Scotland’s Explosive History: Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland

Book cover shows a knob of volcanic rock looming over the Scottish countryside.
Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland

Let me admit from the start: I have a complicated relationship with Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland.

I mean, volcanoes! Scotland!! What an awesome subject. Amazon classifies it as a textbook, while Brian Upton states in his Foreword that he was trying to “write a reasonably non-technical explanation for the general public.” The book is a slog, I won’t lie. I read textbooks and scientific papers for fun, and yet I struggled mightily with this. It’s a dense, not a breezy, read. (Stick with it, though, because it does get better in later chapters.)

But! Brian Upton is actually really good at explaining igneous petrology. Like, the various feldspars used to make me feel slightly panicky, but after Chapter 3 I really felt I was beginning to get them. If I’d had a chapter like this at the beginning of my geologic adventures, I would have greeted those shiny little buggers with far more joy and much less trepidation.

However, Upton and editors get pretty careless at times, leaving glaring errors in the text. Sierra del Ruiz, seriously? Mount St. Helens in Oregon?! At times, I wondered if the editors had bothered editing at all. I mean, yes, granted, they are in Scotland and the volcanoes in question are in the New World, but you’d expect the editors to know how to use Google at least! Ugh.

On the other hand, the lush illustrations abundantly affixed to the beautiful glossy paper makes you forgive many sins, especially if you aren’t lucky enough to spend much time in Scotland. It is so pretty! And the photography in this book was extremely well done and well-chosen. The photos, diagrams, and maps clearly illustrate the locations and features being discussed in the text. It’s lush and I love it.

If you’re going to do more than look at the pictures, you’ll need to prepare yourself. Many of the words and concepts in here will be difficult for those who aren’t already familiar with them. This isn’t a US publication, so there’s also the matter of British scientists using scientific terms that aren’t as common over here. But as long as you take your time and look up the stuff that’s unfamiliar, you won’t need a volcanology degree to understand it. And Upton’s use of the harder words and concepts will probably be very welcome to those already familiar with volcano science.

For those of us who aren’t that familiar, delights are there to be unlocked once you Google some terms. You’ll learn things about how volcanoes, magma, and plate tectonics behave that you never realized were possible.

I like the way that Upton tells the history of Scottish volcanism, starting at the most recent activity and working his way back through deep time. And he helps you feel like an igneous detective, having to reconstruct the past from heavily eroded and altered present clues. He also explains things about how magma makes its way to the surface that I’d never encountered before, like the fact that water can become a supercritical fluid when heated far past its boiling point by a body of fresh, hot magma. Things like that ease any frustrations with this book quite well.

And it’s clear that Upton loves Scotland’s geology dearly. That adoration shines through on every page. The further you get through the book, the more you forgive its rocky start and earlier unforced errors. The landscapes spring to life despite the dense, technical language: volcanoes! Orogenies! Continents rifting! Continents colliding! Large igneous provinces! It is incredible how much hawt plate tectonics action is captured in those rocks, just how much geologic drama has been witnessed by that small island. By the end of the book, you’ll adore Scotland in a whole new way.

This is not an easy read, but it’s ultimately a rewarding one. Despite its early mistakes, it’s a truly good survey of Scotland’s volcanic past. You’ll learn things about volcanoes, magma, and how we read highly altered rocks that you never knew before. The final paragraph is downright poetic. I’m glad I spent the last few months slowly savoring it, and now my only question is: when are we all going to Scotland to see those lovely rocks for ourselves?

Scotland’s Explosive History: Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland