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Giant’s Causeway to get a new visitor centre 22 January 2010

Posted by admin in volcanoes.
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Giant's Causeway, looking north. Picture by J. M. Pulsford, 1969 (NERC/British Geological Survey)
The Giant’s Causeway, looking north. Picture by J. M. Pulsford, 1969 (NERC/British Geological Survey). Via GeoScenic, image reference P225386.

The Giant’s Causeway on the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland was formed around 60 million years ago by the eruption of large volumes of lava that cooled rapidly to form an extensive basalt field fractured into columnar units. The volcanism that produced the Causeway, and similar structures in what is now Scotland, was associated with the Thulean basaltic province.

In a notable example of ‘volcano tourism’ the resulting spectacular formation has been one of the most popular tourist attractions in the north of Ireland for around 300 years, and has inspired some interesting visitor infrastructure, perhaps most notably the Giant’s Causeway Tramway. In 1986 the Giant’s Causeway was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the only such site to date in Ireland. The site has been without a visitor centre, however, since the last one burned down in April 2000. The business of replacing the destroyed facility with a new one has been long-drawn-out and murky even by the standards of Northern Ireland, but it looks as if it may finally be coming to a conclusion with the news that construction of the new visitor centre is about to begin following the awarding of a £3 million lottery grant.

The BBC News story reporting the grant is a questionable piece of work: it seems rather odd to say something about the legendary origin of the causeway (a piece of extempore construction work by Irish giant Finn McCool) but to say nothing about how the feature was actually formed. The report also describes the Causeway’s rock formations as ‘unique’, which they certainly are not, and ends by saying:

The ‘discovery’ of the causeway was announced in a paper to the Royal Society in 1693. At that time, there was furious debate over whether the causeway had been created by men with picks and chisels, by nature, or by the efforts of a giant called Finn.

This can charitably be described as a mischaracterization of the debate, which was between those arguing that the Giant’s Causeway was an artificial structure and those who believed it to be natural, the latter group being further divided between advocates of volcanic and non-volcanic explanations. No-one seriously suggested in 1693 or afterwards that the thing had been built by ‘a giant called Finn’ (who is of course the legendary Finn McCool mentioned earlier in the story, although the author doesn’t seem to have spotted that).

UPDATE. Since the above was posted, the BBC has edited and slightly improved its report, which currently ends: ‘Scientists now agree the naturally-formed patterns of rock were formed 65 million years ago by volcanic activity’ (yes, science has abandoned the ‘built by giants’ hypothesis). The original version can still be seen at the News Sniffer’s Revisionista monitoring service.

The Volcanism Blog