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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter XIV. Iceberg Period


Robert Dick continued, during the winter of 1848-9, to investigate the boulder clay in the neighbourhood of Thurso, and to communicate the results to his friend Hugh Miller at Edinburgh. He became more and more convinced of the action of icebergs in grinding down the strata of the various rocks into clay and till. He found bits of Morven mountain scattered over the county, and the largest stones were the deepest grooved.

Towards the end of December 1848, Dick writes to Miller—“ Perhaps you are wondering at my silence, though I have not been inattentive to the business in hand. Dogs, you know, when closest in pursuit, give little mouth. I have been as active as the very wet weather would permit, and owing to the shortness of the days I have been obliged for the most part to confine my explorations to this neighbourhood. Yesterday evening, however, I returned from the last grand boulder clay expedition of this season—perhaps, with me, the last for ever!”

This expedition was to Dunbeath, almost due south of Thurso, on the eastern coast of Caithness. Dick set out a little after twelve o’clock at midnight. He walked along the public road,—by Sordal, Banniskirk, Spittle-hill, and Achavannich, on to Dunbeath. The distance was twenty-eight miles. He walked alone, on foot, and in the dark. It was a long, lone, dreary walk.

As the light began to dawn he saw Loch Stemster on one side of the road, and Loch Bangag on the other.

Then he crossed the foot of Ben Cheilt, over the road made through the energy of Sir John Sinclair. This was the dividing ridge between the east and the west coasts. Out of this ridge various streams begin to flow, which run down into the North Sea. On searching about, he found that the granitic debris was not confined to the hollow places, but lay at a considerable elevation amongst the moors, if it did not lie beneath the whole of them. The sea must once have stood over the whole of these elevations.

Anxious to make the most of the limited time at his disposal, Dick passed up Dunbeath Water, while daylight was but a mere glimmer, picking his way among the boulders as he best could. Keeping on the right hand of the burn, he came to a magnificent cliff of dark boulder clay containing marine shells. “I stood,” he says, “in amazement at the scene, in the dim light of the morning. I would willingly have sat down on a stone and waited the coming of the day. But the whole breadth of the county lay before me, with mires and moors unutterable. To linger here might be fatal, should darkness overtake me. I might never be able to struggle out of these horrible moors. So ‘On, on ’ was the watchword!

“But observing many white specks of, I could not tell distinctly what,—‘I darklins grapitand you will hear with interest, that the first object I got between my finger and thumb was a specimen of Turritella terebra ! That shell is now on its way to you by post.

“I passed on, and found that there was much of the dark clay in this spot, and of great height. Stopping at another section I picked out another specimen of Turritella, a broken hinge of Lutraria, broken Mactra, Cyprina, and other shells. By this time it was nine o’clock; and as the daylight was good I saw almost every variety of granite—red sandstone, and abundance of old red conglomerate.

“To wait and stoop, and minutely scrutinize, was out of the question. I moved on from section to section, admiring as I passed. I saw cliffs of pulverised granite resting on blue boulder clay; and blue boulder clay resting on pulverised red granite. The latter was very fine, and far more abundant than the blue. Section after section stood up sheer as a wall, and the red was blazing like a harvest moon.

“In two places I saw traces of stratification. I saw blue boulder clay containing marine shells a long way up the burn. . . . The bare boulders are very large. The granite debris is amazingly abundant. But why should I linger thus ? Away to the source of the burn. Away to the moors!

“And in the name of all that is truly miserable, nothing can be conceived more dreary than those wide-stretching heaths in a cold mid-winter day. The gay cotton-grass flaunts no more, with its white pendent heads rustling in the breeze. The heather bells are dead. Nor bird nor insect is there. Even the hardy club moss has acquired a sallow hue; and save the wimple of some merry tinkling rill, all is lonely and melancholy.

“Away through the moors; and again through the moors! And such moors! Hop, step, and jump is holiday diversion compared to passing over these rude hummocks. One’s frame trembles with the concussion. Try it on the hummocks! Try to pick your way by wading through the pools of water. Try and get round and between them. It is all the same. You sigh in hopeless agony. You get bemired to the knees, and long for a clear pool of water where you may have a satisfactory washing.

