Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Gin Catchers

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

You don't have to go "over the sea to Skye" by boat since the bridge was built linking it to Kyle of Lochalsh in the 1990s.We sped there from Edinburgh through incessant rain, finding Skye no less wonderful when damp and drizzly.

The Skye Bridge, by the wonderful Charlie Phillips.

Our first day fossil prospecting started out in similar drizzle, but we were rewarded for our perseverance by a beautiful sunny afternoon - and multiple fossil finds. It began with a fossil bone I found when we reached the beach, and by noon we had all discovered something encased in rock, from shark spines to random bones.

Now before you set out for Skye with a hammer in your hand, bear in mind that these fossil beds are part of Scotland's natural heritage, and rightly protected from indescriminate fossil hunting. For our work on Skye - as for all palaeontological digs around the world - we've got permission to extract fossils from the local authorities, in this case SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage). This permission comes with caveats to ensure we leave as little trace as possible, share our finds, and visit local schools and communities to let them know what we are up to on their beautiful island.

If you do happen upon fossils when out walking on Skye or elsewhere, remember the Fossil Code - leave them in place, take photos and mark where they are so that they can be examined and extracted professionally. If you damage them, or remove and keep them, they are lost to science (and the world!). Ideally you want to get them to a museum or university - you might just end up having a new species named after you. Brian Shawcross did; his ichthyosaur from the Isle of Skye was described by a team from the University of Edinburgh and named Dearcmhara shawcrossi in his honour.

Dearcmhara shawcrossi, ichthyosaur from Skye named after the man who found it.
We started out with a trip to Dugald Ross's wonderful Staffin Museum, where we got an idea of the amazing fossils that lie in Skye's rocks. As well as the theropod footprints and sauropod limb bones, the museum houses historical items including a terrifying mole trap for catching moles, which was next to a gin trap... for catching gin?

Yi admires the collection at the Staffin Museum.
Mole trap - eek!
Some of the dinosaur footprints at the Staffin Museum.
Down on the beach, we worked our way along the shore looking for specimens. Dugald shared stories of his various finds over the years, then showed me some of the best spots to prospect. In the afternoon we moved further along the coast where Tom knew there were good fish bone beds. Perhaps there may be mammals there too? I searched, but no luck so far.

Davide, Dugald and Tom examine rocks on the foreshore.
As the sun fell low on the horizon, we headed back to the hostel for a shower and dinner. A great first day on the Isle of Skye.

Hiking back from a good days field work.

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