That must be it there, Julie said.
Michael eased his foot off the accelerator and leaned forward, peering towards the place at the roadside his wife was pointing to.
In her other hand she held one of the leaflets she’d picked up in the tourist ofﬁce in Lochinver.
Are you sure?’
There’s the sign. Look.
Her eyesight was better than his. Without his reading glasses he had to strain to make out what the sign said, but as the car drew nearer he read the name aloud:
Julie had unfolded the leaﬂet and was reading it.
It says it’s a site of great geological signiﬁcance.
Okay, let’s take a look.
In the car park they opened the boot and began to change into their hiking boots. Another couple with a camper van were also getting ready, the woman taking a couple of hiking sticks from the back of the vehicle, the man donning an Australian bush hat and buttoning up a bright red ﬂeece. Further off, a man paced up and down outside his car, holding a clip-board under his arm and talking into a mobile phone.
He looked up at the dark shape of the hill above. It looked like a fair climb. His calf muscles were still a bit stiff and his hip joints still ached from all the walking they had been doing on the holiday so far. It had been his idea in the ﬁrst place – a healthy week in Assynt would be good for both of them. Julie would have a break from her stressful job, and it would be good for his health, for his heart. Most of the walks they had done involved some uphill slog over rough paths, and at times he’d felt like a comic little Sisyphus, doomed to push the burden of his own cursed body up and up, as on Handa island, from the hand-held jetty where the boat dropped them to the viewpoint at the Stack, to see the pufﬁns nesting in the crevices of the cliffs. Then there was the walk to the spot above the Old Man of Stoer, where they had sat down to have lunch – not too close to the edge, because Julie got vertigo looking down at a steep drop.
The hardest one for him had been the climb to see the Clachan Falls up a rough, meandering path embedded with rocks and boulders. He hated lagging behind his wife, having to stop every few minutes to regain his breath and because his hip joints were beginning to play up, while Julie went on, apparently taking the ascent in her stride, until she had to stop and wait for him. Certainly she was younger, if only by three years, and she was much ﬁtter, since she swam regularly and didn’t smoke as much as him. He wasn’t yet sixty but already he had suffered two ‘minor’ heart attacks and sometimes had attacks of angina if he over-exerted himself.
At one point on the climb, his frustration had boiled over as she stood above him on the hill, hands on hips, waiting for him.
Why don’t you just go on? He’d told her. I don’t want you to stand there scowling until I catch up.
I’m not scowling. I don’t mind waiting.
You are. You do
And he forged ahead of her, driving himself up the rocky path as fast as he could until he really had to stop.
Can you stop this? She cried, coming up behind him. Why don’t we sit down, take a break? We need to talk about this.
And they had.
He stood up and stamped his feet in his boots, adjusted his socks and tucked his jeans in at the bottoms just in case there were sheep ticks around.
Okay, I’m ready, he said.
The man with the clip-board under his arm walked across the car park to them. He had put his mobile phone into a small pouch for that purpose which was fastened to his belt, and now he held a small hammer in his hand.
He held the hammer into his chest as if to demonstrate that it was not a weapon. He wore a plastic I.D. card on a ribbon around his neck.
Hello. My name is Donald McLeish and I am a Geologist, employed by the National Geology Trust. Here’s my identity badge just to show you that I am who I say I am.
He held the I.D. card out from his chest towards Julie.
As you may know, this is Knockan Crag, a site of great geological signiﬁcance. In a few minutes I am about to escort those people – with a nod of his hammer he indicated the other couple, who were locking up their camper van – on a guided tour of the site and you are welcome to join us if you wish.
Oh, really? Julie sounded guardedly interested.
Yes and it’s completely free of charge. This is my geologist’s hammer, by the way. I won’t be chipping away at any rocks with it today – I’m not allowed to, because this is a National Heritage Site – I’ll just be using it to point out things on the tour.
Julie looked over to him and raised her eyebrows, as if to say What do you think?
I think we were just planning on a short walk, he said.
Donald McLeish sounded disappointed. If you change your mind, we’ll be leaving in ﬁve minutes or so.
How long would it take? Julie asked. Only about an hour and a half. We’ll be walking up to the Knockan Cliff to see what is called the Moine Thrust – I’ll explain it when we get there – then we’ll circumnavigate the hill to the summit of the crag and then on to Eagle Rock, coming back round the other side and down this path we see on the right…
As he spoke he gestured with the handle of his hammer, tracing the path of the tour up and around the hill and back down to the car park.
Michael looked at his watch.
