Geology and man

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Stone, P, McMillan, A A, Floyd, J D, Barnes, R P, and Phillips, E R. 2012. British regional geology: South of Scotland. Fourth edition. Keyworth, Nottingham: British Geological Survey.


After the final deglaciation of southern Scotland, early humans spread into the region. Evidence for Mesolithic occupation is tantalisingly sparse, but by Neolithic times, about 5000 years ago, there was a well-established population. In that period, and the succeed­ing Bronze Age, the local rock was utilised for chambered cairns, cup and ring carvings, stone circles and individual standing stones, the latter showing a particular concentration in the Wigtown–Whithorn peninsula. The town of Whithorn was a centre of early Christianity, founded by St Ninian in 397 AD. There, the local Silurian wacke sandstone of the Hawick Group was used for carved religious monuments, a practice that spread across Galloway and beyond from the 5th century onwards.

Since that early time, the interaction between man and the geology of southern Scotland has developed and ramified. Much of the region, particularly that underlain by Lower Palaeo­zoic rocks and granite, is relatively unproductive upland suited mainly for sheep farming and forestry and is therefore sparsely populated. The bulk of the population is located in scattered towns and villages along the main valleys and on lower ground near the coast where arable farming is possible. Some villages such as Leadhills and Wanlockhead owe their existence to the local lead-zinc mineralisation and would not be there but for that reason. Similarly, towns such as Kirkconnel in Nithsdale and Rowanburn near Canonbie grew rapidly during the heyday of the mined coal industry, but then saw their commercial importance reduce as that industry declined.

The traditional transport links across the region skirt the higher ground, following the coastal lowlands, but the main north–south route crosses the Southern Uplands, rising over the watershed between the catchments of the rivers Annan and Clyde. It was radically developed at the end of the 20th century with the construction of the M74 motorway. One of the main challenges faced by this major engineering project involved the excavation and stabilisation of large cuttings through the Lower Palaeozoic sandstone–mudstone succession. Much of the same route is followed by the railway and other infrastructure features such as gas distribution pipelines. In stark contrast, the Southern Upland Way, a 340 km long-distance footpath, runs from west to east linking Portpatrick, on the Rhins of Galloway, with Cove and Cockburnspath on the North Sea coast. For much of its length the Southern Upland Way traverses the rolling hills underpinned by Lower Palaeozoic strata, and in the west runs through the Galloway Forest Park where it skirts the Doon and Fleet granitic plutons. Celebrated mountain-biking routes are also found in the Forest Park, which comprises about 780 km2 largely devoted to forestry. Its remoteness is well illustrated by its designation in November 2009 as Europe’s first ‘Dark Sky Park’. The Galloway Forest Park attracts about 850 000 visitors each year and demonstrates the importance to the local economy of ‘wilderness tourism’.


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