Earthquakes in Scotland

Written by Chris Thornton | 13th of December 2022
Earthquakes in Scotland

Scotland isn't a country you associate with earthquakes, but they do occur on rare occasions and are thankfully very weak and do not cause much damage. In my lifetime (40 years now!) I have never experienced a severe earthquake in Scotland. The only time I have, I felt only the slightest tremor that could have easily gone unnoticed, but even that was a little disconcerting. I feel for countries that have violent earthquakes regularly.

Let's find out more about earthquakes in Scotland.

Where and why earthquakes occur in Scotland

Despite Scotland having relatively mild seismic activity, four fault lines span hundreds of miles across our wee country:

  • Moine Thrust.

  • Great Glen Fault.

  • Highland Boundary Fault.

  • Southern Uplands Fault.

Most of these exist in the Scottish Highlands and Western Scotland. However, the Highland Boundary Fault curves into northeast Scotland and through two national parks, and the Southern Upland Fault arcs from the southwest coast up towards Edinburgh.

What is a fault line?

A fault is a large fracture in the Earth's crust between two tectonic plates; the fault line is where the fault can be seen on the surface. The two plates move and rub against each other; this is why earthquakes occur; the more severe the friction, the stronger the quake.

A fault zone is a cluster of faults all running parallel; we have two fault zones in Scotland.

Despite these fault lines and fault zones, Scotland is still considered a very low seismic area.

Fault lines in Scotland.
The four main fault lines in Scotland.

The Great Glen Fault

The most famous fault line in Scotland is, of course, the Great Glen Fault, which cuts through the country from the southwest to the northeast coast. This fault can be seen from space and is a significant feature of the Scottish landscape. This fault line continues below the Moray Firth / North Sea up to the Shetland Islands in the far northeast.

The Great Glen Fault from space.
Looking directly down the Great Glen Fault from space. Image NASA.

Caledonian Canal

The Caledonian Canal is a canal that runs through the Scottish Highlands and follows the natural line of the Great Glen Fault. It was built in the 19th century and spans 60 miles from Inverness in the northeast to Corpach near Fort William in the southwest.

The canal consists of a series of lochs, including Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness, Loch Oich, and Loch Lochy, connected by man-made channels. The famous Scottish engineer Thomas Telford designed the canal, and it is a popular attraction for boaters and tourists.

Points of interest:

The Caledonian Canal.
The Caledonian Canal follows the Great Glen Fault.

Kessock Bridge

The Kessock Bridge in Inverness gives access to the Black Isle just north of the city (not actually an island, but it shaves a 20-mile journey west via Beauly!). As the bridge was built directly on the Great Glen Fault, it was designed to withstand the possibility of earthquakes (and extreme weather). Completed in 1982, the multi-cable-stayed bridge is now a listed building (Category B status) and is part of the now famous North Coast 500 route around north Scotland.

The Great Glen Fault from space.
The Kessock Bridge, Inverness. Built to withstand an earthquake.

The British Geological Survey

The British Geological Survey (BGS) is a publically-funded organisation that provides geological information and advice to the UK government, the public, and industry. It was established in 1835 and is based in Keyworth, Nottinghamshire; and is part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and employs over 600 scientists, technicians, and support staff. Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom area, so they also cover our country and provide data to the Scottish Government in Edinburgh.

The BGS conducts research on a wide range of geological topics, including the study of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the long-term effects of climate change. It also maintains a comprehensive collection of geological data and maps, which help inform decision-making on environmental, natural resources, and public safety issues.

In America, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) is a similar organisation and can also detect earthquakes in the UK, working closely with BGS.

Who was James Hutton?

James Hutton was a Scottish geologist who is widely considered to be the father of modern geology. Born in 1726, Hutton was a farmer and amateur scientist who studied the rocks and landscapes of his native Scotland. Through his observations and experiments, Hutton developed the concept of uniformitarianism, which posits that the same natural processes that shape the Earth's surface today have been operating throughout its history. Hutton used rock formations from Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh to illustrate his revolutionary ideas.