An hour and a half, that would take us up to six o’clock, he said to his wife, he hoped with some meaning, then to this geologist with his hammer and his clipboard, he said:
Thanks but I think we’ll just have a quick walk and see what we can see.
That’s ﬁne. As you wish. I’ll leave you to it then.
Now Donald McLeish sounded not just disappointed but faintly disapproving. As he walked over to speak to the other couple at the camper van, Julie turned to him.
Why don’t we do it? It’s a free lecture. We might learn something.
I don’t know. We could get round that hill in an hour at the most.
What’s the rush? I think we should do it. Why not? It’s free.
Excellent, said Donald McLeish. I just have to get you to sign my paperwork for me, purely a formality you understand, but Health and Safety require it. Then I’ll apply some sun screen and we’ll set off and have a ﬁne educational walk around the hill. You won’t regret it.
Michael was already beginning to. The way Donald McLeish spoke to them, as if they were small children, was beginning to get his goat, and the way he stroked and brandished his little hammer, pointing at everything he could point at with the thing, was distracting and faintly disturbing.
If you could go and foregather with the others by the start of the path over there, I’ll just ﬁnish up here and join you in a moment.
As they walked over to join the other couple, he said in a low voice to his wife:
– What if he’s a nutter? What if he’s going to take us up round the back of the hill then polish us off with his hammer?
But she smiled and laughed a little at the idea. That was good. It had been a while since he had made her laugh or smile, because of the stress she was under at work.
Her department was being ‘rationalised’, ‘restructured’, ‘streamlined’ – all euphemisms for cuts, and she was having to justify every paper clip they used in ﬁnancial terms.
Nick and Val were social workers from the Wirral in Liverpool and were having a week’s holiday in the Highlands. They had rented a space on a campsite in Rosemarkie on the Black Isle and it had rained every day, so they’d decided to head west for the day where the weather was better.
How about you?
We rented a cottage in Stoer.
Julie was just about to start telling them
more, when Donald McLeish came over. His balding pate, slick with the sunscreen lotion, resembled one of the pinkish rocks smoothed by the water they had seen at the foot of Clachan Falls, his pale comb-over like the thin fronds of lichen that grew over them.
Do we all know each other? Have we done the introductions? May I ask you what you do?
Social work, us, Nick said.
We’re art teachers, said Julie.
Good. We’ll be seeing some art in a moment. Do any of you have an interest in Geology?
I did a Geology O-level, Nick said. I started the A-level but kind of …lost interest.
Hmm, I see.
Donald McLeish shook his head a little and a thin crease puckered his brow, as if losing interest in Geology was something beyond his comprehension.
Right, then I’ll just ask you to follow me. And the lesson began with the reddish brown rocks known as Fuccoid Beds – ‘It sounds as if I’m swearing but I’m not’ – and continued with examples of Pipe Rock – ‘No, it isn’t a new Highland pop group’ – which he asked them to look at closely.
Notice anything about them?
They’ve got spots, said Julie.
Oh, yeh, like polka-dots, said Val, ‘Like me.’ She pulled the collar of her jacket down to show that she was wearing a polka-dotted shirt.
Exactly. But if we look at this rock here, which has been cut lengthwise so that you can see inside it, you can see that these ‘spots’ run through the rock, exactly like the letters running through those sticks of the rock we liked ruining our teeth on as children – you know, the kind that say ‘Edinburgh Rock’ or ‘Blackpool Rock’. These pale, tubular shapes in the rock are in fact –
It’s worms, innit? Nick said. I remember that from O-level. Burrowed into the rock, before it was rock, like.’
Donald McLeish’s mouth tightened and he looked piqued at being interrupted.
Yes, indeed, fossilized worms, formed when the rock was sediment under the sea, and the lowest strata of this land we are looking at is riddled with such fossilized forms. Any questions?
How does a fossil, like … get to be a fossil.
I mean, how does it happen? Val asked.
Interesting question. Fossils can form in different ways and there are many different types of fossil …
And Donald McLeish was off on the long narrative of compression, refrigeration, desiccation, carbonization, of casts and moulds, trace fossils and microfossils, trilobites, stramatolites and ammonites. When he had ﬁnished, he asked:
Does that answer the question?
Oh yeh, ta very much, said Val. Hadn’t
realized it were so complicated.
As Donald McLeish turned to lead the way up the hill, she made a ‘sorry’ face at them, widening her eyes and stretching her mouth into a grimace.
Right, let’s proceed to what we call The Puzzle.