“Loch More! who has not heard of the loch ? Yonder it is, tossing lightly its cold blue waves. I see the lofty two-arched bridge crossing the river that flows out of it to join the Thurso on its way to the sea. Acharynie lies yonder. An auld carle is moving over the hill, keeping fast by the track road, and that road shall be mine too by and by.

“But after leaving the moor, and seeing a farm-house near at hand, I stepped aside to ask the nearest way. I reached the barn-door, and found an old reverend-looking man threshing bere.

“‘Please' said I, ‘how far is it to Dalemore, and which is the best road?’ ‘Eh? Are ye gaun to Dalemore ? * ‘ Yes/ ‘ And where cam ye frae ? ’ ‘ Dun-

beath/ ‘ Did ye come frae Dunbeath the day ? 'Yes/ ‘An’ where are ye gaun tae?’ ‘Thurso/ ‘Are ye gaun to Thurso?’ ‘Yes/ ‘And did ye wide the river ? ’ ‘Yes! ‘ An’ are ye gaun to wide it again?’ ‘Please tell me the best road to Dalemore.’

‘Hae ye snuff?’ ‘No, I am sorry I have no snuff.’ ‘Oo ay ! Haud doon the strath; doon by the river; strecht doon! ’ ‘ How many miles is it to Dalemore ? ’

‘Four miles; ay, just four miles. ’

“Candid man! Oh, the want of sneeshin! No magic like a snuff-box to get to the heart of a Hieland-man!

“I think it is old Daniel Defoe who lays it down as a truth, that a man should never act contrary to his judgment and his conviction as to what is right, more especially if he has a mysterious misgiving about the matter in hand, for which he cannot account. And yet how often men do so, and how often they find reason to repent!

“The ill thief blaw yon carle south,
An’ never snuff be near his drouth ;
He tauld mysel’ by word o’ mouth,
The strath was better ;
I lippened to the loon in trouth,
And was his debtor.

I went down the strath by the river side—‘strecht doon'—in direct opposition to my better judgment. Philosophically musing in mud and mire, I could see that Loch More was once much larger than it is now. The river is fast filling it up with siliceous sand, clay, and peat mud. I walked over a very large piece of alluvium, wrested slowly and in detail from the bed of Loch More by the stream flowing into it. Loch More will one day become Loch Little, and finally disappear. Such are the changes taking place on the earth under our very eyes!

“I had nearly rounded the loch, and was congratulating myself on my expeditious dispatch, when all at once I was startled by a deep broad stream emptying itself into the loch! To cross it was impossible; to turn back was maddening. Oh, the reverend-looking man threshing bere ! ‘ Oh, the confounded scoundrel! said I loud out. But ‘ forgive us our debts/ I added, and let us begin anew.

“I turned back, and had to walk and jump over moor, mire, and pool. I went in a retrograde line up nearly to the carle’s house before I found a spot shallow enough to wade through, which I did.

“With many musings on the desperate deceit of the human heart, I had some very hard work in getting through a very bad moor, utterly unable to account for the trick played upon me. At last I thought I had hit it. ‘He took me,’ said I, 1'or an exciseman!'

“With thankfulness I struck the Thurso river a little above Acharynie. It is accounted fifteen miles from Acharynie to Thurso, and, having a level road, the journey might be said to be at an end.

“The granitic debris lies in great thickness over all the country there. I saw deep sections of it by the river-side far above Acharynie. The chasm or valley in which the river winds is of considerable deptl, exhibiting many fine sections of granitic debris.

“A little past the old church I saw two fine sections of blue boulder clay. But they were not for my examination at present. The old carle had done for me. My time was gone. I had settled in my mind a visit both to Dallmore and Cattack. But I must push on. I was obliged to rest content with seeing them afar off.

“In this, my last grand boulder clay expedition of the year, I have accomplished a feat in pursuit of rotten shells, which perhaps not many men would have willingly undertaken. I have walked more than fifty miles without once sitting down. Then next morning at five o’clock, I rose to my daily work as if nothing unusual had happened.

“The historian says of the Eoman Emperor Hadrian that, careless of the difference of seasons and of climates, he marched on foot and bareheaded over the snows of Caledonia and the sultry plains of Upper Egypt.’ Pshaw! There are thousands of Scotsmen, even in these effeminate times, that would scorn to yield a hairsbreadth to the Roman Hadrian, even in the best days that he ever saw.”

