Archaeology & History

Geological memories of John

Written by Adrian Hall

Dr John Flett Brown will be remembered for many things, including so much service to the community. Here his friend and colleague, Dr Adrian Hall, looks back on his life from a geological perspective.

Orkney has a long tradition of raising and training fine geologists. Consider Hugh Miller who christened Orkney the ‘land of the fishes’ for its abundance of Old Red Sandstone fossils. Or Matthew Forster Heddle, the pioneer mineralogist of Hoy. Or else John S Flett, schooled in Kirkwall, and later Director of the Geological Survey. And Harald Drever, professor at St Andrews and later champion of Inuit culture in west Greenland. John Flett Brown was very much part of that.

John was educated at Stromness Academy, part of an exceptionally gifted year, several of whom, like John, went south to complete PhDs. His early interest in geology was stoked by Ted Kellock, the Customs and Excise Officer at the Scapa Distillery, who was very active in the study of the rocks of the  Orcadian basin – he took John on outings and field work to explore the stratigraphy of the Stromness shore.

John went on to complete a doctorate at Oxford on rubidium-stronyium isotopes and the geochemistry of the Caledonian calc alkaline igneous rocks in Argyllshire. This was followed by teaching and research at Florida State University as assistant professor of geology, and then lecturing at St Andrews.

Leaving academia, John first took up a post as geologist with Gearhart Geodata in Aberdeen and went on to become chief geologist and exploration superintendent for Mobil Oil in Libya. He later moved to Veba Oil, still in Libya, where he was in charge of production, and later still was a consultant for oil plays in Kuwait. John was a steady hand during expeditions to Afghanistan and east Greenland, where his practical skills with kit, electrics, and boats were much valued.

Returning to Stromness in 1990, he switched roles, focusing on the affairs of Orkney. John served on Stromness Community Council, then Orkney Islands Council, and on the boards of several Orkney companies.

Yet John retained his interests in Orcadian geology and promoted new research and popular understanding in many ways . Not least John, and his wife, Cindy, welcomed a steady stream of geological and archaeological pilgrims to their home at The Park to discuss the Orcadian sandstone basin, the Ice Age history of the islands, and much else. John guided field trips to Orkney from the Open University, the Quaternary Research Association, and a string of oil companies.

John was the driving force for the  re-opening of Liddle’s Quarry, the source of the original flagstones in the Stromness streets, and the ripping up and replacement of its inappropriate post-war concrete slabs. He also helped set up the Orkney Fossil and Heritage Centre in Burray, becoming chair of its board, and he supported the Stromness Museum and its collection of rocks and thin sections which he had inherited from Ted Kellock.

He put together, with Jan den Blaauwen, the geology and fossil pages for the Orkney Landscapes web site, recently relaunched, and lately produced a acclaimed series of podcasts and short films on Orkney geology for Orkney International Science Festival. Not least, he authored and co-authored a series of papers on the geology of Orkney, with all its multiplicity of algal stromatolites, lobe-finned fish, varved sediments, and Norwegian glacial erratics. John was working on several new papers at his untimely death in January 2024.

Join geologist Dr John Flett Brown on the classic Orkney walk along the West Shore of Stromness in this new film made by Mark Jenkins. Starting from the Point of Ness, with views across Hoy Sound to Graemsay and Hoy, the journey begins with a fossil beach on the shore of ancient Lake Orcadie, the great lake from which today’s Orkney rocks began their story as sediments. As we walk on, the record of the rocks and their eras unfolds, layer by layer, following the story of the lake and the rivers that flowed into it, and times of warmer weather when the margins dried out and mudcracks formed; with discoveries like salt crystals or the mark of raindrops from 380 million years ago.

Geologists Dr John Flett Brown and Dr Adrian Hall set off to look at the sea-cliffs of Orkney’s west coast. The dynamic duo explore the Old Red Sandstone along the shore and discuss the effects of monster waves in Atlantic storms. “Few coasts on Earth,” they declare, “match the magnificence of these cliffs, caves and geos.”