The Puzzle turned out to be an artificial model of a cross-section of the hill, made of strata of different types of rock. Donald McLeish pointed at each in turn with the handle of his hammer, naming each – Fuccoid Beds, Cambrian Quartzite, Pipe Rock, Salteralla Grit, Durness Limestone, Tor-ridon Sandstone, and, at the topmost layer, last but not least, the highly significant Moine Schists.
Donald McLeish did not let the significance of the Moine Schists pass them by. He explained that in Geology in the past, rocks which lie above others were always thought to be younger than those below, but certain very important men – and they would ‘meet’ them in a moment when they reached the Rock Room – put forward the radical, even revolutionary idea that the Moine Schists were actually older than the layers of rock below them.
How could this be? Donald McLeish asked them. How could the Moine Schists, which have now been scientifically dated as being nine hundred million to a billion years old, sit above rocks five hundred million years younger? Had they moved, had they been brought here from elsewhere? Then what had moved them? This was a question that would puzzle some of the greatest minds in Geology in the nineteenth century and answering it would prepare the way for our modern understanding of the Earth’s history.
It’s the tectonic plates, innit? Nick said. Shiftin round, like. Like at one time we was part of another continent, whassitcalled again, Avalon?
Donald McLeish’s lips puckered into a tight little smile.
Avalonia, yes you in England were part of Avalonia, but we in Scotland were part of a different continent altogether, called Laurentia –
Oh yeh, I remember that, Nick said. We got that in O-level.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s walk up the path to the Rock Room, stopping at each of the ‘milestones’ which actually show us the different geographical positions Scotland has occupied from five hundred million years ago until today.
They shambled up the hill after him, Donald McLeish stopping at each of the stones and pointing with his hammer at the location of Scotland at each stage of the earth’s crust’s movements – ‘near the South Pole!’ – until Scotland and England came together, ‘colliding’ over the course of millions of years – ‘if you can imagine this taking place at the rate your ﬁngernails grow …’
In the Rock Room, Donald McLeish told them to ignore most of the stuff on the walls – the comic strips and the cartoons and the interactive displays and the computer screen with a CD-ROM loop allowing visitors to ‘ﬂy’ through the area and look at views – which had been used to jazz up the Geology for kids – ‘Some of us don’t really approve of this kind of thing’ – and gathered them in front of some nineteenth century photographs of the Geologists who had studied Knockan Crag, Benjamin Peach and John Horne.
These men were pioneers of Geology. It was they who proved beyond question that the Moine Schists were older than the rocks below them and that they had moved here.
He put the hammer under his arm and pressed the knuckles of each hand together to show how the different strata of rock had collided.
If you can imagine the thrust, both land masses thrusting against each other, all this happening at the rate your fingernails grow, causing immense stress at the place they meet –
Donald McLeish’s knuckles were turning white as he pressed them against each other.
Until, finally, something has to give, and buckling takes place. The softer, younger rocks buckle beneath the thrust of the older and much harder Moine Schists…the way a snowplough curls old snow up and over fresh snow as it moves forward.
He let one hand unclench and buckle under the other ﬁst.
And that is what we call the Moine Thrust. Any questions?
It’s the tectonic plates like I said, innit? Nick said.
Donald McLeish looked at the man from the Wirral with an indulgent smile.
Ah yes, you know that because you were lucky enough to learn about it in Geology O-level, but you have to remember that Peach and Horne didn’t know about tectonic plates, and it was their work which led to other studies of similar movements in the Himalayas and the Alps, and all of these studies together made us understand that the Earth’s crust was a series of moving plates…think of it as a moving jigsaw, with pieces coming together and breaking apart…
Is it still moving? Julie asked.
Michael wished she hadn’t asked a ques
tion – it would take at least ten minutes for Donald McLeish to answer it. He looked at his watch. It had taken them almost an hour to get this far and they hadn’t really started on the actual climb. At this rate they’d be on the hill for at least another hour. Don-ald McLeish was pressing his fists together again until the knuckles were turning white as his mouth tightened around the word thrust yet again.
The next stop was to see the art. The first was a relief sculpture on an upright piece of flat rock which had been set in the ground. It showed a long, linear shape with leaf-like forms branching from the top.
Any idea what it is? Donald McLeish asked them.
It’s one of them worms, innit, them that burrowed into the sediment, innit? Said Nick.
Yes indeed. Donald McLeish looked disappointed. Most people think it’s a palm tree.
Oh, yeh, it does, dunnit?’ Val said.
