Earthquake House

A stone shed deep in the Perthshire countryside was once the epicentre of earthquake studies. The grand name it possesses, Earthquake House, suggests a place of some size. It is surprising therefore to find that, although significant in terms of geological study, it is rather diminutive in stature.

Dimensions aside, Earthquake House, near Comrie, has been an important centre of seismic research in Scotland since 1874. Its significance lies not in its size, but in its position, on the Highland Boundary Fault.

Thanks to the fault, where the soft sandstone of the central valley rubs against the harder rocks of the Highlands, and other smaller more localised fissures in the ground, the area has witnessed many tremors.

The earliest known earthquake in Scotland hit this corner of Perthshire in July 1597. However, it was not until the latter years of the 18th century that two ministers, Rev R. Taylor and Rev S. Gilfillan, started to compile detailed records. One of the first shocks they noted occurred in Comrie on November 11, 1788. The following year a series of 70 tremors was witnessed and the pair, who regularly sent information to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, documented many more, smaller movements in the ground. However, it was not until the Great Earthquake of 1839 that people sat up and took notice.

The event, which began at 10pm on October 23, cracked walls and toppled chimney pots. The initial large quake was followed by a series of 20 or so smaller shocks that rumbled on over a period of 24 hours. Comrie was at the epicentre, but vibrations, albeit much weaker, were felt as far away as Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Local shoemaker James Drummond and Postmaster Peter Macfarlane researched and recorded further seismic activity in the months and years that followed and Macfarlane devised his own rudimentary equipment to measure the intensity of shocks.

Drummond at first believed explosions of natural gas underground caused the quakes. However, as evidence accumulated, it became clear in the 1950s and 60s that they were the result of the movement of faults, great subterranean fractures.

Both men published their findings, prompting the establishment of a committee by the British Association. It was tasked with investigating Scottish and Irish earthquakes and its members were keen to find more accurate ways of measuring seismic activity. In 1840 they installed pendulum devices, known as seismometers, at three locations around the town. The following year, seven new instruments were brought to Comrie.

By 1844, however, the incidence of earthquakes in the area reduced both in terms of frequency and force and interest quickly fell.

In 1869, the town once again shook and the British Association committee was hastily reconvened. Experiments were conducted to find more sensitive measuring equipment than that previously used and the committee finally settled on the Mallet Seismometer. This apparatus consisted of two planks of wood, laid in a cross on the ground. One plank ran from north to south, the other east to west. On each arm small wooden cylinders of various diameter were placed at intervals in a line.

The Mallet Seismometer was designed to measure both the direction and intensity of a quake. Minor tremors would only topple the skinnier cylinders while more powerful ground movements would tip the larger ones. The direction in which the cylinders fell indicated the direction of the earth movement.

By today’s standards, this key piece of equipment appears to be remarkably simple, crude even. But at the time it was the cutting edge of seismic technology. There remained, however, one problem – it needed to be housed somewhere and it needed to be protected from the elements.

With no existing accommodation available locally, the decision was taken to build what would become known as Earthquake House. In 1874, the simple stone hut, with just a single door and one window, was erected on a rocky bluff in an open field in The Ross, a hamlet on the west side of Comrie. The Mallet Seismometer was placed on the sandy floor in the centre of the building and the job of recording earth movements began.

Between 1870 and 1876 seven short reports were presented to the British Association and in 1875 James Drummond published his own findings in a book entitled The Comrie Earthquakes. However, over time interest once again waned and by 1911, with few significant tremors disturbing the peace and quiet of daily life in Comrie, Earthquake House was abandoned. Rendered obsolete by the more sophisticated equipment that was now monitoring earth movements from other sites in Scotland, the building quickly fell into disrepair.

It was not until 1977 that it became the focus of interest once again. Inclusion on a government list of buildings of special architectural or historical interest prompted talk of restoration and in 1988 the former Perth & Kinross District Council funded the work in partnership with the British Geological Survey and the Scottish Conservation Projects Trust. Interestingly, it was then and still is one of the smallest listed buildings in the UK.

In addition to repairing the fabric of the building, information panels were installed and a replica of the Mallet Seismometer was placed inside along with more modern recording equipment.

Today, Earthquake House can be reached from a small car park in the centre of The Ross. A path, signed from here, enters the field at a kissing gate and the building itself sits beneath an old Scots Pine tree. The information panels offer a fascinating insight into the work conducted on this spot during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and also chart present day earthquake studies around the world.

Were it not for the restoration work of 1988, the building may very well have lain derelict, an insignificant structure in the centre of a cow field. Few would ever have known the pioneering part it played in seismic research in Scotland in an area still troubled by the occasional tremor.

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