Dick enclosed in his letter to Hugh Miller, describing the above expedition, an extinct shell, Fusus Heywoodii, a fossil of the English Crag; “though,” he said, “Captain Brown does not figure it in his quarto volume of Recent Shells.” In his next letter Dick says—“I am half in doubt whether you would not consider me crazed in my last. Stultus ego. But these journeys are quite exhilarating. To those who live by theii labour, ‘ every inch a man ’ is a great deal. I am sorry to hear that you are so weakly. You sit too much at your desk.”

Dick goes on communicating his thoughts to Hugh Miller about the formation of Caithness. “No deluge of water,” he said, “could, in my opinion, have ground down granite rocks to the consistency of clay. Nothing so likely to produce what we now see around us as a shallow sea, alternately freezing and thawing, and hampered with icebergs. What is to become of the Mosaic deluge? My 'supernatural' is truth. ... I had already fallen in with the notion of a westerly current across Caithness. I have seen much to confirm that view. Eeay Bay, Strath Halladale, and Shebster Valley were, in my opinion, grand inlets to the sea—long, long after the hills of Caithness were up and out of it.”

Although Pick had been misled by the reverend-looking carle, and prevented seeing the sections of boulder clay at Acharynie, Dallmore, and Cattack, on his return from Dunbeath, he nevertheless resolved to return for the purpose of inspecting them. He set out on the 18th January. The weather was severe. Snow covered the ground, but it was hard under foot. “It is a glorious thing,” he said, “to feel the keen bracing January winds blowing against your cheek, while the heart beats undaunted in your bosom.”

He set out from Thurso about three o’clock in the morning, and arrived at Acharynie a little after eight, just as the day was breaking, bright and radiant. In the course of his search he found the usual sea-shells in the boulder clay of Acharynie—broken fragments of Turritella tercbra, Cyprina, and the like. As he passed down the river Thurso, he came to an interesting object—

“As I went down the river-side,” he says, “I found that the granite had at some period forced its way through the clay slate; and the slate seems hardened and turned in different directions. The river now assumes a different appearance ; it goes tumbling and plunging along. The bottom was rocky. By and by I came to a place where a small wooden bridge is thrown across, presenting quite an enticing scene for lovers of the picturesque. The place is also well worthy of the attention of the geologist. The granite is here piled in rude shapeless masses; and along the side of one masa the footpath leading to the bridge has been cut. The wandering geologist approaches, and just as he is about to step on to the bridge, to look down upon the raging torrent below, his attention is arrested by the interesting phenomenon of the primary or igneous rock lying in contact wdth the slate or secondary rock. The molten matter seems to have forced its way up through the clay slate, bending it as easily as the potter does his clay; and the heat has fused it into mica slate.

“Not only are the strata in contact with the granite altered to gneiss and mica slate, hut about the centre of the mass a piece of black mica is seen, with a vein of different-coloured granite leading to and beside it,— suggesting the idea that this black mica had at one period been a piece of ordinary schist, which had got entangled in the molten matter as it rose, and thus assumed the appearance which it now exhibits. I broke a piece right out of it, and will find an opportunity of sending it to you. I also took a piece of red granite for you, and a piece of gneiss. The gneiss is most interesting in situ : it is bent into a beautiful curve. Such and such is the fact, if the metamorphic theory be the correct one; indeed, the metamorphic men could hardly find a better argument than in this case.

“After the river passes this bridge its channel becomes rugged in the extreme. Then you come to Dirlot Castle —a picturesque ruin on a granitic rock, about thirty feet over the river’s channel—a very romantic spot!”

On this occasion Dick was forced to return home before he could examine the boulder clay at Dallmore and Cattack. A fortnight later he paid his intended visit. He explored the boulder clay—found marine

"beauty. The view near Dirlot is particularly striking. Here the banks on each side are steep, and richly clothed with brushwood. Dirlot Castle is the oldest in the county. It stands in ruins on the summit of a precipitous rock. It is said at one time to have been surrounded by the river, and accessible only by a drawbridge. At the end of the fifteenth century, it was inhabited by a chief of the name of Sutherland ; and local traditions state that it was often the scene of revelry and slaughter. The castle afterwards became the possession of the Mackays. The Gunns and the Mackays were the great clans of the north of Sutherland and south of Caithness, and fought many ferocious battles in the district. The Gunns were of Scandinavian origin, shells; chalk flints; a piece of petrified greenish marl, with a small organism on its surface. He was occupied a long day in exploring the clay, but the result was comparatively nil.

