Dinosaurs in Scotland

The existence of dinosaurs in Scotland is not something that is generally well known. Yet, there are at least three different families represented from fossil bones and a number of different footprint types from the Middle Jurassic. Of the bones, there is a sauropod, a thyreophoran, a coelophysid and a theropod. The footprints include large, carnosaur-like footprints, smaller theropod footprints and ornithopod footprints of different types. All this put together sounds like a decent representative dinosaur fauna from a poorly represented part of the Jurassic worldwide. Sadly, most of these dinosaurs are represented by only one or two identifiable bones. Having said that, the fossil remains that we do have in Scotland, contribute significantly to our knowledge of Middle Jurassic dinosaurs. The footprints are more common but are no less important, helping us to understand little known aspects of dinosaur movement and interactions.

TrotternishviewView over the Middle Jurassic deposits that contain dinosaurs, at Port Earlish towards Raasay.

ScotlandmapMap of Scotland showing the Isle of Skye.

SkyestratStratigraphy and lithologies of the Middle Jurassic of the Isle of Skye.

The first dinosaur remains to be found in Scotland consisted of a single footprint. It was a 49cm long footprint with rounded toes, found on the Isle of Skye in 1982 by researcher Dr Andrews and is now preserved in the collections of the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. It is now thought that a bipedal herbivorous dinosaur made this footprint, similar to Camptosaurus. There are several difficulties in assigning footprints to particular kinds of dinosaurs. The main one is that we do not have skeletons of all dinosaurs that existed and another is that there were a large number of dinosaurs with three toes that could have produced very similar footprints depending on the consistency of the sediment. We can only guess which dinosaur made which footprint. Despite this, dinosaur palaeoichnologists (scientists who study dinosaur footprints) are quite happy to give footprints names in the same way that a biologist would name an animal. This is despite the fact that it is possible to have several ichnospecies (footprint species) represented in a single trackway produced by a single animal!

ValtosThe 49cm long dinosaur footprint from the Lealt Shale Formation.

After the first discovery in 1982, it was ten years before the next discovery was made. In 1992, a small fossil partial tibia of a theropod was found in the Lower Jurassic sediments of the south of the Isle of Skye near Elgol by a German collector, Herr Metz. At about the same time, Mr Scott Moncrieff discovered a fragment of bone from the north of the Isle of Skye from the Middle Jurassic sediments near Staffin. This turned out to be a fragment of a sauropod dinosaur – probably a cetiosaur. In 1993, a more substantial bone was found on the rocky foreshore near Staffin on the Trotternish Peninsula, Isle of Skye. Only a third of the bone, discovered by BP geologists Drs Boyd and Dixon, remained on the beach. It was collected for the Staffin Museum by the curator Mr Ross and a team of local enthusiasts.

After receiving a letter from Mr Ross, I travelled to the Isle of Skye to look at this bone. It was clear from the rock that encased it, that someone had taken a hammer and chisel to it in order to remove a substantial fragment. Mr Ross and I went to the beach where the fossil had been found and collected a number of small fragments around where the bone had lain. Whilst staying on Skye, I heard of another bone that had been found on the same beach. It had been found by Ms Wolfe of the Oystercatcher Restaurant. However, the bone did not fit well with the Staffin Museum specimen until we discovered that one of the small fragments of bone we had found on the beach earlier fitted both the rock and the bone from the restaurant. This left a gaping hole in the middle of the bone. The middle piece could have held the muscle attachment protuberances that are crucial to the identification of such bones. After a little bit of publicity that followed the discovery, a parcel arrived anonymously at the Hunterian Museum containing the missing section of the bone.

It is now thought that this bone is a humerus of a cetiosaur (a stocky sauropod dinosaur from the Middle Jurassic). Whoever found the bone probably thought it was a section of a tree when they first found it. This is not surprising, as these large dinosaurs had growth rings on their bones that look very similar to tree rings. This anonymous person played a crucial role in helping us uncover the identity of Scotland’s largest dinosaur. One day, I hope to be able to thank him or her.

leg1largeThe cetiosaur limb bone from Valtos.

As I mentioned before, dinosaur bones are not the only remains to be found on the Isle of Skye. Footprints are also an important indicator of dinosaur activity in Middle Jurassic Scotland. In January 1996, I was showing a colleague from America different Middle Jurassic localities around the Trotternish Peninsula when I stumbled upon the second set of dinosaur footprints. There were about nine footprints on one surface of a loose block of limestone on the beach at Port Earlish. There were at least two different types of footprint. One was small, with narrow curved toes (about 15cm long) and the other was larger with stubby toes (about 25cm long). They were all much smaller than the first dinosaur footprint to be identified and were found in close proximity (within 100m of the first discovery). However, these footprints were from a different and slightly younger, rock stratum. These were from the Valtos Sandstone Formation, whereas the first footprint was from the Lealt Shale Formation.

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