James Hutton (1726-1797) is one of Edinburgh’s great thinkers, and his insights have changed forever how we think about the world. Our walks in the 2019 Festival of Creative Learning followed in Hutton’s footsteps, through the streets that he called home, and allowed us to reflect on the passing of time: the time since Hutton lived here, the time that it has taken Edinburgh’s landscape to form, and the time we spend in Edinburgh.
We visited the site of James Hutton’s house at St John’s Hill, where he spent the last three decades of his life, and the place where he died in 1797. The exact spot is now a memorial garden, created by the University of Edinburgh and other organisations. The garden includes several boulders that illustrate Hutton’s ideas about the natural processes that have shaped Scotland. There is a boulder of conglomerate, containing rounded pebbles that could have come from a beach or river today, but are actually 400 million years old. And a boulder of metamorphic rock from Glen Tilt, with cross-cutting veins of granite, demonstrating Hutton’s understanding that granite is an igneous rock, formed by cooling of liquid magma deep underground. You can find out more about the Hutton Memorial Garden here.
Hutton’s great insight into how the world works, drawn from decades of thought and investigations around Scotland, was that the planet is shaped by slow, natural processes that operate on unimaginable timescales. And that these processes have not stopped: “the chain of physical events connected with the present state of things, sees great changes that have been made, and foresees a different state that must follow in time, from the continued operation of that which actually is in nature…”. Standing on the grass below Salisbury Crags, next to one of the boulders that has plunged down the steep slope in the last few years, we can glimpse the slow evolution of Edinburgh’s landscape and a “different state that must follow in time”. Edinburgh may have a big impact on us, but our individual impact on this landscape and this city is pretty insignificant – these crumbling hills will still be here long after we’ve gone!
Angus Miller, Centre for Open Learning