Since giving the public lectures, Hutton had been remarkably successful in finding convincing proof that extreme subterranean heat was an active agent in the formation of the continents. Although this finding alone was significant, it did not necessarily follow that intense heat had led to the raising of new land above the oceans to replace the eroded land of former regions. Hutton needed to find an exposure of rocks that somehow demonstrated his theorized cycle.
Discovering such an outcrop was the quest of the three sailors as they plied the waters of the North Sea. Hutton had chosen to investigate here because he knew that this part of Scotland had two distinct types of surface rock. What was believed to be the older of the two was a smooth, grayish stone that mineralogists labeled "primary micaceous schistus" (today it is called Silurian graywacke)a type of shale. The other, younger rock, a coarse reddish stone, Hutton called the "secondary sandstone strata" (today it is called the Upper Old Red Sandstone). The doctor was convinced that the two rock groups represented two separate erosion-sedimentation-uplift cycles, and that at some location the younger rock (the coarse red sandstone) must come in contact with, and actually cover, the older rock (the gray smooth stone). There was a chance that the junction of the two formations would be visible on the coast, thanks to the intense erosion inflicted by the pounding winds and water of the North Sea.
The men could conceivably have avoided using the boat, and the attendant risk of the sea, by hiking along the coast. However, it was so ruggedthere were ravines to cross, steep rock faces to climb, and hills to circumnavigatethat it would have taken days to see everything they were hoping to see on this one day. Besides, Hutton was too old to conduct the exploration by land.
After leaving the spot where they boarded the boat, the Dunglass Burn beach, they sailed along a jagged coastline. The mild weather and low tide allowed them to sail near the shore, and the early afternoon sun gave maximum exposure to the cliffs on their right. The rocks were from 50 to 70 feet high, grass and moss covering the tops. The relentless pummeling by the North Sea gave the sharp juttings an ominous, almost clawlike shape.
About a half mile from Dunglass Burn, the boat came to the first headland, Reed Point. The explorers rounded the point but could detect no unusual formations from the boat; all that was visible was the dominant primary schistus. Hutton decided not to land, and the boat continued southward. They had to be extra careful along the next stretch of coast because, in addition to the rugged cliffs, the waves broke against large rocks protruding from the sea.
After several hundred yards, the boat skimmed past the next headland, and the men turned their heads to witness a spectacular scene. Pease Bay dug deeply into the coast and was marked by a beautiful sandy beach stretching from end to end, at least 200 yards long. What was striking was not the beach itself, but the rock formation that emerged from it. Rising out of the sand, like a snake, was a beautiful red sandstone outcrop, which seemed to burst out of the beach at a low 20-degree angle. The red rocks grew to form a 50-foot cliff. The formation was covered with a thin coating of grass and moss, but enough had been "cleaned" by the surf that the strata were clearly visible. These were the secondary strata that Hutton was looking for. Still, as beautiful as this exposure was, it did not contain the combination of rock layers that Hutton hoped to find.
Excerpted from The Man Who Found Time by Jack Repcheck. Copyrighted by Jack Repcheck 2003, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Perseus Publishing.
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