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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   [9 March 1841]

[12 Upper Gower St]

My dear Lyell

I have just received your note— it is the greatest pleasure to me to write or talk Geolog. with you— Your objection to objection against upheaval, in favour of Glaciers (as explaining Glen Roy) about elevation (you will understand what I mean) is quite new to me, & seems very sound.— I think I have thought over whole case without prejudice & remain firmly convinced they are marine beaches.— My principal reason for doing so, is what I have urged in my Paper,1 the buttress-like accumulations of stratified shingle on sides of valley, especially those just below the lowest shelf in Spean valley.

2d. I can hardly conceive the extension of the glaciers in front of the valley of Kilfinnin2 where I found new road, where sides of Great Glen are not very lofty.—

3d. the flat water-sheds, which I describe in places where there are no ‘roads’, as well as those connected with ‘roads’3 These remain unexplained

I might continue to add many other such reasons, all of which, however, I daresay would appear trifling to any one who had no visited the district. With respect to equable elevation, it cannot be a valid objection to any one who thinks of Scandinavia or Pampas.—4

With respect to Glacier-theory the greatest objection appears to me, is the following though possibly not a sound one. The water has beyond doubt remained very long at the levels of each shelf.— this is unequivocally shewn—by the depth of the notch or beach formed in many places in the hard mica Slate, & the large accumulations or buttresses of well rounded pebbles at certain spots on the level of old beaches.— (The time must have been immense, if formed by lakes without tides). During the existence of the lakes their drainage must have been at head of the valleys & has given the flat appearance of the watersheds.— All this is very clear for four of the shelves. (viz upper & lower in Glen Roy—the 800 ft one in Glen Spean, & the one in Kilfinnin) & explains the coincidence of “roads” with the watersheds more simply than my view, and as simply as the common lake theory.

But how was the Glen Roy lake drained when the water stood at level of middle ‘road’? it must (for there is no other exit whatever) have been drained over the glacier.—5 Now this shelf is full, as narrow in vertical line & as deeply worn horizontally into mountain-side, and with as large accumulations of shingle, (I can give cases) as the other shelves.— We must, therefore, on Glacier theory suppose, that the surface of the ice remained at exactly the same level, not being worn down by the running water, or the glacier moved by its own movement, during the very long period, absolutely necessary for a quiet lake to form such a beach, as this shelf presents in its whole course.—

I do not know whether I have explained myself clearly— I should like to know what you think of this difficulty—

I shall much like to talk over Jura-case with you—6

I am tired, so good | Bye. Ever yours | C. D


‘Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy’, Collected papers 1: 87–137. Glen Roy empties into Glen Spean, and the lowest shelf or ‘road’ of Glen Roy also extends throughout Glen Spean.
A valley to the north of Glen Roy which opens directly into the Great Glen of Scotland, as does Glen Spean. Kilfinnin is marked by a single ‘road’. In 1840 Louis Agassiz visited the area with William Buckland, and they concluded that a glacier blocking Glen Spean had created a lake which had produced the beaches (see L. Agassiz 1842).
Channels at the heads of the valleys marked by the roads. Agassiz pointed out that water must have passed over them when the lower outlets were blocked by ice (L. Agassiz 1842, pp. 237–8).
Agassiz had argued that the perfectly horizontal roads could hardly have been subjected to repeated elevation (L. Agassiz 1842, p. 237). However, Lyell in Scandinavia, and CD in South America, had observed numbers of uniformly elevated formations.
In September 1846 David Milne discovered a watershed at the head of Glen Gaster on the level of the middle road (Milne 184747a and 1847b). Though shaken by this discovery, CD continued to defend his theory of marine beaches until 1861. See his letter to David Milne, 20 [September 1847] (Correspondence vol. 4). See also Barrett 1973 and Rudwick 1974.


Barrett, Paul H. 1973. Darwin’s gigantic blunder. Journal of Geological Education 21: 19–28.

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

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

‘Parallel roads of Glen Roy’: 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. By Charles Darwin. [Read 7 February 1839.] Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 129: 39–81. [Shorter publications, pp. 50–88.]

Rudwick, Martin John Spencer. 1974. Darwin and Glen Roy: a ‘great failure’ in scientific method? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 5 (1974–5): 97–185.


Defends his theory [in "Parallel roads of Glen Roy" (1839), Collected papers 1: 87–137] against the view that the "roads" were formed by glacial action.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
London, Upper Gower St, 12
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.23)
Physical description
ALS 7pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 594,” accessed on 27 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 2