Fossils in Caithness and Sutherland

This area is able to boast an abundance of fossil sites. Caithness Flagstone is especially famous, and in particular the quarries at Spittal, for their fossil examples.

You can even pick up fossils on the beaches here! I have picked up a few really nice pieces from beaches at Brims and Castletown. It is also possible to find rather nice specimens of plant fossils here. There is one in the Spittal hall. I have one that my Mother picked up on a local loch, but I am not sure which one.

Halkirk Village based on local quarries that mined stone for street paving. Fossil Centre at Mybster has displays on local flagstone industry.

For many years the flagstones have been extensively quarried for pavement purposes, as for instance near Thurso, at Castletown and Achanarras. Two instances of volcanic necks occur in Caithness, one piercing the red sandstones at the Ness of Duncansbay and the other the sandstones of Dunnet Head north of Brough. They point to volcanic activity subsequent to the deposition of the John o’ Groats beds and of the Dunnet sandstones. The materials filling these vents consist of agglomerate charged with blocks of diabase, sandstone, flagstone and limestone.

An interesting feature connected with the geology of Caithness is the deposit of shelly boulder clay which is distributed over the low ground, being deepest in the valleys and in the cliffs surrounding the bays on the east coast. Apart from the shell fragments, many of which are striated, the deposit contains blocks foreign to the county, as for instance chalk and chalk-flints, fragments of Jurassic rocks with fossils and pieces of jet. The transport of local boulders shows that the ice must have moved from the south-east towards the north-west, which coincides with the direction indicated by the striae. The Jurassic blocks may have been derived from the strip of rocks of that age on the east coast of Sutherland. The shell fragments, many of which are striated, include arctic, boreal and southern forms, only a small number being characteristic of the littoral zone.

There is one cultural treasure that has not been mentioned in the document. Caithness has a uniquely important fossil-fish resource. The late Jack Saxon used to bemoan the fact that, while overseas

collectors came to Caithness to steal our fossils and sell them for thousands of pounds, locally they were disregarded. Jack wanted to see an interpretive centre in Caithness to house the fossil displays and explain their history; and he wished to see a properly supervised programme of fossil collection, to keep the commercial fossil traders at bay.

Several nice walks can be started here. There are well-preserved fossils in some of these rocks and the flagstones (mudstones) have been extensively quarried in the past, forming an important industry in areas of Caithness. There are several extensive masses of granite in the region, and rocks of the Jurassic age (135-205 million years ago) with abundant fossils outcrop along the east coast of Sutherland, north of Golspie.

Quarries around the village of Spittal have revealed numerous fossil fish, some of which are shown in the geological display within Spittal Village Hall. This is open throughout the summer. These fossils are the remains of fish that have been preserved in the sedimentary rocks formed by the sand, silt and mud layers deposited at the bottom of an ancient lake. Fossils from other sites, including Achanarras quarry, can also be found at the Fossil Visitor Centre. Permits to collect fossils from Achanarras Quarry can be obtained from SNH in Golspie.

An excellent place to visit is the Orcadian Stone Company in Main Street (Tel: 01408 633483). It has a wonderful display of rocks, crystals and fossils of all shapes and sizes (some in their natural form, some made into jewellery). The exhibition and shop are open from Easter to October (Monday to Saturday), and also in the 3 weeks before Christmas. Small admission charge to the exhibition for adults. Children, university and school parties are free. The exhibition is not suitable for children under 8 years.

For information on Fossils you could ask local expert Jack Saxon, who is currently compiling a new book of Fossil Fishes (The Palaeozoic Fishes of the Orcadian Basin).

To contact Mr Saxon you can either see him at the “Wee Shop” in Scrabster which has a few examples of fossils but is actually an Art Gallery. Open most mornings in the summer months or by appointment, or you can contact him at home:

Jack Saxon
7 Rockwell Terrace
KW14 7PJ
Telephone: 01847 892744

Suggested reading on Fossils in this area would be:

  • Mike Newman (Aberdeen): Involved with reconstructions of fossil fishes for the next edition of Jack Saxon’s new edition of “Fossil Fishes of the North of Scotland.” The book is due to be published at the turn of the century. M.N. is also participating with Dr. N. Trewin and R. Davidson in a study on climatiids acanthodians from the Lower Old Red Sandstone of various localities in Scotland.
  • The Fossil Fishes of the North of Scotland by Jack Saxon, this might be available from the library.
  • Excursion Guide to the Geology of East Sutherland and Caithness is also an interesting book and also talks about Gold Panning in Kildonan, Sutherland. This is by the Geological Society of Aberdeen and printed by Scottish Academic Press.

Related Posts

Add Comment