Hillswick: a cautionary tale of the ups and downs of geological fieldwork

I’ve just come back from sampling various Caledonian rocks in Shetland for the start of my PhD. 10 days in that gorgeous little archipelago, which nestles quietly between the Atlantic and the North Sea. 

One of the aims of the field trip was to collect samples for geochronological analysis from a little peninsula on Mainland Shetland called Hillswick. Mostly because there were reports in the early literature of massive garnets from there, and that’s one of the main focuses of my PhD. And with a geological map that looks like this, how could I refuse the challenge?

Myself and one of my supervisors, Anna, went there for just one afternoon initially. But surely one afternoon isn’t enough to sort out such a mess? Of course it’s not, but a few things clouded our judgement that day. 

Firstly: the midges

Anyone who has ever done any living, walking, camping, working etc in Scotland at this time of year will be familiar with the Highland Midge. For those who haven’t, they look like this:

They are bastards. They’re small, swarmy, and like to eat poor unsuspecting geologists alive. I was clearly unimpressed by the little beasts in Hillswick, here’s an extract of my field notebook, complete with squashed midge (I draw you’re attention to the title of the page).

Secondly: Space Dementia

People all have different names for this, but Anna called it this, and it just stuck. I’m sure everyone has experienced it, but this was my Hillswick experience of it. 

We had been rained on heavily, it was humid, and warm (for Shetland), and critically there was no wind. We had to dodge some rather fierce looking cows, and plough through a field full of wet knee-high grass. Half way through the field something snapped inside me. 

In the rain, being eaten alive by midges, in knee-high grass to the sound of distant cows I just stood there and laughed. For 10 minutes. 

Space dementia – it’s like cabin fever, but for geologists. 

Thirdly: RiP hammer

Like my sanity, my trusty Estwing hammer didn’t make it out of that field alive. I realised when I got to the next outcrop and realised I needed something a little more delicate than the 14lbs sledgehammer we also had with us. 

But I wasn’t going back to that field. Who knew what mental or physical torture would await me…

We found some OK samples, but nothing too spectacular.

 A few moderately garnetiferous amphibolites (see above), but none of the massive garnets we’d been expected. So we went dejectedly home and made a rather large hole in a bottle of whisky. (see below, evidence from the following evening)


A few days later, we’d recovered from the Hillswick trauma, and decided to give it another crack (now that the windspeed had increased somewhat). 

We picked up another hammer, avoided the strange farm animals, defied vertigo on the sheer cliffs, and eventually found what we were looking for. 


Beautiful, beautiful garnets! The geology of Hillswick is so bizarre that I have no idea what age these garnets will give. Who knows whether they’ll be 1.2 billion year old, or 430 million years? I guess I’ll find out. 

But one thing’s for sure. I’m glad I went back, despite the stress. 

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