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Netherlorn and its Neighbourhood
Chapter I - General Characteristics


"Geology may be regarded as the science of landscape: it is to the landscape painter what anatomy is to the historic one or the sculptor…. Landscapes are tablets roughened with the records of the past; and the various features, whether of hill or valley, terrace or escarpment, form the bold and graceful characters in which the narrative is inscribed." – HUGH MILLER.

It may appear a truism to say that the geological structure and history of a country are responsible for its scenery; but it is not so long ago since it was recognised that the present features of the land are due, not to the powers of subterranean convulsions of nature which were supposed to have reared the hills on high, and cleft open the valleys, but to the simple denuding agencies of air, rain, and frost; agencies which grind slowly, persistent and ruthless, more mighty in their effects than the greatest cataclysms of which history relates. While of course we recognise the great earth: movements, which in the ages have alternately raised and submerged the land, plicating and crumpling the strata and giving the general trend to the surface; it is to these simple agencies, acting upon the lines of least resistance, taking advantage of the peculiarities of fault and structure, that the diverse details of the land which constitute its scenic features are due. The picturesque mountain chains of the Highlands are but the relies of denudation; they have been sculptured out of a huge tableland by the erosion of the valleys; the process is still going on, and will go on until a "base level" is reached, when again a new series of rocks composed of the ruins of the old may be upreared, to be subjected to the same ceaseless waste, and a new configuration be given to the surface of the land.

From the varied resistance to erosion presented by different natures of rock, we find each rock formation having a distinct type of scenery. Thus in quartzite regions the hills assume conical forms- the paps or "ciche" of so many districts; while the riven peaks or "stuc" of schist, and hummocky ridges of slate, and the precipitous hills or "bidean " of basalt, are familiar features of the places where these rocks predominate. Again, the character of the underlying strata has its influence upon the vegetation which clothes the surface; from the grassy covering of basalt or limestone regions, the rugged and heathery slopes of gneiss, to the sterile bare peaks of quartzite.

We would expect therefore that where different geological formations succeed or alternate quickly in a comparatively small area, the scenery would be of an agreeably diversified nature.

Now from the shores of Jura and Scarba to the waters of Loch Awe - a region embracing the district of Netherlorn - an interesting sequence of the old metamorphic rocks of the Highlands appears. On the west we find a great mountain chain of quartzite, rising in Beinn-an-oir, one of the Jura paps, to over 2,500 feet; then great thicknesses of clay slate of perfect cleavage and great hardness constitute the bed rock of the interesting group of slate islands-Sell, Luing, Easdale, Shuna, Torsa, Belnahua, and many others: the slate in its turn passing into the schists and conglomerates of Loch Awe and Kilmartin. These stratified rocks are of immense antiquity: they are pre-Cambrian in geological chronology. Subsequently, in the old Red Sandstone and Tertiary times, there were periods of great volcanic activity, when large sheets of igneous rock over-poured the country, appearing as sills or ledges between the beds, or forcing their way across the strata of the older rocks in the form of dykes or veins of intrusive material, or overlying all in huge thicknesses. Many of the hills of the district are built up of this rock. The terraced declivities show the edges of the sills; while the dykes, easily traceable for many miles, and seldom more than l00 yards apart, cross the country from south-east to north-west: here, where they are of harder material than the surrounding rock, standing in relief, grey lichen-covered ramparts, locally known as "stac"; there, where they are more easily eroded, leaving picturesque ravines or dark gullies, the "sloc" of Gaelic phraseology. Sometimes we find a "soft" and a "hard" dyke side by side, and then, especially if it so happen on the sea-shore, where the enormous force of the waves aids the ordinary sub-aerial agencies to more decisive and striking effect, we see "sloc" and "stac," or gully and dyke, magnifying each other's proportions, making a most striking feature in cliff scenery.

To this diversity of structure and consequent diversity in scenery, the landscapes of the district owe their charm. There is no monotony. Mountain, moor, glen and fiord, river and loch blend fitly. The long, narrow and tortuous indentations which pierce and embarb the rough bounds, stretching to the foot of that mountain chain which for ages has been known as Druim Albain (the ridge of Albain, Dorsum Britanniae), mellow as if by stealth the solemn grandeur of the mountains and valleys: they add the contrast of the ever-changing sea to the "everlasting hills": the freshness and warmth of the ocean penetrate to the heart of the district. The shattered scalps and riven precipices of the summits are succeeded by the heath-covered slopes strewn with grey scars and boulders, which in their turn merge into broad terraces of grassy alluvium bordering the edge of the fiord and river.

It is related that, during a fear of foreign invasion, instructions were given to the Lord Lieutenants of counties, should a descent by the enemy upon the coast be imminent, the cattle and sheep were to be driven at least 12 miles from the sea; so deeply, however, have these sea lochs been carved into the heart of the country, that it was found that, with the exception of a narrow strip of the Blackmount in the extreme north-east, no part of the large county of Argyll was that distance inland.