“As I was going along by the side of the stream,” said he, “ a large boulder of oolitic conglomerate presented itself to my delighted vision. It had evidently been washed out of the clay by the slow undermining of a mossy rill, and there it lay, all unnoticed, telling its own pathetic tale to the gnats and midges which were dancing over it.

“I had uniformly met with pieces of oolitic strata in these cliffs of boulder clay, but this piece far exceeded all that I had previously encountered. It was like a large snowball, such as boys roll together in winter. It contained a great abundance of broken shells, and broken Belemnites not a few. I hammered at it a long time until fairly wearied. Then I left it, and in a section ol boulder clay beside it I found broken shells of Cyprina, and one stout Turritella terebra”

He next went across the county to Strathbeg Water. “There are conical mounds,” he says, “of granitic debris all along its south side. I ascended to the top of one of them, and looked along the Strath. As far as I could see, the mounds stretched almost continuously, like the ruins of some ancient Eoman dyke; and they spoke emphatically of contending seas in times long gone by.

“I waded Strathbeg Water knee-deep, thinking of poor Mungo Park fording the tributaries of the Niger in the deserts of Africa. Ah! true. But then it was not to find decayed shells. No! But to please Sir Joseph Banks and the African Association. And then there were the golden-roofed houses of Timbuctoo!”

Dick had many more excursions to make before he could satisfy himself as to the extensive existence of the boulder clay throughout Caithness. For instance, in March 1849, he made a long ramble between Dunnet Bay on the one side of the county and Sinclair Bay on the other. The weather at that time was horrible— frost, snow, snow-drift, wind, rain, and sleet. Then his journey of forty miles had for the most part to be made through lonely moors and marshes, where the wanderer sank up to his knees at almost every step. He was wet to the skin all the way. And all to find the relative extent of the boulder clay!

He rose at midnight and did his morning’s work. The bread was all ready for sale when he set out at four o’clock. He first made for Castleton, tramped across the sands at Dunnet, and steered south-east for Sinclair Bay, with rain, snow, or sleet accompanying him the whole way. He passed many boulders of the old red conglomerate. He passed along the verge of four lakes, the moss and heather beside them all saturated with water—elush, slush, slush! At length his ears were greeted by the sounds of old ocean thundering along the beach of Sinclair Bay, with Noss Head in the distance.

Every step of the road was full of observation. Dick noted the evidences of the sea having at one time been dashing its waves far inland. He saw the remains of an old sea-beach far up the shore. It took him ten minutes to walk from there to high-water mark on the present sea-beach. He concluded that the sea once covered all the land between Dunnet Bay and Sinclair Bay, and that it was gradually retiring from the land.

He set out on his homeward journey by Wester Loch. The shores of the loch weie composed of marsh, peat, sour grass, and mire. As he approached, he startled the sea-birds which frequented it. There were sea-mews, sea-ducks, wild geese, and wild swans. He counted thirty-six ducks rise in rapid succession. At the head of the loch he found a travelled stone—a mass of grey granite several tons in weight—moored just within the dry land. Two large boulders of the same mat n'ial lay on the opposite side of the water.

On he went, observing many high braes of undoubted boulder clay, though covered with grass and heath. He observed also sections of granitic debris similar in every respect to those he had seen at Dirlot and Dallmore. And then he came upon a mass of blue boulder clay filled with marine shells—Cyprina, Crassina, and Turritella terebra. “At this moment,” he says, “I cannot tell how I felt. Here, at last, was abundant reward for my day’s journey.

“On I went, hoping that my luck was in the ascendant. But no. The soil along the bottom of the Bower valley is wholly sandy alluvium. I was 500 years too late! The river has done for this locality what Thurso river is busily doing for the boulder clay, namely, tumbling and rolling it about from side to side, sweeping it away, and laying down alluvium in its place, till at length, imprisoned in its own toils, it rolls away, a sleepy, despised, obscure thing.

