Highland fishing expedition to the Devonian

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Clay Carkin (USA)

My first exposure to fishing in Scotland came about while reading comments made on the UK Fossils Network fossils discussion page. Initially, I thought that it would be about highland trout and salmon. However, in an interesting series of events, my life was to be enriched and enlightened thanks to the age-old custom of Scottish hospitality by a retired Aberdeen University palaeontology professor.

This fossil odyssey began at my desk on a cold and snowy winter’s evening. My wife and I were on our computer planning out our 30th anniversary trip to Ireland and Scotland. I contacted the Inverness Outing Club concerning fossil collectors who might want to go fossicking with me in July. It was suggested that I contact Phil Gurr, a retired palaeontology professor from Aberdeen University. Phil responded immediately and said he would be delighted to show me around the Highlands and do some fossil collecting. Next to sort out were the airline tickets, cottages, car rentals and itinerary, and then it was just a matter of time.

So, when June arrived, I was as eager as my students to start summer vacation. After a week stopover in Ireland, we flew into Preswick Airport in Glasgow and, arriving at teatime, we drove to Fortrose near Inverness to stay at a cottage on Channory Point. Due to the fact I selected the slower and more scenic A82 road (instead of the A9), we arrived at the cottage at midnight. My long-anticipated phone call to Phil would have to wait until the morning.

Fig. 1. The fish bed is a few inches below the water level on the quarry floor.

Finally, the day arrived to go fishing with Phil. We met up at Bonar Bridge and rode in his Land Rover, passing several Old Red Sandstone fossiliferous locales. Phil briefed me on the geology and fossils of each area, but, sadly time did not permit stoppages as our prime destination was Weydale near Thurso in the northern most part of Scotland. Once we arrived at the quarry, I could envisage the flat to gently rolling seascape at the bottom of ancient Lake Orcadie that supported unique Devonian age fish.

Fig. 2. The quarry floor at Caithness, surplus flagstone slabs litter the area.

Now for the best part – Phil co-leases this old quarry for study and collection of his own fish fossils. For over a century this quarry’s lifeblood had been the production of Caithness Flagstone and now its fish. Up until the point of closure, Phil was the consultant geologist and, during the operational years, a fish-bed layer had been discovered. He was able to secure a lease from the local farmer after the site closed. It was a golden opportunity as the nearby Achanarras Quarry (long famous for its fossil fish) was producing fewer and fewer of them.

Fig. 3. Slabs of Devonian in old red sandstone that will be split in search of fish remains.

As Phil’s guest, all the details and equipment had been pre- arranged. In the previous week, he had excavated numerous flagstone slabs so that I did not have to rummage through the talus looking for slabs to split. Highlanders have worked the Caithness quarries for hundreds of years and thus acquired a working knowledge of splitting the flagstone properly. Interestingly, the Old Red Sandstone splits naturally if mined near to the earth’s surface. Lower down, they do not cleave immediately, so must be set aside and seasoned. This allows atmospheric moisture to seep into the flagstone, and then freeze and expand causing cleavage cracks. The slabs removed from lower portion of the quarry had fewer cracks and so were more challenging to split evenly.

Fig. 4. Phil Gurr squaring up slabs of fish fossils at his home in Bonar Bridge.

Finding my first fish was an incredible experience. Its body was covered with a thick armour of enamelled scales that glistened with the patina of age. I relished the thought that, over one hundred years ago, the renowned Scottish palaeontologist, Hugh Miller, was uncovering these little predatory fish in the same manner. Hugh’s literature on the Lake Orcadie fossil fish has become world famous.

The fish I found – Osteolepis panderi – is the first known to have a jaw and dates around 350Ma. This freshwater predator may well be the ancient ancestor of the amphibians. Could it have been an algal bloom or volcanism that caused the demise of these fish? Whatever their cause of death, they would be respectfully and carefully wrapped in newspaper, as they would be making a long journey to their new home in America.

Fig. 5. Devonian fish fossil in Old Red Sandstone.

I am convinced that the Scot’s are the warmest, friendliest, most welcoming people on earth and Phil Gurr is one of them. My fishing expedition with him was an experience I shall never forget and plan on retelling the tale to my fledgling palaeontology sixth graders at my school. Perhaps one of these 12-year olds will develop into a 21st century Hugh Miller.

Fig. 6. Devonian fish fossils ready to be wrapped for travel.

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