The Earthquake House

The first time I experienced a serious earthquake was in 1984 in Soviet Central Asia. We were in Uzbekistan, an area of high seismic activity, and though the local people took the quake in their stride, it left us more than a little shaken. It was soon obvious that the older, traditional, mudbrick houses ‘moved’ with the quake, thereby suffering little damage. But for the more modern Soviet buildings of concrete, steel and chrome, it was a different story altogether. Buckled metal and twisted doors were followed by a fair amount of consternation as to how, or even if, the damage could be repaired.

Fast forward to October 2005 and a family holiday on the Greek island of Zakynthos. On hearing a growing rumble, my first thought was that a very large plane was flying directly overhead. Living as we did then under the flight path to Glasgow airport, my initial reaction was one of annoyance – why was it that even on holiday we couldn’t escape the noise of those wretched planes! It didn’t take long however, to realise this was something very different, not an aircraft but an earthquake of magnitude 5.7.

Earthquakes can be fearsome things even when we know what’s causing them. But imagine what it must have been like for our ancestors as they tried to make sense of the mysterious and often destructive heaving of the planet. We can see their attempts to explain earthquakes in primitive myths and legends: those frightening tales of titans, giants and monsters. Tales of fearsome and unpredictable entities forever fighting, hurling huge, mountain-sized boulders at one another – causing, it was believed, earthquakes. And if not that, then blame the Wrath of God!

Fortunately we now have a far greater understanding of what causes earthquakes: of the geological forces behind Continental Drift and tectonic plates. Yet, the story of how we reached this understanding and the role played by the 19th century ‘Comrie Pioneers’ is a fascinating one. And one that I tell in issue 92 of iScot Magazine.