This idea was a significant departure from the dominant geological theory of the time, which held that the Earth was only a few thousand years old and had been created in a single catastrophic event. Hutton's work laid the groundwork for the development of the modern geological timescale, and his theories are still considered central to geology study.

Scotland from space. Two earthquakes in less than a week.
Scotland as seen from space. The Great Glen Fault is clearly visible.

How often do earthquakes occur in Scotland?

Although I said earthquakes are rare in Scotland, there are around 30 to 50 every year. Many quakes are less than a magnitude of 2 and go unnoticed by the general population. Earthquakes in the UK can number 200-300 each year.

What do earthquakes feel like in Scotland?

When I felt a slight tremor around 20 years ago, it just felt like a little nudge. It was enough for me to notice and ask if anyone else in the house had felt it too. The earthquake I experienced was absolutely tiny compared to devastating quakes in other countries.

Others closer to the epicentre of Scottish earthquakes have described them like:

  • A train rumbling past.

  • A sound like rushing wind.

  • A deep rumbling underground.

It is easier to feel a small earthquake in a very remote area, as road traffic noise, subways or the general hubbub of cities cannot be blamed for unusual movement or sound. Earthquakes would be felt more on the west coast and Highlands areas of Scotland.

Roybridge village resident Michael Sillars said:

"I heard a big rumble and the house shook. It did feel like a really loud, close passing train."

Iain Mcdonald, also just outside Roybridge, commented:

"It was about 9.30pm and I felt the tremor, but I heard it much more. It was really quite loud, like a train rumbling past the house,"

"I knew what it was straight away, I have heard it before and felt the tremor before."

Recent and past earthquakes in Scotland

Here is a list of the most powerful earthquakes in Scotland from the last 150 years.

Date Location Magnitude
26th of August 2022 The North Sea 3.4
14th of December 2021 Knoydart peninsular 1.7
19th of November 2021 Roybridge 2.2
4th of August 2017 Moidart 3.8
29th of September 1986 Oban 4.1
10th of August 1974 Kintail 4.3
28th of November 1880 Argyll 5.2

When was Scotland's largest earthquake?

Scotland experienced its largest earthquake on the 28th of November 1880 in Argyll, West Scotland. This particular earthquake was felt from Perthshire to Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. Lighthouse keepers as far away as the western Hebrides on Lewis and Barra also reported feeling movement from the quake.

1974 Seismic swarm

A 4.3 magnitude earthquake with its epicentre in Kintail was felt in August 1974, leading to a "swarm" of follow-up seismic events that continued into 1975.

Are tourists safe from earthquakes?

Very safe. I have yet to experience a dangerous earthquake in Scotland.

Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh.
Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, situated on the Great Glen Fault.

Are there volcanoes in Scotland?

There are no active volcanoes in Scotland today, but Scotland's dramatic landscape was formed millions of years ago by volcanic activity.

Extinct volcanos in Scotland:

  • Arthurs Seat, Edinburgh.

  • Castle Rock, Edinburgh.

  • Castle Hill, Stirling.

  • Glen Coe (Once a supervolcano).

  • The Black Cuillin, Isle of Skye.

Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh.
Arthur's Seat in central Edinburgh is an extinct volcano.

What about tsunamis in Scotland?

Scotland is not prone to tsunamis as we experience earthquakes on land far below the surface. However, there is historical evidence that a tsunami did occur around 6100BC in the Mesolithic period, caused by a landslide called a "Storegga slide" on the coast of Norway. A large slope of coastal material slipped into the sea, forming a tsunami that swept across the North Sea, hitting Scotland.

This tsunami was thought to have been 21 m / 70ft high and would have been catastrophic to local populations of the time.

Conclusion

Scotland does have earthquakes, but thankfully severe quakes are rare and non-damaging. Earthquakes aren't something you should worry about while visiting Scotland. Even moderate earthquakes in Scotland are considered billions of times weaker than those felt in countries like Japan.

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