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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell   25 September 1874

73 Harley Street, London:

September 25, 1874.

My dear Darwin,—

There is no subject to which Judd oftener referred, and told me he had done so when discussing volcanic questions with Scrope, than your subsidence of St. Jago, as being a general law of volcanic regions.1 The sinking down referred to by me (‘Principles’ vol. ii. 458, ‘Student’s Elements,’ 149–166), as occurring in New Zealand, and which has been confirmed by the New Zealand geologists, corroborates your St. Jago experience.2

Just before I left Scotland Judd made an excursion to revisit the Hebrides, and during a ten days’ absence discovered for the first time carboniferous strata preserved under some two thousand feet of tertiary basalt in the Island of Mull, and he brought to me what I guessed was a Sigillaria and the cast of a Calamite; but when I sent them to Charles Bunbury he pronounced them to be Lepidodendron aculeatum and a Calamite, ordinary carboniferous fossils.3 All this is explained by admitting that in the time of the Miocene volcanos there was a sinking down like that of St. Jago in the island, near the loftiest cone of that island, and one of the five great volcanos which he believes to have existed in the Hebrides, and which may have rivalled the Peak of Teneriffe in height, in the Miocene period. How much grandeur the scenery of the Hebrides must have presented in that same Miocene period, when Madeira was already in continued action, as well as Porto Santo and the Giant’s Causeway, &c.!4 The Duke of Argyll has sent me word that he has found a fossil Salisburia (now a genus growing in Japan) among the fossils of Ardtun in Mull, where he formerly found Asa platanoides.5 I wonder whether the cones of the Hebrides, if they were as high as Etna or the Peak of Teneriffe6 before the sinking down which you observed in St. Jago had taken place, were covered with snow in the Miocene period, when the vegetation at their base, at Ardtun for example, was sub-tropical. As there is now a vast difference in the vegetation of the desert region of Etna usually covered with snow, so in Miocene time it does not follow that volcanos ten or twelve thousand feet high should not have had on their summits a flora very different from that at their base; but these you will say are idle speculations.

It is remarkable how perfectly a sinking in Miocene times, like that which you have supposed or proved for the Cape de Verde Islands, would in Judd’s opinion give a satisfactory solution to the preservation in Mull and in the cliffs on both sides of the Sound of Mull, of those intercalations of poikilitic, triassic, liassic, oolitic, neocomian, cretaceous, and newer strata, of which a full account is to be given before the close of Judd’s paper.7

All the work which I have done with Judd in Forfarshire has confirmed me in the belief that the only difference between Paleozoic and recent volcanic rocks is no more than we must allow for, by the enormous time to which the products of the oldest volcanos have been subjected to chemical changes such as those which turn an olivine basalt into serpentine.

Ever affectionately yours, | Charles Lyell.


See letter to Charles Lyell, 23 September 1874. CD had observed a pronounced dip in the strata beneath a former volcano on St Jago in the Cape Verde islands (see Volcanic islands, p. 9). John Wesley Judd referred to CD’s finding in his discussion of the ancient volcano on the Isle of Mull in the Hebrides (see Judd 1874, p. 257). George Julius Poulett Scrope had recently published on the general occurrence of such subsidence beneath volcanoes (G. J. P. Scrope 1872, p. 225).
Lyell discussed subsidence in New Zealand in Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1872, 2: 82–9) and Student’s elements of geology (C. Lyell 1874, pp. 149–50). The page references in the printed transcription are incorrect.
Charles James Fox Bunbury had worked extensively on fossil plants. Lepidodendron and Sigillaria are genera of extinct treelike Tracheophyta that dominated tropical swamp forests in the late Carboniferous period (Cleal and Thomas 1999, pp. 26, 33–5). Calamites is a genus of extinct tree-like plants within the group commonly known as horsetails; they were most abundant in the late Carboniferous period (Cleal and Thomas 1999, pp. 40, 44–6).
The Giant’s Causeway, on the north-east coast of Northern Ireland, is characterised by interlocking basalt columns that resulted from volcanic activity during the Palaeocene period.
George Douglas Campbell, the duke of Argyll, had discovered an outcropping of fossilised leaves in Ardtun, a peninsula on the Isle of Mull (see Campbell 1851). Salisburia adiantifolia is a synonym of the ancient tree Ginkgo biloba, the last remaining species of ginkgophytes; ginkgophytes date from the Mesozoic period. The only grove of wild ginkgo trees to have been found is in south-east China; however, living specimens have long been preserved in temple gardens in Japan and China (Cleal and Thomas 1999, p. 87). Acer plantanoides is the Norway maple.
Mound Etna and Mount Teide are volcanoes in Sicily and Tenerife, respectively.
See Judd 1878, p. 662.


Campbell, George Douglas. 1851. On tertiary leaf-beds in the Isle of Mull. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 7: 89–103.

Judd, John Wesley. 1874. On the ancient volcanoes of the Highlands and the relations of their products to the Mesozoic strata. [Read 21 January 1874.] Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 30: 220–302.

Judd, John Wesley. 1878. The secondary rocks of Scotland. Third paper. The strata of the Western Coast and Islands. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 34: 660–741.

Lyell, Charles. 1872. Principles of geology or the modern changes of the earth and its inhabitants considered as illustrative of geology. 11th edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray.

Lyell, Charles. 1874. The student’s elements of geology. 2d edition. London: John Murray.

Scrope, George Julius Poulett. 1872. Volcanos: the character of their phenomena, their share in the structure and composition of the surface of the globe, and their relation to its internal forces with a descriptive catalogue of all known volcanos and volcanic formations. 2d edition. London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer.

Volcanic islands: Geological observations on the volcanic islands, visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle, together with some brief notices on the geology of Australia and the Cape of Good Hope. Being the second part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1844.


Notes recent confirmation of CD’s views on subsidence in [island of] St Jago.

Describes Carboniferous strata discovered on Island of Mull by J. W. Judd. Contained evidence of Miocene sinking of volcanoes.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Harley St, 73
Source of text
K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 457

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9658,” accessed on 26 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22