A Scottish Earthquake Remembered? December 29, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
David Murray Rose was a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historian and, a far nicer word, an antiquarian. This comes from a letter he wrote in 1930 to the Inverness Courier and relates to an obsession of this blog: the degree to which information can be transmitted orally through time. First, the legend.
Many years ago [late nineteenth century?] when roaming in Sutherland I often heard from aged people, who were well up in local traditions, etc. about a huge mountain in Sutherland that was made ‘as flat as a pancake’, and transformed into a loch by a terrible earthquake. The late Dr Joaas [?] of Golspie, told me he heard about the catastrophe but could never ascertain the period or the locality.
Rose had, however, stumbled upon information elsewhere. In a ‘news letter’ dated 1690 there was the following snippet of news.
We have advice from Sutherland in the North of a mountain in that country which removed out its place by an Earthquake, and there being some country houses at the foot of the Hill, which was a Rock of Stone on that side, the Rock did tumble over and killed 16 people, a great many horses, sheep, and other cattle, and persons from thence affirm that the place where the Hill was now altogether playne and in a Lough of Water.
Rose finishes: ‘Here we have tradition supported by contemporary evidence, but unfortunately there is no indication of the locality.’ If we can trust Rose, and elsewhere he wrote about Nessie and the burial grounds of dragons so maybe refrain from blind faith, then this is an exciting example of a traumatic event making it through two hundred years without the assistance of quills or typewriters. Another Scottish two-hundred yearer may be some killings before the Battle of Dunbar. Rose was so knowledgeable in terms of Highland Scottish books, I think we can assume there is no nineteeenth century reference because he would have sniffed it out. Any other thoughts: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com or better still any other dramatic examples of oral transmission?
30 Dec 2013: From Scotland comes this email from the Count: It’s not actually all that rare for earthquakes to happen in the UK, it’s just that they tend to be very small ones. In fact, technically they happen almost every day, but you need scientific instruments to detect them, let alone worry about them. Even the bigger ones are very seldom big enough to cause any real damage, but they’re rare enough that a tiny tremor that would cause a citizen of San Francisco momentary unease are national news in these parts. Even so, we do get surprisingly many. Check out this list! And here’s a very detailed list of Earthquakes in Inverness from c. 1770-1900. It’s worth remembering that the Great Glen (which includes Loch Ness) is a major geological fault running diagonally across Scotland. Although it’s officially classed as inactive, it might be expected to grumble a bit from time to time. Though I think the tale may have grown in the telling somewhat. While it’s possible that a huge boulder might have come loose from the hillside and caused a fair bit of death and destruction as is claimed – that would be an excellent reason why this particular earthquake was remembered when perhaps there were others that were forgotten because they were very frightening at the time, but nothing really bad happened – claims that an entire mountain was destroyed, or at least moved significantly, are unlikely to say the least. I don’t think there are any known examples of an earthquake that powerful anywhere on the planet, ever! You also will notice that the 1690 account says a mountain ‘moved out of place’ and a ‘hill’ was utterly destroyed and turned into a loch, whereas by 1930 the claim is that the whole mountain was obliterated – you can actually see the story growing. Note that a major earthquake in that area – and by “major” I mean major for the UK, though not that spectacular by Japanese or Californian standards – would have been felt in places like Aberdeen, Dundee, and perhaps even Edinburgh, and it would have taken an extremely major one indeed to alter the local landscape to that extent! So we’re probably talking about a very small one which only the locals noticed, which unfortunately dislodged a loose rock. Since this was the one in which people died, it would be natural for people hearing the tale second-hand to assume it was far bigger than all the others, and the implausible bits got added on later. The only alternative is that drastic subsidence did in fact cause a small hill to literally sink into the ground, which would certainly make the earth shake nearby, even if it wasn’t technically an earthquake. But since this would require there to be a gigantic cavern for the hill to disappear into, it isn’t really all that plausible. Another odd thing is that, although there do seem to