“On and on. Floods have been here, and see ! here on the river banks is something new—shells of the Alosmodon margaritifcrus lying open, and the dead animal in them. And see! pieces of broken Cyprina from the boulder clay lying cheek-by-jowl. Do you ask me how I knew them to be from the boulder clay? Simply by the family likeness. There is no mistaking one’s old friends.

“On and on, through marsh and mire, ankle-deep, and deeper. On to the confluence of the water of Wester. Boulder clay and shell fragments are found all the way. I traced up the river of Bower until it was only a stride across. Shortly after I entered the Bower-madden road from Castletown to Wick. I went on to Castletown, and saw that there was a continuing hollow by Duran Loch on to the very south corner of Dunnet Bay.

“Raise the sea a hundred feet at Dunnet Bay and a hundred feet at Sinclair Bay, and, in my opinion, their waters would unite. The evidence of marine shells is also nearly continuous from Dunbeath to Thurso. The evidence of marine shells is also continuous from Freswick up as far as Brabster mire. I have no doubt that during the boulder clay epoch the whole of Caithness was under the sea.”

Dick continues to send Hugh Miller various fossils found during his journeys. On the 22d of March he sends a fish jaw (of the Asterolepis), with an excellent drawing of it, carefully done. The drawing afterwards appeared in Hugh Miller’s Footprints of the Creator. Three months later Dick tells him that he has found a hyoid. bone of the Diplopterus, “another victory over the unknown.” He made numerous excursions for the purpose of enabling Miller to illustrate the Pleistocene formation. He went to Ifarpsdale in the south, to Freswick in the east (starting at midnight), and to Ben Shurery in the west, The Ben consists of granite and granitic gneiss, but near the top of the hill he found two boulders of red conglomerate, of vast size.

“No Oolitic or Liassic strata, in my opinion, exist m Caithness, so you must account for the great abundance of fragmentary strangers in some other manner. Ho\V mysterious the whole becomes ! How much are we still in the dark ! However, thank heaven, the fish were, before the mountains of Shurery, Braalnabin, or Dorery had any existence! Were I to tell some people this, they would not believe me.”

“The view from the mountain top,” he adds, “is very grand. And though the wind blew rather cold for one bathed in sweat, I tried to look abroad. To the north the Orkneys and all the intervening lands lay tabled before me. Turning round to the south-east, Morven towered aloft, wreathed in snow. From the little loch underneath me, stretched a low wide country covered with brown heather and dotted with lochs.”

Another of Dick’s rambles was an extraordinary one. He walked from Thurso to Strath Halladale in Suther-landshire, then up the dale and round to Thurso by the Dorery Hills, a night’s walk of more than sixty miles. Here is his own account:—

“I left Thurso,” he says, “at eight o’clock in the evening; went on to Reay; from Reay to Portskerra; then ten miles up the deep Strath Halladale; then to Rumsdale; then turned down to Loch Shurery; then over the top of Dorery mountain, down on Braalnabin; rounded the loch of Calder, and along the public road to Thurso again,—a delightful amount of labour certainly.

“I travelled all night alone, simply to test the fact of the sea finding its way over Caithness, and covering the lands towards the sea.

“At midnight, twenty minutes to one, I was standing by the finger-post, at the lower end of Strath Halladale. reading the directions to weary travellers; but the ungrateful Highlanders had so pelted it with stones, that, save the word Trantlebeg, the finger-post gave me no information whatever.

“It was a lovely night. The scene was most impressive. The full moon shone clear on all around me. Hot a zephyr was astir. The drowsy sheep slumbered on the hills. The sea scarcely broke along the shore. The river ran clear and sparkling, but without a murmur. The silence that enveloped the granite peaks was sublime and solemn. My heart beat happily. ‘My vera een’ were enriched; for all my musings, all my expectations, were more than realised.

“There is a good hard road up the strath, and it winds along the river side. The granitic debris lies thick on the hill-sides, and boulders by the million. Above all, the bottom of the valley lies delightfully low. The bed of the river, where it enters the sea, is scarcely, if at all, above high-water level. Tor many miles up the strath the water scarcely runs. How, there is a deep pool, hemmed in with rolled pebbles, over which the stream struggles. It runs on a little, and then there is a pool again.

