skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   23 [October 1861]



My dear Lyell

I ought to have returned your note by this morning’s post, but I was too busy dissecting.—1 I suppose everyone takes your view that the water flowed out at head of valley when the lake existed.2 The “intermediate shelf” in Glen Roy, seemed to me on careful examination as plain as any shelf whatever; but I think I remember Mr. J. did not think so; it has been noticed by everyone who has visited the valley.3 There is no outlet known corresponding with this shelf; but as Mr Milne says there may be;4 & the whole valley ought to be searched for lateral outlets between the two upper shelves.— A man might spend his life there. I hope Mr. J. will go there again; for it is an opprobrium to British Geologists, that it shd. not be settled beyond dispute.5

My difficulty is the sloping mass of matter, stratified & thick, at bottom of valley below lowest horizontal shelf: I think the river must have delivered detritus at infinitely many levels, by opening on a lake or arm of sea.— If there was terminal moraine at mouth of Spean to be slowly cut through all would be explained: I can hardly think ice would suffice. But if it were the sea, I cannot help a sneaking hope that the sea might have formed the horizontal shelves.—

Ever yours | C. Darwin


Lyell’s letter has not been found.
One set of phenomena critical for those who speculated about the formation of the so-called parallel roads of Glen Roy, in Lochaber, Scotland, was the existence of ‘cols’ at the head of glens, coincident in level with the various shelves. For those who viewed the shelves as the shores of former glacial lakes, these cols were watersheds or over-flow points, where the rain-water drained from the lakes. For CD, however, who held that the shelves were the remnants of marine beaches formed when an arm of the sea was present in the Lochaber glens, these areas had been ‘land-straits’ between former islands (see ‘Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1839): pt 1, 39–81; Collected papers 1: 89–137). When Lyell came to write up his account of the parallel roads of Glen Roy, he retracted his previous support for CD’s theory, given in C. Lyell 1841, and adopted the glacier-lake explanation offered by Thomas Francis Jamieson. According to Lyell, these cols did indeed appear to be watersheds ‘such as would have been formed if the waters of the rivers had been made to flow east, or out of the upper ends of the supposed glacier-lakes, instead of escaping at the lower ends, in a westerly direction, where the great blockages of ice are assumed to have occurred.’ (C. Lyell 1863, pp. 259–60).
The existence of a shelf immediately between the two upper shelves in Glen Roy was an observation that favoured CD’s theory, for, as he states in the letter, no ‘col’ had ever been found coincident in level with this intermediate shelf. What CD says is not, in fact, accurate. As he himself pointed out in his 1839 paper, Thomas Dick Lauder did not note the existence of this intermediate shelf (see Lauder 1823 and Collected papers 1: 112).
Milne 1847a, 1847b, and 1849.
Jamieson made two geological excursions to Lochaber, first in August 1861 and again in July 1862 (see letter from T. F. Jamieson, 3 September 1861, and Jamieson 1863, p. 240).


Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

Jamieson, Thomas Francis. 1863. On the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and their place in the history of the glacial period. [Read 21 January 1863.] Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 19: 235–59.

Lauder, Thomas Dick. 1823. On the parallel roads of Lochaber. [Read 2 March 1818.] Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 9: 1–64.

Lyell, Charles. 1841. Elements of geology. 2d ed. 2 vols. London. [Vols. 2,9]


Comments especially on the "intermediate shelf" problem of Glen Roy; views of Jamieson and Milne. CD "cannot help a sneaking hope that the sea might have formed the horizontal shelves".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.269)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3295,” accessed on 22 June 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9