the enlightened powers that be, at the technical school, informed me that I was going to have to decide which A level to drop because they couldn’t allow someone in full-time employment to take three. I quiver at the stupidity of this decision but at the time I accepted it. (It was half way through the second year of study). I couldn’t give up English Literature. I didn’t think much of the class and less of the teacher, but as it consisted of reading books and thinking about them it wasn’t a much of a burden. The same was true of British Government and Politics. This was a rattling good shindig with angry young voices once a week. So out went Geography, despite it being with the nicest bunch of people, and the fact that classes would as often take place on the moors as in the college.

In reality it didn’t make a big difference. I soon found myself working shifts and couldn’t make very many of the classes anyway. To get the certificates required  personal study. The college got a course fee and an empty desk most weeks. I did ok. I’d secured a passport to higher education if I ever needed to use it. The certificate said I was pretty good at understanding books and governance. There was nothing to show for 18 months of learning about incised meanders and soil profiles; geomorphology and plate tectonics. Well, nothing outward anyway. I’d bought the books and continued to buy the books. The teacher gave me a reading list and said the pity was not being able to take a geography degree. Not caring much for badges I read them anyway and topped them up with late night Open University programmes delivered by strange men with long hair and tank tops. I wasn’t finished with earth science.

Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis

You cannot get away from landscapes, in life or in art. In galleries I like a human face or two but you’ll more often find me standing before a painting of the ocean or some mountains. In music, I travel readily into Beethoven’s woods or Sibelius’s lakes or the wide open spaces and cloudscapes that Copeland reveals (once he’s got past the bloody hoe-downs!). My favourite westerns wouldn’t work without the epic settings. Odysseus is all very well but it’s the journey we’re really interested in. Give me the rock and the whirlpool. And the passion has remained. There are two things to admire in any landscape. The first being the way it is and the second, how it got to be that way. You can take them one by one or you can take them both together.

All of the early geography books, including the world atlas, were given to charity shops before they became outdated. One, at least was by Harry Robinson who I later got to know and like very much as he taught at the polytechnic where I spent 18 months as a caretaker. One was emerald green and turquoise which isn’t much help as publishers like inappropriate colours for geography text books. So they all belong in that part of my bibliography that has to go down as “stuff I learned from books years ago but just which books, I cannot remember.” A bit like someone asking “How do you know that?” when you get a question right on University Challenge*. “What do you mean “How do I know that?” I just bloody know it.

Glenfinnan: you will have seen the viaduct if you've watched the Harry Potter films.

Glenfinnan: you will have seen the viaduct if you’ve watched the Harry Potter films.

My second job in teaching was as a history master. Nobody quibbled. My second last job was teaching geography. The teacher in the next classroom liked causing problems and questioned my qualifications: three quarters of an A level, a degree in the humanities, thirty years in the classroom, a hill-walker and canoeist and a lifelong passion for the subject. She was a PE teacher who’d been shoved into the department  when she found she couldn’t keep up on the netball court. I never questioned her right to teach…but many of her students did.

The head of department was a fine geographer (as was the head teacher)  and we enjoyed long chats about delivering the subject. He knew what he was doing and I was happy to follow his schemes to the letter. He used the Geog 123 series of textbooks from Oxford University Press and they were excellent. They came with all sorts of extras of an interactive nature and were popular with classes working together and students learning independently. When I was at school our teachers wouldn’t accept new fangled theories about the movement of the earth’s surface. In this school, even with an English teacher in charge, the students were all pretty well-versed on tectonics  and knew more vulcanology than we required, at a much higher level in 1975, by the end of year 8 (aged 12/13). It was impressive to be a part of.

Glencoe 3

As a brick-layer I’m happy to split stones but in the field I don’t carry a hammer. Up in the wild north-west of Scotland you don’t need to hit anything to be awed by the rocks. As an aesthete I was thrilled; as a poet, inspired; as a geographer I was in seventh heaven.


Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell

In Scotland I was more taken with the story of the the development of geology as a subject than by the geology itself. The whole of this academic discipline grew out of Scotland, brilliant Scottish minds and Scottish rocks. This book has been over-taken many times by modern geologists but Charles Lyell was one of those giants who allowed others to stand on his shoulders in order to see a little further. Charles Darwin advises anyone reading On the Origin of Species to put his book aside until you have read Charles Lyell. As a lover of art and literature I was drawn to the book by it’s reported influence on George Eliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Ruskin among others. I enjoyed it as much for what it revealed of the scientific process as for the advances in geological thinking it contained.

Principles of Physical Geography by Arthur Holmes

I’ve had a copy of this for years and it has been quite a companion. In fact it has been my substitute teacher and go-to guide for anything that puzzled me about what goes on under the grass and heather. It was only when researching my re-telling of the story of geology in Scotland that I discovered just how important Holmes was to that very story. My copy is a fourth edition. The first edition, published in 1944 gave the world his reluctantly published hand-sketched drawings explaining how convection might (just might) explain the movement of the earth’s land masses (they didn’t become known as plates until 1968). It’s a university level text book; and a weighty tome. I haven’t read it from cover to cover but I have left tea stains and biscuit crumbs on more than half of its pages. If it isn’t the last word for the current generation, it is the last word for this enthusiastic amateur.

Professor Iain Stewart : Making Scotland’s Landscape BBC

I came upon these accidentally and very possibly when looking for some post pub late night television. They became must-see programmes and form the framework of my own telling of the story of rock science. Thanks to Youtube these are readily available and (again with tea and biscuits) I settled down and watched them, one after another, with a fat notebook and a fast moving pen. Seldom has a subject been so well expressed to a general audience without either simplifying or patronising. Iain Stewart has followed Michael Wood into that rare club of academic television presenters who are almost as much admired for themselves as for their knowledge of subject. I wasn’t over-bothered about his boyish good looks but his enthusiasm and love of subject went along way with me.


to be continued…


* My wife also left school at 16 and later forged a successful career as a teacher. Between us it is rare that we don’t score between 20 and 40 on University Challenge. And that’s only counting the ones we get before the students answer. Let’s hear it for the drop-outs!