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Continental Tectonics & Mountain Building

“When a geologist finds ….. gneiss overlying gently inclined sheets of fossiliferous quartzites… he may be excused if he begins to wonder whether he himself is not really standing on his head”.

Rob Butler reports on a memorable week in Wester Ross. 

Geoscientist Online 4 June 2007

Picture: Like Geikie in the 1880s, some of the participants question their sanity while checking out the Arnaboll Thrust. Not only is this probably where Geikie first coined the term “thrust”, it is also the type locality for Charles Lapworth’s description of mylonites. (photo by Rob Butler).

Regular readers of Geoscientist will know that 2007 is not only the Bicentenary of the Society, but also the centenary of the classic Memoir on the Geological Structure of the North-West Highlands of Scotland (Feature, January 2007). Written some two decades after the original mapping, the book describes the researches of Ben Peach, John Horne and their often-overlooked colleagues (William Gunn, Charles Clough, Lionel Hinxman and Jethro Teall, together with Henry Cadell). 

Together with much else, the Memoir and the associated maps are arguably the finest exposition of thrust tectonics in three dimensions, certainly for much of the 20th Century. In celebration, the Geological Society and the Geological Society of America ran a joint Arthur Holmes Conference in May this year, based on the rocks in Ullapool. The theme of continental tectonics and mountain building, in conjunction with the historical significance, drew over 120 geologists from every continent apart from Antarctica. 

For some, getting out to the far side NW of Scotland took some doing. The conference programme involved alternating days indoors with days in the field. This, coupled with the extensive use of informal locations in the village for ongoing discussion (and langoustine sampling), probably did little to help the further-travelled recover control of their body-clocks. But mercifully, while the sun may not have shone brightly, at least the field days were dry.

John Ramsay (centre, left) and John Myers discuss deformation and intrusion histories in the Laxford Shear Zone. (photo by Rob Butler). I would like to thank my co-conveners, Maarten Krabbendam, Rick Law, Rob Strachan and Bob Holdsworth, together with the Society’s Conference Office for support in getting this meeting together. The additional field trip leaders including the Lewisian all-stars (Graham Park, Rod Graham, Alistair Beach and John Wheeler) together with Kathryn Goodenough, Graham Leslie and Ryan Thigpen, were invaluable in getting a bunch of argumentative and challenging visitors, ranging from long-in-the-tooth aficionados to complete newcomers, over the Highland geology. Ryan deserves special mention for editing the field guide. Chris and Fran at the Macphail Centre are to be congratulated for running such a fantastic facility that doubtless will be used many more times for international conferences. The whole village seemed to be mucking in to make our stay run smoothly. Financial support came from our sponsors (Hess, BG, Shell, Encana, BP, Exxon Mobil and the Highland Council) and in kind from our host institutions. 

We thought it important to leave a legacy from the meeting. Jack Soper donated a copy of the Memoir (dedicated to a previous owner by Sir Edward Battersby Bailey) to Ullapool library. The conference website ( remains live for anyone to access the abstracts, download the field guide or take a look at the gallery of images from the meeting. 

In parallel, there is an exhibition of the Survey’s old mapping and related materials, premiered in Ullapool during the conference, moving to Edinburgh and Glasgow ( ) through the summer, that continues to link the geology to the public. And finally, there will be a collection of research papers. 

On that note, the meeting brought together the geochronological and field-based sides of the Lewisian terrane debate. In an act of conflict resolution, they went into the field together after the official Lewisian outing and are now planning a joint paper. 

Scottish geology remains a live area for scientific endeavour - Peach and Horne would have approved.  Rob Butler, University of Leeds