Orkney’s Pioneering Plant Fossil Collectors

The sandstone of Orkney hides within its layers the remains of animals and plants which once lived millions of years ago.

Warbeth Stromness

The environment of Orkney in the Middle Devonian period was nothing like we live in now.

The stone has always held a fascination for islanders, be it for building their homes and other structures during Neolithic times onwards or through the study of the rocks themselves – geology.

This fascination led to many speakers giving talks to the public in Orkney about the rocks they looked upon every day and of avid collectors of fossils adding to their specimens from the quarries and shorelines of the islands.

In 1927 Professor Lang from Manchester University presented his thoughts on the subject of ‘Fossil Flora in the Old Red Sandstone in Orkney’ at the Temperance Hall in Stromness. The talk was hosted by Orkney Natural History Society and included lantern slides. It was free for the public to attend and they were encouraged to do so, which they did.

Professor Lang had made a special study of the fossilised plants in Orkney’s Old Red Sandstone and was a frequent visitor to the islands. Collectors at this time relied often on fossils being uncovered during quarrying and there were no restrictions on taking specimens from parts of Orkney which are now protected.

By the early 20th Century all the best plant fossils had come from the Stromness Beds. The study of the remains of early plant life in Orkney was undertaken by Rev Charles Clouston of Sandwick in the first half of the 19th Century. The Rev Clouston had a collection of plant fossils. Letters he wrote to a fellow collector, Dr Malcolmson in 1839, encouraged him to visit Orkney to get some specimens for himself. Malcolmson collected plant fossils from the Orkney Mainland and from Hoy. Some of these he donated to the Stromness Museum.

Photograph of Hugh Miller, he stands with one arm resting on a huge upright stone and another with his hand resting on a large stone weight he is dressed in working clothes with his sleeves rolled up

Image of Hugh Miller, Scottish National Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hugh Miller, possibly Scotland’s most famous geologist, visited Orkney in 1846. He went to see Clouston’s collection of fossils. He also met with William Watt of Skaill House and saw a specimen of great interest to them both which Watt had himself collected.

Other specimens in Orkney were collected by a variety of men including Charles Peach and Dr Hamilton who sent some of his fossils to the Geological Survey Museum. This was one of the oldest science museums and is now part of the Natural History Museum in London.

The plants being found by these early collectors were of simple forms and mostly incomplete. The Dale Quarry in Stromness revealed a fossil with ‘the branched stems enclosed with numerous crowded small leaves’. A specimen like that was also described by Hugh Miller in the Clouston Collection.

In his lecture, Professor Lang described the ‘remarkable’ fossil found at Skaill by William Watt as ‘Milleria Thomsoni‘ . Watt gave this fossil to Hugh Miller. (see also Milleria thomsoni Dawson ( Professor Lang said that the fossils indicated plants of a considerable size.

Referring to fossils in the Middle Old Red Sandstone, Professor Lang said that many spore bearing plants were found.  Pseudosporochnus krejcii was identified from a quarry at Lyking and collected by Mr Robertson and donated to Stromness Museum.

Fossilised woodier plants were discovered by those early collectors on a flagstone in a field just outside Stromness. Further indication that some of these plants were large.

Today the areas where the pioneering fossil collectors found specimens are recognised as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Scotland has a Fossil Code:

It aims to prevent the destruction of our valuable irreplaceable fossils from 21st century collectors. All of the above collectors referred to in this article were men but there were and are also women collectors. Click on this link to a podcast which talks about the women collectors and about the Fossil Code: Unearthing the Past: Exploring Scotland’s Fossil Code with Dr Elsa Panciroli

You may also be interested in the following links:

3 replies »

  1. James Hutton is Scotland’s most famous geologist and is considered the father of the science

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