The Fossil & Heritage Centre – Burray – Exactly What It Says It Is!

By Bernie Bell

I’ve mentioned the Fossil & Heritage Centre a few times in pieces for TON, but not actually written about it, as such. This is because we went there some years ago, before TON existed, so – I knew it was good, but didn’t have the material to write an article about it.

I’d heard that a new floor had been laid there, with a map of Scapa Flow – it was a while since we’d been to the F&H Centre, so, we decided to go and see the new floor, and refresh our memory of what else is there.

The entrance leads to a shop, with locally made jewellery and crafts, books with an Orkney theme, cd’s of music by local musicians, and also some fossils and rocks, for sale.

I’m never sure how I feel about this, as I always wonder where they came from? And were they ethically sourced?  I have a strong interest in rocks, crystals, fossils – did Geology ‘A’ level at school, have to admit to having many such pieces, placed about our house – but  many of these were acquired before I started  thinking about  where  they were from – how they were sourced. Now, I’m a bit more reluctant to buy them  – except from charity shops, where they do turn up sometimes, and the harm, if any, has been done, so I ..don’t see the harm, and a charity benefits.

In this case, the F&H Centre benefits, which is a good thing, too, especially as it’s a community run enterprise.  I just felt the need to mention it – when folk buy rocks, crystals, fossils etc. – which part of the earth, has been exploited, to provide them for shops, often in the richer parts of the world?

End of self-righteous rant.

There also a café, with good food and a very pleasant outlook – a good place to have lunch!  The café  is also home to a community shop, selling locally hand-made items…produced by amateur crafters living on Burray –  their work is only available in the Fossil & Heritage Centre Cafe.

From the shop, you go through to the Museum, and, if you walk straight across the first room, you will find yourself standing in Scapa Flow!  The floor of this room, has been laid out as map of Scapa Flow, showing where the German High Seas Fleet was scuttled on 21stJune 1919.  Block ships are shown from both World Wars, as well as the war graves of HMS Vanguard, from 1917 and HMS Royal Oak  from 1939.  This room also houses a model explaining the construction of the Churchill Barriers

The Scapa Flow Historic Wreck website gives more information about all of the Scapa Flows wrecks  and includes ‘virtual dives’ around each of them.

And now to the fossil and rock collections –

The first room has some very clear examples of fossil fish which were found in the Stromness Flags, at Cruaday Quarry, Sandwick, West Mainland

It was the discovery of these fossils, which inspired local man Leslie Firth to start collecting and looking for more.  He eventually set up the visitor centre, which was opened in 1993, to display his fossils and his family heritage collections. When Leslie retired, a charitable trust was set up and the Centre ‘gifted’ into it.

And on, to the main fossil and crystals room, where there are lots of excellent specimens of fossils – some huge ones – with plenty of information about them.

This beauty, is from the Green River deposits, in Wyoming –

Fossil Centre fossil fish Bell

It may look pretty, but a large number of fossil fish, in such a small area, suggests a mass mortality event, and this fossil, catches that very moment.

I have long had an interest in Geology, in all its forms, palaeontology being one of them.  I like the connection with deep time, and life in deep time, which fossils give us. I also simply like the shapes of them – nature’s art-works.

I have a particular liking for ammonites, due to the shape, the spirals, the Fibonacci code, and The Fossil & Heritage Centre is an ammonite lovers heaven!  I’ll just present some images……………..

Big ammonites, with tiny ammonites keeping them company!

Another mass mortality event?

fossil centre ammonites Bell

I like it when we can see a direct link between a fossil, and something we can find in the ‘living’ world about us, today. An example is this fossil shell (mine own), and its modern counterpart…..

shells Bell

And…some examples from the Fossil & Heritage Centre….

Horse shoe crabs, ancient and modern, and a fossil crab from Germany – not anything like as fresh and tasty as those provided by Orkney Fisheries!

There is a rock containing Brittle Stars – which are found today, almost unchanged, though these are around 19 million years old

Fossil Centre brittle stars Bell

Here’s a fossil (again, mine own), and a brooch made by Andrew Appleby, aka The Harray Potter  But – which is which?

