An enduring lesson of a Scottish Enlightenment genius – leader comment

An eroded path on Beinn a' Ghlo in the southern Cairngorms
An eroded path on Beinn a' Ghlo in the southern Cairngorms
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James Hutton realised how erosion could literally move mountains over millennia – and that should make us aware of the damage we can cause when taking to the hills.

Scotland’s mountains are old, seriously old. Our most ancient rocks in the Outer Hebrides and northwest Highland date back some 2.8 billion years. Much of the rock in the Highlands is hundreds of millions of years old.

So it perhaps not so surprising that Scotland was the place where the science of modern geology began, when the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment genius James Hutton realised the then widespread belief that the Earth was just 6,000 years old was a huge underestimate.

Hutton’s breakthrough came after he observed the processes of erosion and sediment deposition on his farms in the Borders and realised this was part of an age-old process. As his friend John Playfair later wrote: “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”

Yet erosion was a process that had been going on throughout history as countless humans simply passed by without realising its importance. Small changes are all too easy to miss, even as they bring down great mountains, both real and metaphorical.

READ MORE: £200k to keep Suilven mountain paths in peak condition

And so it has been for our best-loved actual mountains, even among the people most attracted to them, with some popular routes turning into great scars on the hillside as small pieces of soil and rock are dislodged by many feet.

However, after a campaign set up by the British Mountaineering Council to help address the impact of increasing numbers of hillwalkers, work is due to start to repair a path on Beinn a’ Ghlo in the southern Cairngorms that has turned into a heavily eroded trench, visible from far and wide.

This is not the first time work of this kind has taken place but, with £715,000 of its £1m target raised so far, the UK-wide Mend Our Mountains campaign will be one of the biggest projects of its kind.

As The Scotsman noted recently about the damage to bluebells by those moved to picnic among them, we have a tendency to underestimate our impact on the natural world. We too often think about our own individual actions, without seeing the big picture or considering the long-term impact.

It is a most-human flaw that explains much of the damage that we cause to the environment and the attitudes of some towards climate change. Just one of many reasons to remember Hutton’s extraordinary vision and to be brave enough to gaze with him into the abyss of time.

READ MORE: Save the bluebell! – leader comment