“A considerable number of black cottages still grace the sides of this valley, of a better cast than the common run of cottages in Caithness. But this strath, by the way, is in Sutherland.

“About nine miles up, 1 found the full reward of my labours in the fact that there was no impediment, but indeed every facility for the sea entering the country and drowning Caithness, were there only some upheaving agency to hitch it up some 100 feet or so. It was simply to test this, that had brought me thus far. The road winds up among the hills—hollow, all hollow: hence, I suppose, the name Strath Hollowdale, or Halladale—half Highland and half Horse. The strath was, in my opinion, once an outlet of the sea, just as Loch Tongue and Loch Erriboll are now.”

His sixth exploratory ramble was one of the most interesting of all. He set out a little before two o’clock in the morning, and went towards Loch Haellan, about ten miles east of Thurso. He observed how small an elevation of the sea, or a depression of the land, was sufficient to enable the land to be covered with water, and unite Dunnet Bay with the Pentland Firth.

He went north to the Burn of Batter, and found the boulder clay thickly charged with marine shells He next went in the direction of Barrogill Castle, on towards the sea, to the Haven of Mey, where he found a bed of boulder clay 60 feet thick, charged from top to bottom with marine shells.

“Here then,” said he, “is the grand key to the whole mystery! When the sea stood sixty feet high at Barrogill and its vicinity, the whole of the eastern parts of the county, round to Wick, were drowned! ”

“’Where the Burn of Batter enters the sea, the coast is very low, and there is a continuous valley on to Loch Scister.

“The bitterest opponent of geological deductions could hardly fail to be converted by an examination of the boulder clay precipices at the Haven of Mey. He would find that the boulder clay was a distinct formation—a generic production,—differing entirely from every other thing on the earth’s surface. It is not a conglomerate. It would never, though consolidated, form a bed of rock similar to conglomerate. It is not a production of the Mosaic Deluge. It is not, strictly speaking, a production of the sea. It is not the sweepings of a sea-shore. No! nothing of the kind. No Mosaic Deluge could have produced those beds of dark, bituminous, sandy, tenacious, stony clay. No ocean waves alone, by the friction of ten thousand years on rocky strata, could have clone it. No! Tens and hundreds of millions of steam-mills, grinding stones night and day for a thousand years, could not have done it. No sea casts up anything like it. It is a distinct generic production, fairly entitled to a place by itself. An observer at Barrogill could not fail to see all this. He could not fail to see that the shore beneath, and along the foot of these clay cliffs, contained a bed of sand, broken shells, and rolled fragments of stones; and yet this bed is entirely different.

“Along the shore, in some places, there is a newer formation than the boulder precipices atop—a formation laid down at the foot of the cliffs, at unusually high tides. It is thickly charged with broken shells, in some places nearly consolidated to stone; yet this formation is much newer. It is, in comparison with the other, a thing of yesterday. The deep ditches dug through the Moss of Mey exhibit no section similar to the genuine boulder clay. They are too marly. These low-lying grounds seem to have been, for a long period—ere the peat grew over them—overspread with shallow pools and lochs of fresh water, in which Limnaea and Cyclas had lived, multiplied, and died, by millions—leaving their empty dwellings to crumble down and mix with the sands over which they had crawled. Apt emblem of man in his best estate’! Surely we all walk in the same vain show.

“A beautiful illustration of this is to be seen in the little, loch of Mey. It is a very shallow pool of fresh water, nearly flat, but deepening a little towards its lower end, where a stream goes off to drive the mill of Mey. Its eastern shore was strewn with sand, and not long ago, the mimic waves had dashed across it, leaving, in the circles of its upper reaches, straws, sticks, and bits of peat. Stooping down on my knees to scrutinise the sands, I was surprised to find innumerable multitudes of Limnsea and Cyclas,—the whole mingled with the Old Houses of a small Caddis-worm. The sight was impressive. Here was a miniature representation of geologic fact. Thousands of organic existences suddenly terminating their little span of life, through no fault of their own, but by the seeming accident of a sudden shower!”


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