Geopark idea both marvellous and scary

This is a heavenly time of year for gardeners as long as they don’t overdo the bending and digging, with resulting aching backs, blistered fingers and tired feet.

Once the weather settles into summer mode, the double day-length daylight kicks the growing pace of plants into overdrive. Weeds multiply, bushes burst with branches outstripping secateur work in no time. But there is one kind of garden which stays just perfect, with virtually no maintenance required and that is a “real” rock garden.

Alice Arthur in Skerries is lucky enough to have the natural rock only inches from the surface of her garden. She has simply removed all the plant growth and all soil from a small area of rock, and what a stunning result. There, frozen in time, lies a tangle of crushed and folded metamor­phosed limestone, in all its gnarled, banded, twisting glory.

Denise Anderson is starting a similar garden now, not far away and that is shaping up to be a second beauty. With such unique, geology on your doorstep, you need no plants to provide colour, variety and pattern. The Earth has done all the work necessary. I’m starting to burrow into the steep hillside behind our house now, in case there are some geological gems lying in wait below the surface.

The thought of Shetland becoming a Geopark is both marvellous and scary. Where would you begin? What would you highlight? How would you sort out the multitude of gems in the Shetland geology crown?

Given unlimited resources, you would need a whole museum, dedicated to the subject at least three times the size of the new Shetland museum. The mind boggles, but then the geology itself has boggled many minds in the past.

Way back in the early eighties my parents visited us and among other things, took back selections of pebbles from a range of Shetland beaches. Months later, I found myself with Mum, wandering through the fabulous displays of rocks, crystals and minerals in South Kensington Natural History Museum. We drooled from case to case, refreshed ourselves at the cafe and then drifted into the shop.

I love that museum shop. Wooden dinosaur kits, field guides, posters of lichens by Clare and Keri Dalby, specimen rock samples – I am tempted by the lot.

But something happened to take my mind off all of it. As Mum paid for some postcards of fossils, she found Shetland pebbles among the small change in her bag and I recognised a wild glint in her eyes.

“Are there any geologists here today?” she asked the sales attendant, casually.

The young woman was taken by surprise, but said she would enquire. She picked up the desk phone and spoke briefly into it. She asked Mum what in particular she wanted to know.

“I have brought in some rock specimens, I wondered if someone could identify them for me.”

Amazingly, we were invited to meet an expert who happened to be working in his office at the time.

We were led through doors labelled “Private” and “Staff only”, wound our way up narrow stairways and along a dark corridor, came to a small office. An elderly gentleman awaited our arrival, bushy eyebrows raised in welcome and we were offered chairs before his enormous desk.

“Now ladies, I gather you have been collecting stones,” he began. “Whereabouts did you find them I wonder?”

He leaned benignly forwards and stared at the assortment in Mum’s palm. His expression changed. “Shetland,” said Mum simply and to our mingled surprise and amusement, the gentleman closed his eyes and shook his head in dismay.

He leaned back with a groan. “Oh no! They could be anything! Anything! They have everything up there!” And it’s true.

I recalled the old Shetland Museum, and in particular, my favourite display, Professor Flynn’s rock collection. I now know that I was far from alone in my fascination for the extraordinary variety of specimens. The contrasting colours blew my mind; rose quartz, agates, precious serpentine, talc; the extraordinary shaped and patterns, kyanite, garnet, jaspar, tourmaline.

In the following years, as the Shetland Field Studies Group developed, we made a feature of geology, always including a rough geology map of each walk, as well as a geographical route map. We were indebted to many passionate local geolo­gists for the explanations of the geology of each area: Derek Rushton, James R Nicolson, Robbie John Arthur, Janet Henderson, Allen Fraser, Jonathan Swale, Tom Jamieson and others.

One after another member of the group became hooked on Shetland rocks. Places came to life as the history of the formation of the islands was described, explained and visualised. And now, at last, there is a chance of seeing all this formally acknow­ledged and reinforced. Brilliant!

But I mustn’t get carried away. Everyone will have their own take on the subject. Rarities, like the magnetite octahedra, major themes such as oil, mining, the Ice Age, continental drift and volcanoes will all compete for interpretive and development resources and time. But like the wonderful selection of 100 places to walk in A Naturalist’s Shetland by J Laughton Johnson, there will be an equally long list of places specifically focused on geology.

Everyone’s list will be different, but just for fun, here are some of my favourites.

? Muckle Hell in Bressay, where a witch’s cauldron of minerals leaches into lurid pools in the sandstone and bedding planes are contorted by ancient subterranean upheavals, long since over and forgotten; ? The north coast of Noss, where layers of sandstone are flaking off, revealing in places, fossilised raindrop holes, ancient creature footprints and burrows in the bands of stone; ? Back of Ollaberry fault, with its James Bond rock wall slicing out of the beach like part of a massive door, jammed when a secret underground missile base was being retracted; ? Funzie beach in Fetlar, where primeval pebbles from ancient beaches, long buried and deformed, are eroding onto today’s beaches and eroding all over again to complete their cycle; ? Da Grind o da Navir north of Eshaness, where ignimbrite is being smashed by violent seas into a massive raised beach of broken, multi-coloured stone, full of squashed crystal patterns.

Beaches above all start the waking-up-to-geology process first. The serpentine beaches of Unst and Fetlar, the banded sandstone of Norby and Noss, silvery psammites and fools’ gold of Hoswick and St Ninian’s Isle, steatites of Mail in Cunningsburgh and graphite schists of Tresta in Fetlar, copper at Leebitton, riebeckite felsite beaches of Uyea and Papa Stour beaches with spherulitic rhyolite, all reward the beachcomber and yet these only scratch the surface. Alluvial fan effects in the low cliffs north of Lerwick. But I’d better not start on cliffs… I’d be here all night.

Fossil fish remains are an extra thrill in Shetland’s geology and I can’t think why Tyrannosaurus rex, which trips so easily off the tongues of dinosaur-mad young­sters, shouldn’t be dropped in favour of Tristichopterus alatus and Asterolepis thule, ancient fish species, which swam in the lakes in Devonian times, long before dinosaurs were even a twinkle in the eye of evolution.

Native plants, aspen, rowan, Shetland’s own chickweed, are familiar names to plant enthusiasts here, but how about the far older Psilophyton and the Hostimellids, preserved in fossil plant fragments in Shetland? They surely deserve a place in the Shetland geology celebrity list.

But it all has to stop somewhere and much as I might wish to go on and on, I can hear a bit of a commotion in the house. I can’t quite believe my ears, but it sounds like: “Jill, Jill, come quick, there’s a mouse, swimming in the toilet!”

Surely not. Sorry, I’ll have to dash. More next week.

Jill Slee Blackadder


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