Geological history of Britain and Ireland (second edition), edited by Nigel Woodcock and Rob Strachan. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2012. No. of pages: 442. Price: UK£37.50. ISBN 978-1-4051-9381-8 (paperback).


The theme of Geological History of Britain and Ireland is clear from its title, but it is pleasing that it covers some aspects of the offshore geology as well. The preface correctly identifies it to be aimed primarily at an undergraduate audience. It will, however, also provide a useful summary text for those with more experience.

The editors, who contribute more to the writing than anyone else, were assisted by a team of 14 other authors. The book falls into two clear parts of approximately equal length. The first half covers Precambrian evolution through to the Variscan orogeny (ending in the Carboniferous) and is dominated by a description of areas affected by contractional tectonics. The second half covers the Carboniferous to present-day history and is dominated by a description of areas that lie within or adjacent to extensional sedimentary basins. The first half of the book largely succeeds in its objectives, but the second half sadly comes up short in a modern context.

The Precambrian to Variscan part of the book is written mainly by the editors and close collaborators. They are writing about geographical areas and periods of geological history in which they are acknowledged experts, and this comes through in the text which is authoritative and up to date. My favourite chapter in the book covers the Variscan orogeny, written by Lawrence Warr. This chapter is a succinct and lively summary, and the author clearly understood his brief. Honourable mention also goes to Nigel Woodcock's chapter on the Acadian orogeny, which probably more than any other introduces new concepts to describe the geological evolution of parts of the UK which have previously been intensively studied and documented.

This first part of the book does take until page 49 before the description of the oldest rocks in Britain and Ireland (the Lewisian Complex) begins; and in the context of the book's title, I felt that much of the preceding 48 pages could be omitted or condensed. Descriptions of tectonically-influenced areas are also heavily reliant on the ‘terrane’ concept. I have always felt, however, that, at the scale of island Britain, the terrane concept is not really appropriate, originating as it does from the entire length of the American–Canadian Pacific coastline.

This, then, brings us to the second half of the book, describing the Carboniferous-and-younger history. Overall, this left me very disappointed, because I do not feel that the text brings this half of the book to life. It is dominated by rather uninspiring descriptions of stratigraphic sequences from particular areas, in a style which seems little different from any of the traditional stratigraphy texts from the past 35 years or more. Our current understanding of the dynamics of sedimentary basins can achieve better results and communication than this.

Perhaps the main reason that the text is rather turgid and descriptive is because it is not helped by the supporting illustrations. We are working at a time when seismic sections are routinely available for publication, and are the primary means of illustrating both the structural and large-scale depositional geometries of sedimentary basins. Yet, in describing the Carboniferous-and-younger evolution, only two seismic sections are included and one of these appears to be from northern France! The absence of seismic sections is compounded by a corresponding absence of interpretive cross-sections. Clearly, the authors did not attend my own undergraduate stratigraphy classes which always concluded with a requirement to draw a cross-section through the area of study. What we get instead of seismic sections and cross-sections are many pages devoted to generalized stratigraphic logs. These really do not assist the description of an area's geological history to any great extent. Perhaps even more astonishingly, it seems that the modern stratigrapher feels it more important to be able to characterize and illustrate the isotope content of the rocks they are working on rather than understand their regional-scale depositional setting in any form of dynamic context. The focus of the second half of the book on describing the basic rock successions, rather than the regional geological history, also leads to some major omissions such as Arthurs Seat volcano in Edinburgh, perhaps the most iconic and historically-significant piece of Carboniferous geology in the UK.

In conclusion, what we have here is a book of two halves, in which the weak second half lets down the strong first half. If there is to be a third edition I would strongly urge the editors to reappraise the approach to the second half of the book, and perhaps draft in more authors with an industry background who are used to looking at the evolution of sedimentary basins in a dynamic, rather than simply stratigraphic, context.