Secrets from a Sketchy Notebook

The promise and potential of a blank new notebook and its crisp pages is exciting; beckoning brainstorming, creativity, and the potential of a new project. The notebook is the fundamental record of science and every geologist has one.

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Cadell and his thrust-belt apparatus in 1887. Image credit: BGS P612832

Dr Henry Moubray Cadell was a Scottish geologist and geographer, noted for his work on the Moine Thrust, the oil-shale fields of West Lothian, and experiments in mountain building. He travelled the full length of the Irrawaddy River in Burma and spent many months in the field. His notebook from the 1880’s is a work of science and art – recording his observations and experiments on mountain-building in Scotland.

This gentleman-geologist had an idea that large compressive forces folded layers of rock that could create a landscape of deformed thrust belts. This new thinking was a major step forward in understanding how mountains formed, but Cadell’s notebook goes beyond recording observations about orogenies. From landscapes to cross-sections to his early experiments on understanding thrust-fold mountain ranges, Cadell’s notebooks are entrancing and envy-worthy.

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Pencil sketch of glacial moraine Craig Choral and Craig na Faolinn with Loch Eriboll. Image credit: H.M. Cadell BGS P612737

In the Scottish countryside, Cadell observed crumpled terrain and recorded details at a range of details from quick sketches to elaborate landscape watercolours. Some notes are quick jots with scant details and only basic shapes, hints of structure, and just enough information to evoke a terrain. However, the landscapes are each followed by more technical detailed expositions and annotated sketches. These drawings played a key role in geological interpretation and planning of his next field traverse.

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Section at Drummond Hill. Image credit: H.M. Cadell BGS P680479

Cadell’s notebooks document his testing of a hypothesis that developed into a theory that the mountainous landscape was the result of massive compressive forces squeezing the land together. In 1885, he built a “squeeze box” to test his ideas. He layered deformable sediments, applied pressure, and compared the results to what he observed in the Scottish Highlands.

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Notebook recording experimental trials. Image credit: H.M. Cadell BGS P612789

One of the sketches (below) is captioned “From peak to peak, the mighty elephant leaps with delirious bounds.” This cartoon is embedded between pages of field notes from mapping the Assynt—Ullapool area, an area largely mapped by Hinxman, another geologist. Hinxman reported he traversed the peak with unidentified companions H—- and C—-, most likely Horne and Cadell, in June 1888. The drooping elephant who abandoned his booze on the right peak is labelled Hinxman’s elephant, while the clearly-inebriated elephant clutches its booze on the right is HMC. It’s also recorded that the landowner had forbidden geologists from surveying the territory as they viewed geologists as “no use but to frighten the deer and upset the Bible”!

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Leaping elephants dated June 6th, 1888. Image credit: H.M. Cadell BGS P612785

The reason for making this drawing is unclear. It may have been an idle sketch whilst having lunch or just pausing for thought. Regardless, it is clear that Cadell is pausing for thought and actively thinking in the field. I have learned to leave entire pages blank for similar sketches – many have been no more than doodles, but others have been continually redrafted as my ideas shaped the sketch, and the sketch shaped my ideas.

Read more about Cadell in the Edinburgh Geological Society publications here and here, or view more photographs of Cadell’s notebook in the British Geological Survey gallery.

This article was originally written by Mika McKinnon and redrafted for ‘On The Rocks’ by Dr. Catherine Rose, Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. 

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