Jedburgh's artistic tribute to 'father of modern geology'

A HUGE stone sculpture is being erected in Lothian Park, Jedburgh, to celebrate the remarkable achievements of a Borders geologist, writes Andrew Keddie.

James Hutton's studies of sedimentary rock at the end of the 18th century changed long-held perceptions about the age of our planet.

"Until then, people accepted the ecclesiastical wisdom that the earth was formed in 4004BC," explained John Dent, Scottish Borders Council chief archaeologist.

Hutton, a farmer from Berwickshire, became fascinated with the unusual rock formations on the banks and bed of the Jed Water.

At Inchbonny, just south of Jedburgh, he discovered what was later to become known as "Hutton's Unconformity" – the geological term for a junction between two layers of rock which had not been deposited in a continuous sequence.

In this case, vertical layers of graywacke or shale from the Silurian period – some 400 million years old – were overlaid by horizontal layers of sandstone from the Devonian period around 30 million years later.

By studying this site on the west bank of the river and similar examples on the east coast near St Abbs, Hutton developed theories on geology and geomorphology which laid the foundation for modern earth sciences.

"I doubt if geology will ever be sexy, but this is an extremely important site," enthused Mr Dent.

"It earned Hutton the title 'the father of modern geology' and his work here challenged the Biblical accounts of creation accepted at that time and inspired ensuing generations."

The task of raising the profile of the phenomenon has been taken up by the Lottery-backed Tweed Rivers Interpretation Project (TRIP) which has worked on a number of sites within the catchment, improving signage, access and presenting their stories in an imaginative way.

Original plans to open up the conformity to public access had to be sacrificed on the altar of health and safety.

"Not only is the feature overgrown and on private land, but our engineers told us it was unsafe to contemplate creating a pathway because of the steep escarpment down to the river," said Mr Dent.

Instead, it was decided to commission a piece of evocative contemporary art in picturesque Lothian Park, half-a-mile downstream and in the shadows of Jedburgh Abbey. The work, entitled "The Eel", is being undertaken by Dumfriesshire artist Max Nowell who specialises in traditional stone dyking.

The winding sculpture – around 40 feet long and nine feet tall at its highest point – will interpret the unconformity using locally quarried whin stone, to represent the ancient shale, topped with coursed sandstone from Berwickshire.

Joined at the site by Mr Dent on Monday, Mr Nowell said he hoped his creation would chime with the phrase which closes "Theory of the Earth", Hutton's 1788 book … "we see no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end".

The sculpture will take around three weeks to complete and will complement a new interpretation panel on Hutton and his work at the entrance to the park.