have been quite a number of Scottish earthquakes over the years, the epicenters of most of the fairly powerful ones form a very distinct cluster near Kyle of Lochalsh. The randomly googled ‘Scottish earthquake’ image you used to illustrate this post shows one such. The trouble is, the earthquake you’re actually talking about supposedly took place in Sutherland, 100 miles to the northeast. Since all the details are very specific except the location – Sutherland is a big place – or indeed the date, I have to wonder if the whole story was perhaps a garbled and exaggerated account of something which happened in another part of Scotland altogether? There don’t seem to be any accounts of major earthquakes anywhere in Northern Scotland round about 1690 or for quite a while before that date, so the story may already have been doing the rounds for quite a while even in 1690. So which earthquake did it actually refer to, if any? As already noted, most Scottish earthquakes had their epicenters 100 or so miles southwest of Sutherland, so if they were strong enough to cause serious damage there, you’d expect far more dramatic reports from locations elsewhere. And the other hotspot, Inverness, is even further to the south, and also the largest town (recently elevated to city) in the Highlands. An earthquake near Inverness powerful enough to dislodge huge boulders in Sutherland would be felt in Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh, and of course, very strongly felt in Inverness! We’d undoubtedly have plenty of first-hand evidence that it really happened. But there’s a third earthquake hotspot that’s a better candidate here – this list from the British Geological Survey may be helpful. The most powerful earthquakes ever to have hit the UK fortunately took place a considerable distance from land, in the middle of the North Sea. Naturally, they would tend to be felt most strongly in the northernmost parts of Scotland. Looking at the list, we have a very vague description of a 1622 earthquake that might fit the bill, though too little information is available to really say. And there were fairly powerful quakes in 1608 and 1597 that could have been the guilty party, but both of these were a long way south of Sutherland, and didn’t cause major damage even near their epicenters. However, we do have accounts from 24 December 1601 and some time in February 1602 of quakes with a probable North Sea origin that were felt as far away as London! Since there’s less data concerning the second, which was either a less powerful and very tardy aftershock, or the original quake misreported as happening a couple of months later, I would have to say that what you probably have here is an exaggerated report, collected in or around 1690, of something which happened almost a century earlier, on Christmas Eve 1601. That, or a very small quake which only affected the local area significantly. But if it really was powerful enough to have any impact whatsoever on the landscape – maybe a landslide which didn’t make a hill actually move or vanish, but may have altered its contours and created a nearby hollow that became a small lake – it would surely have to be the North Sea quake of 1601. *** Andy the Mad Monk makes a similar point: An earthquake that flattens a mountain is quite substantial, and would have been felt over a wide area, and would have been recorded. I felt the 2008 Market Rason earthquake, which had an epicentre in Lincolnshire and was magnitude 5.2 – I was in South London at the time, about 150 miles away. 5.2 to 5.5 is srtong enough to damage some chimneys. Even with a logarithmic scale, the force required to bring down a mountain should be substantially more than this, so would be felt over a wider area. Wikipedia gives a list of earthquakes in the British Isles None seem to be of a magnitude required to bring down a mountain. I would suspect either a major avalanche, which would seem like an earthquake to locals, or the colapse of a cavern or sinkhole, which could make a hollow mountain suddenly disappear. Having said all that there were several strong 17th C earthquakes in Scotland recorded. Worth reading this summary for details: Thanks to Andy and the Count!
28 Feb 2014: Wade writes in with this thought given the confusion about earthquake terminology: personally this is the most convincing explanation I’ve found. ‘I reread your post about the mysterious Scottish earthquake of 1690 and thought of a possible – albeit unlikely – explanation. I wonder if the original description in fact describes a large landslide after an extended torrential storm. That would have seen only localized effects, seemed like an earthquake in the immediate vicinity if a whole hillside gave way and might have generated the account in a garbled form. There are probably large problems with this idea, but when hurricanes hit Central America there is usually flooding and sometimes terrible landslides take out villages.’ Thanks Wade!