Then, at the foot of a rough, steep path
leading up the hill, they stopped to look at a larger, globe-shaped sculpture made from many layers of ﬂat stones.
I once brought a group of ﬁfth year boys from Ullapool High School here and I said I’d give them a ﬁver each if they could move it. Luckily they couldn’t get it to move an inch, but for a minute they had me worried.
He turned to Michael and Julie and asked:
So what’s your professional opinion of it as Art?
I quite like it, Julie said.
Michael nodded in mute agreement, and
thought of Sisyphus again, rolling his stone
up the mountain. Despite himself he asked:
How did they get it up here?
This time the answer was blissfully short: Helicopter. And now for the highlight
of the tour, follow me up to Knockan Cliff, where you can see the Moine Thrust for yourselves.
At last they were walking for more than a few yards at a time. He followed closely behind Donald McLeish, wanting to get the uphill part over with as soon as possible. The path grew steeper and when they were almost at the cliff, he turned to look at the others coming up behind. He saw Julie stopping suddenly and reaching for the ground above as if to steady herself. She looked like a person ﬂoundering in water when they suddenly realize they are out too deep to touch the bottom, and he felt a sudden pang of concern. He called down to her.
Are you ok?
I’m sorry but I don’t think I can go on,
she shouted up to him. I’ll have to go down. I’m getting vertigo.
Ok, wait there, I’ll come back down. Although he still felt concerned for
her, at the same time he was thinking: you beauty. It was the perfect get-out clause.
Don’t worry, I’m coming!
Donald McLeish strode down the path next to him, hammer wagging back and forth in his hand, as if he could maybe chip away at her vertigo with it until it disappeared.
Now. I don’t want you to worry about it. Lots of people get vertigo on land structures such as these. If you want to go back down, that’s ﬁne, but I am quite a good guide, and if you like I can walk close by you all the way, I can follow closely behind you and make sure that you’re safe at every step.
No, it’s no good, I’m getting dizzy. I have to go down. Mike, you can go on.
No, I better come down with you.
I’ll be ﬁne going down from here, I just don’t want to go up any further.
She apologized to Donald McLeish and the couple from the Wirral.
Na, you look after yourself like, said Nick. Hope you feel better soon, said Val.
I’ll be ﬁne.
Would you like me to escort you down?
Donald McLeish asked.
No, I’ll be ﬁne.
I could come down with you.
But she said he should go on, at least to the cliff, so he had to go up to see the damned Moine Thrust – it would only take five minutes, Donald McLeish assured him. Still, at least then he’d be able to go back down rather than all the way round the hill.
Part of the hill had been cut away, exposing the rocks, and various slabs of stone had been arranged to create a mini classroom, with a circle of stone benches to sit on and a kind of raised platform on which Donald McLeish could perform.
This is a hallowed place in the world of Geology. We were brought here many years ago as Geology students at Glasgow University, and we were completely blown away by what we see here, the Moine Thrust itself …
What they could see was a stratum of dark rock above a stratum of lighter rock. Donald McLeish became more and more animated as he explained it all over again, pushing his knuckles together, pointing at the rocks with his hammer, and ﬁve minutes stretched to ten, ten to twenty.
So now you have seen the Moine Thrust for yourselves. Any questions?
They shook their heads, lectured into submission.
I better go back down, see if Julie’s ok.
Of course, but before you do, I want you
to come over to the rock face here and place your foreﬁnger here and your thumb just here.
He did as he was told.
Now you can go down and tell your wife that you have held ﬁve hundred million years of the earth’s evolution between ﬁnger and thumb.
On the way back down the hill, he felt like Sisyphus on his day off, happy to be alive, and now that he thought about it, it occurred to him that although Sisyphus’s labour was endless, there always had to be the downhill stroll after the fruitless, uphill labour. Maybe, as time went on, Sisyphus made the downhill strolls last as long as possible.
Sitting on the ledge of the car’s open boot, they laugh about the stress and the knuckles and the hammer and the thrust as they change out of their hiking boots. He turns to take her face between his finger and his thumb.
What are you doing?
I’m holding ﬁve hundred million years of the Earth’s history between ﬁnger and thumb.
As they drive away, he says:
Those poor people are going to be up
there for at least another hour, hearing about the plates and the thrust.
Then he looks at the landscape speeding towards them as the car accelerates, its mountains and valleys and moors the surface of a thin, fragile crust which is moving over a molten sea beneath, cracking up and drifting together, forming and reforming, all at the rate his ﬁngernails grow.