The Scottish Caledonides constitute less than 10% of the length of the Caledonian-Appalachian orogen, the rocks of which define one major margin of the Laurentian craton in Neoproterozoic-Palaeozoic times. Scotland was located, however, in a critical position at the tip of a major cratonic promontory bounded by the Caledonian and Appalachian segments of that margin. Isotopic dates from minerals and rocks collected in the Scottish Highlands have been regarded for 40 years as indicating a Neoproterozoic history of compressive orogenesis that is absent in N America and Greenland. They have therefore been taken by some authors to indicate an origin exotic to Laurentia for rocks of the Northern and Grampian Highlands S and E of the Moine thrust belt. An alternative explanation is that the Neoproterozoic rocks in the Scottish Highlands are all related to the two-stage ‘breakout’ of a discrete rift-bounded Laurentian continent from the core of the Rodinian supercontinent, believed to have assembled at the end of the Mesoproterozoic.
Traditional reconstructions of the late Neoproterozoic–Early Palaeozoic Earth oppose the proto-Caledonian/Appalachian margin of Laurentia and the W African craton of the newly assembled Gondwanaland. However, consideration of the global inventory of late Precambrian rifted margins, their relation to Grenvillian orogenic belts and of scale, leads to the hypothesis that the conjugate was the proto-Andean margin of S America. Recent recognition that the Cambrian and Lower Ordovician strata of the northwestern Argentine Precordillera and their underlying Grenvillian basement are unquestionably of Laurentian derivation, while not definitive, does point in this direction. If correct, this means that even the presence of Neoproterozoic orogenesis need not imply an exotic origin, as Neoproterozoic orogens are widespread in S America.
Traditional models show an Early Ordovician lapetus ocean basin approximately 4500 km wide, but the remarkably synchronous Ordovician collision of arcs and other terranes with the Laurentian and Gondwanan cratons from Argentina to the British Isles, suggests that this premise may be incorrect. The Appalachian–Caledonian orogen may rather have resulted from close and complex tectonic interaction between Laurentia and Gondwana, involving intervening volcanic arcs and other terranes. The interaction may have taken place during a clockwise transit of Laurentia around the proto-Andean margin to its late Caledonian–Scandian collision with Baltica, and the final suturing of Pangaea at the close of the Palaeozoic era. A modern analogue may be the interaction between Australia and Asia, involving intervening volcanic arcs and other terranes of the western Pacific Ocean basin, from ~ 50 Ma through the Present, and into the future.