Farming and Hutton the Geologist

James Hutton’s early curiosity in geology was awakened by his farming activities coupled undoubtedly with his fascination for chemistry. As early as 1753, while in his mid-twenties and having commenced his farming career, in a letter to Sir John Hall, Hutton is quoted as saying “that he was become very fond of studying the surface of the earth, and was looking with anxious curiosity into every pit or ditch or bed of a river that fell in his way”.

Hutton’s farms are on contrasting terrains – a fact unlikely to have missed his acute sense of observation. He was himself directly involved in clearing, cultivating and draining his lowland farm, providing him with an opportunity to observe the nature of soils and rocks. As a young farmer Playfair tells us, Hutton noticed that “a vast proportion of the present rocks are composed of materials afforded by the destruction of bodies, animal, vegetable and mineral, of more ancient formation”. It is apparent from John Playfair’s biography that Hutton’s ideas began to come together to form a Theory of the Earth in 1760, and while he was still farming, he took a geological tour in 1764 of the north of Scotland with George Maxwell-Clerk.