Canada may have given birth to the Scottish Highlands

Paul Kelbie
Tuesday 23 October 2001 00:00 BST

Scientists are studying Highland rocks to establish whether parts of Scotland originated from Canada, Greenland or Scandinavia.

Geological opinion has long held that much of the Great Glen Fault, which cuts across the Highlands at almost 45 degrees, was made up of rocks formed hundreds of millions of years ago from different parts of the world through volcanic upheavals and the subsequent movement of the Earth's massive tectonic plates.

Now an international collaboration of scientists and geologists, headed by a team from the University of St Andrews, intends to use sophisticated isotope dating techniques to compare Highland rock samples with the results of similar studies elsewhere.

The two-year project may confirm the view that small areas to the north and west of the fault originated in north-west Canada about 1,000 million years before the Atlantic Ocean opened, and were forged with rock from Scandinavia and elsewhere. The study will cover parts of parts of the Lochs Ness, Oich, Lochy and Linnhe.

The first stage of the £42,000 project, funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, is to recover 60 brick-sized rock samples from exposed areas of rock such as river beds and quarries. The rocks will be prepared by technicians at the St Andrews lab, and sent to NERC Isotope Geoscience Labs in Nottingham and the Institute for Mineralogy, Petrology and Geochemistry in Munich for the isotopic age dating.

Their researchers will apply new high-precision uranium lead and samarium neodynium techniques which can date rocks more than 1,000 million years old, with a margin of error of just 1 per cent.

The team hopes that by studying rock samples containing garnet and zircon from the Highlands, the group will be able to compare their samples with similar rocks from Canada, Greenland and Scandinavia and determine the age and the conditions that caused their formation. At that time, the world's land masses were very different and the present North and South Poles were believed to have been equatorial.

A spokeswoman for St Andrews University said: "Scotland contains the most studied and perhaps the most controversial rocks in the world. The Great Glen is an obvious tectonic linement that cuts across the landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Its significance and importance is still hotly debated."

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