Just 20,000 years ago, Orkney was covered by a kilometre of ice, part of a huge mass that reached out beyond Scotland. Huge glaciers were sometimes in slow motion, and traces of their paths can still be seen today in the scrubbed sides of some of Orkney’s hills. Over the years, geologists such as the great Victorians Ben Peach and John Horne have found evidence of rocks carried by the glaciers, and in a new film by Selena Kuzman, Dr John Flett Brown and Dr Adrian Hall follow in their footsteps – and find some rocks that have travelled a long distance to reach Orkney.

Academic papers

Brown, J. F., 1975a, Isotopic analysis of Faeroes lavas, Year Book of The American Philosophical Society.

Brown, J. F., 1975b, Potassium-Argon evidence of a Permian age for the camptonite dykes: Orkney: Scottish Journal of Geology, v. 11, no. 3, p. 259-262.

Brown, J. F., 1992, Flint as a resource for stone-age Orcadians: Bulletin of Orkney Field Club.

-, 2000, Rocks and Scenery, in Berry, S., ed., ORKNEY NATURE, Academic Press, p. 23-48.

-, 2002a, Bed Rock, Ice Age and Holocene Environment in Orkney, Northern Studies Conference Papers, Orkney 1999, Scottish Society for Northern Studies.

-, 2002b, The Geology and Landscape of Orkney  in Omand, D., ed., The New Orkney Book.

Brown, J. F., Harper, C. T., and Odom, A. L., 1974, Petrogenetic implications of argon isotopic evolution in the upper mantle: Nature, v. 250, no. 5462, p. 130-133.

Brown, J. F., and Murray, B., 2012, Robert Rendall – Collected Poems, Steve Savage Publishers, Limited.

Brown, J. F., Odom, A., and Harper, C., 1976, Argon isotopic evolution of upper mantle (reply).

Hall, A. M., Riding, J. B., and Brown, J. F., 2016, The last glaciation in Orkney, Scotland: glacial stratigraphy, event sequence and flow paths: Scottish Journal of Geology, v 52, 90-102..

Harper, C. T., and Brown, J. F., 1973, Potassium-argon isochrons: applications and interpretation: Geol.Soc.Amer., Abs.with Prog., v. 5, p. 873.

Karlsen, D. A., Matapour, Z., Rønningen, A., Abay, T., Lerch, B., Flett Brown, J., and Backer-Owe, K., 2016, Evidence for Palaeozoic sourced oils on the Norwegian continental shelf, with links to paleozoic bitumen & source rocks from onshore Scandinavia & the Orkneys, Palaeozoic Plays of Northwest Europe: Burlington House, London., Geological Society of London, Petroleum Group.

Lundmark, A. M., Gabrielsen, R. H., and Flett Brown, J., 2011, Zircon U–Pb age for the Orkney lamprophyre dyke swarm, Scotland, and relations to Permo-Carboniferous magmatism in northwestern Europe: Journal of the Geological Society, v. 168, no. 6, p. 1233-1236.

Marshall, J. E., Brown, J. F., and Astin, T. R., 2011, Recognising the Taghanic Crisis in the Devonian terrestrial environment and its implications for understanding land–sea interactions: Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, v. 304, no. 1, p. 165-183.

Marshall, J. E. A., Brown, J. F., and Hindmarsh, S., 1985, Hydrocarbon Source Rock Potential of the Devonian Rocks of the Orcadian Basin: Scottish Journal of Geology, v. 21, p. 301-320.

Odom, A. L., and Brown, J. F., 1976, Was Florida a part of North America in the Lower Paleozoic: Geol.Soc.Amer., Abs.with Prog., v. 8, p. 237.

About the author

Adrian Hall

Dr Adrian Hall is author of many academic papers on geomorphology, the study of landforms. After a teaching career at Fettes College in Edinburgh, he became adjunct professor at Stockholm University. Today he is an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh. With Dr John Flett Brown, he has explored the fascinating landscapes of Orkney in articles, podcasts and films.