Again, the peculiar trend of the coast-line of south-western Argyllshire cannot fail to strike the observer. The long narrow promonteries of land and chains of narrow islands, alternating with valleys and arms of the sea, are arranged in "echelon" of parallel lines passing from north-east to south-west, and this direction has been determined, in the first instance at any rate, by the effects of great earth movements. Some mighty squeezing force passing from the south-east has thrust and thrown the rocks into billows of contorted strata folding towards the north-west, and the valleys have been subsequently cut out by the ordinary processes of sub-aerial denudation along the axes of these plications.

These western sea lochs are true fiords – submerged valleys - portions of the glen which passes down from the "col" at the watershed or the corrie on the mountain-side to the head of the loch. When the great ice sheet which rounded the hills and ridges left by previous ages of denudation began to disappear, mighty ice streams continuously fed by the snows were left in the valleys. These in their resistless march seawards, carrying along with them sheets of detritus, disrupted the subjacent rocks, pounding them into clay and mud, broadening and deepening the valley. They increased in strength until a point of maximum pressure was reached, where necessarily the power of erosion would be greatest; and so we find the greatest depth in the fiord much nearer the eastern termination at a point where the shadows of the hills still darken the surface, shoaling gradually in its progress westward until, as the loch debouches on to the general coast-line, the lip of the submarine basin appears as a submerged reef or chain of bare skerries. Loch Etive or Loch Craignish are types of such a fiord. At Connel Ferry, the western end of the former, we find the waters at low tide pouring in a surging cascade over the edge of a submarine cliff, so that a rise of a few feet in the level! of the coast would convert that splendid sheet of water into a fresh-water lake.

Fiord and glen then are the product of the glacier, and on the hillsides we can trace the mark of its burin, we can tell by the ice scratches the direction of its flow, while the grass-covered moraines, and the tenacious clay which beds the fiords, are further proofs of its once mighty presence.

The Netherlorn country partakes in an eminent degree of this admixture of sea and landscape. It stretches from the foot of mighty Cruachan to the western seas, a broad plateau of land - attaining in Beinn-a-Chapull a height of 1,700 feet, but seldom exceeding 1,000 - intersected by ravines and glens, leaving broad ridges of moorland which are continued into the sea in tongue-like promontories or nesses. But while the country lacks the Alpine character of many parts of the Highlands, it gains, in the archipelago of emerald islands which fringe its coasts, a peculiar beauty. Islands, "Confusedly hurled, The fragments of an earlier world," varying in size from to square miles downwards, are scattered in profusion all over this part of the Firth of Lorn. Bounding the whole on the south-west, the huge truncated cone of Scarba, seldom without its hood of misty vapour, storms the clouds; while further north, on the fringe of the sea, the grassy slopes of the Holy Islands appear in isolated beauty, guarding the entrance of the Firth of Lorn, the confines of the district in this direction.

The western and north-western aspect of these shores, exposed to the fury of the gales and breakers, is generally rocky and precipitous; in many places the precipices descending sheer into the sea, in others the crag line retreating a hundred yards or so, leaving long stretches of flat raised beach between it and the present shore. These raised beaches belong to the "twenty-five feet" series, and are a prominent feature of the coast. Along the sides of a defile or "bealach" landslips frequently lay bare the strata and expose traces of a still higher beach, covered with water-worn boulders, and strewn with the shells of the common limpet and other existing species of mollusc.

From these heights the land slopes eastward to the shores of the sea lochs and straits. The declivities are dotted with farm homesteads, while tracts of brilliant green pasture interspersed with thickets of broom and furze pass downwards to the shore, where the absence of heavy seas allows a fringe of turf with a dense coating of stunted grass to maintain a position well below high-water mark. The heads of the promontories are coated with thick coppices of hazel, and the steeper sides towards the heads of the inlets are thickly covered with a natural growth of ash, rowan, thorn, oak, and other indigenous trees. In some of the more inland lochs the scenery is still further varied by the numerous plantations of spruce, fir, and larch, stretching over the lower hummocky hills, along the dark ravines, and high up the acclivities.

The insulous and indented nature of the country is well seen if we ascend one of the higher hills of the island of Seil. Gazing southwards it is possible to determine no less than thirty-two isolated patches of sea. To the stranger it appears a country abounding in fresh-water lakes and tarns; and it is difficult to dispel the illusion, the scene being so devoid of evidences which indicate the proximity of the ocean.

This intricacy of parts-the juxtaposition of mainland, promontory, and island, with their diversified covering, the varied expanses of land-locked ocean, and the sinuosity of the narrow channels which connect these, often in the most unexpected way - creates a series of land and seascapes of romantic arid unrivalled beauty. On a summer day when the waters are still; when the vista of shimmering islands appears stretching away into infinitude, their green colouring fading into the grey mist of the distance; when the steep wooded precipices of the mainland are reflected on a mirror of pellucid azure - a diaphane of crag, copse, and fleecy cloud - we view a scene of that subdued grandeur which arises from the contemplation of the uncertain and infinite; a scene which, as it has nothing of the awesome monotony of mountain scenery, has nothing of the commonplace of the plains. It is scenery which causes the soul to long for deeper contemplation, which we gaze upon with delight, from which we are unwilling to depart.


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