Field Camp in Scotland

Maggie here –

I recently returned from a five-week field camp in Scotland. Field camp is a course that most geologists participate in that is intended to teach students how to collect geologic measurements in the field, recognize geologic structures like folds and faults, understand age relationships of the rock, and ultimately make sense of all of this by making maps and cross sections (interpretations of what the surface geology looks like underground). Field camps are incredibly important as geology students because it reinforces the ideas that the best geologists are those that have seen the most rocks and that geology needs to be learned outside, not just in the classroom.

Figure 1. Geologic map of Scotland. From the key you can see that Scotland has a lot of different rock types that represent much of the time in Earth’s history. The dashed yellow lines that have been drawn in follow the path of two major faults in Scotland; the Great Glen Fault to the North and the Highland Boundary Fault to the south.
So, why Scotland for field camp? Scotland is an interesting location geologically, because for much of Earth’s history it was essentially a ping pong ball with sections of the country getting added on by collisions with other continents as it bounced around. If you look at a map of Scotland you can see two almost parallel lines dividing the country into three pieces (Figure 1). The top most fault is the Great Glen Fault which runs through the city of Inverness and Loch Ness (where the Loch Ness monster resides). The fault further to the south is the Highland Boundary Fault which does divide the country into the Highlands and Lowlands. Each of these pieces was accreted (added on) during a different collisional event. Surprisingly, the last, and youngest, collisional event that happened, when Baltica (Northwestern Europe) collided with Laurentia (North America, Greenland, Scotland), deposited the oldest rocks that you can see in Scotland. These rocks are ~3.2 billion years old and they lay on top of limestone that is ~540 million years old (Figure 2). Seeing this age relationship in the field tells us that something crazy was happening geologically!

Field camp is a lot like summer camp mixed with a typical college class-there is a lot of fun to be had with fellow rock nerds, but also a lot of learning and homework to be done. On a typical day we would leave our hostel or house by 8:30am, work in the field, mapping and collecting data, (either in small groups or individually), leave the field around 5pm, go home and cook dinner for your small group, then work on interpretations of our data and prettying up our maps. Usually at the end of the week we would have a larger project to hand in based on the maps that we had made that week and our interpretations of the area (Figure 3).

Going to field camp can seem daunting at first, especially if you are going on one outside of your home country, but truly is an important experience in learning to be a geologist. Like practicing a sport or instrument, you have to practice geology skills in order for them to become second nature and field camp is the best place for that practice. For a lot of people, this is where geologists have their first “I am a geologist” moment. So, for anyone who wants to be a geologist (or paleontologist or other earth scientist) get outside and look at some rocks and fossils and start observing, because the best geologist has seen the most rocks!

Figure 2. “The Sandwich” roadstop. In this image the red dashed lines represent two thrust faults from the Moine Thrust in northwestern Scotland. The bottom of the sandwich in the left bottom corner of the picture is 540 million year old rock, the middle is 3.2 billion year old rock, and the top of the sandwich is 1.2 billion year old rock. The geology of the Moine Thrust is still being studied due to the complex nature of the rocks in the area.
Figure 3. Summary map of the Ross of Mull (Isle of Mull off the West coast of Scotland) based on five field localities. The areas that are boxed in and shaded darker are the field localities visited by our group with the rest of the map shaded based on interpretations of the area. This map is pretty typical of a final project that we were asked to complete for each region that we were in during field camp.

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