Appleby brooch Bell

And, a fossil which I think would make a pleasing brooch, from the F&H Centre………..

Fossil Centre fossil Bell

By the way –  our own fossils, pictured  here, were dug up in our garden near Stroud, Gloucestershire – so I know exactly where they came from!

There are also some, let’s say unusual, fossils, such as the coprolite – what’s a coprolite?  Fossilized poo, that’s what!

Fossil centre coprolite Bell

And…… two rows of fossilised foot/paw prints of a long extinct creature…there’s a thought…..and…… what a Standing Stone/Time Piece, that would make!

Fossil centre fossil prints Bell

There’s a piece of fossilized wood from near Cairo, Egypt.  This looks like a piece of driftwood you might finds on any beach, but it’s solid stone,  and  about 30 million years old.

Fossil Centre fossil wood Bell

In the corner of this room, next to a stunning display of crystals………

Fossil Centre crystals Bell

….is a curtain.  Behind this curtain, is The Room of Glowing Stones.  When you go in, it’s pitch dark, then, the cases light up. Then…..the light goes out again, then……..the stones….glow!  I didn’t include a picture, on purpose. I remember the first time I ever went into that room, and the surprise, and delight I felt when the rocks, glowed, and I’d like the reader, to experience that initial delight, for themselves, if possible.  Besides which – a photo just wouldn’t do them justice!

I can’t leave the fossil room, without mentioning the Ichthyosaurus. When doing Geology in school, I came upon a rhyme about the Ichthyosaurus – I don’t know who wrote it, so I can’t credit it, but here it is………..

‘There once was an Ichthyosaurus

Who lived when the world was all porous

But on hearing his name

He fainted with shame

And passed on

A long time before us.’

Fossil Centre Ichthyosaurus Bell

I wonder why so many fossils are known as ‘Devil’s…..’?   Gryphaea are ‘Devil’s Toenails’, Belemnites are ‘Devils Thunder-bolts’. I suppose it’s fear of the un-known. Folk didn’t know what these things were – folk do tend to fear the unknown, so they assign the unknown,  to ‘The Devil’!  Though, it has to be said,  ‘Angel’s Toenails’ doesn’t sound right, somehow.

That’s the fossil part, then we have the heritage part – some of which is Orkney based, and some is more general.

There’s the old box bed which was lived in at Refuge Corner, near  Wasdale Loch

Fossil Centre box bed Bell

It looks quite cosy there – indoors, in a warm, dry weather proof place, but, imagine having to live in that, outside, in an Orkney winter.

A row of cooking pots brought back memories of my Grandma and Grandpa’s house, which then became my Auntie Bridie & Uncle Anthony’s house – a two room thatched cottage, no running water or electricity – cooking done over an open turf fire, with kettle, pots and skillets hanging from a ‘crane’.  This is part of what Heritage Centres are for – to remind us of the near-past, and to show young ones how life used to be, and how folk managed before the convenience of all those ‘white goods’ in the kitchen.

Fossil Centre cooking pots Bell

In the Heritage Gallery there is also a section devoted to war – I must admit, not being a fan of war, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it, but  – each to their own.

One thing which caught my eye, is a set of three shell casings, which were recovered from the sea, near Kirkwall – and, as they are arranged, wouldn’t look out of place the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness.

Fossil Centre shell casings Bell

Outside the main buildings, we had a look in the old dairy, tack room and laundry buildings

Fossil Centre outside Bell

At the end of the row, you can go through to the garden area, which also leads round to the front of the buildings, where there is a selection of vintage agricultural machinery , including that friend of the farmer –  a Fergi. Tractor! donated to the Centre this year

We were very glad we went back to the Fossil & Heritage Centre –  I could spend any amount of time in the rocks and fossils section – though maybe I’m getting on a bit, to be called a Rock Chick!

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3 replies »

  1. I have been told….that ‘The Ichthyosaur’ is by Isabel Frances Bellows – you learn something new, every day!

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