Articles - highlands
Dugald Ross remembers the day when his interest in archaeology was first sparked. He was helping his parents at their peat bank at Ellishadder on the Isle of Skye. On the way home, his father had drawn the boy’s attention to a large boulder which seemed out of place. His father went on to say that the previous tenant of their croft had named this particular rock the ‘money stone’.
For reasons unknown, possibly while he was cutting peat, that gentleman had dug below the rock and found shards of pottery which, it was believed, he eventually sold to some place or person in Edinburgh.
Being interested in pre-history, Dugald began scraping away the turf under the ‘money stone’ at his earliest opportunity. To his delight, as well as shards of pottery, he also uncovered six finely shaped arrowheads.
The boy had discovered a Neolithic site. Here, some five thousand years ago, perhaps only five or six thousand years after the last Ice Age a family, or a larger group of people, had set up an encampment.
Though there was no sign of a chambered cairn, the frequently found indicator of a Neolithic burial site, Dugald suspects the arrow heads and shards of pottery may have been placed there carefully as part of a burial ceremony for an important member of that community.
As well as being of ceremonial significance, someone, all those years ago, may have tied one of those arrow heads to a straight length of tree branch, added feathers to the other end and fired the arrow to catch their dinner.
With the arrowheads as a centre piece, Dugald founded Staffin museum in the 1970s at the age of 19. The museum is located just off the A855 at Ellishadder near Staffin in northeast Skye. As well as the arrowheads, the museum houses an impressive array of dinosaur fossils which are of international significance.
The first evidence of dinosaurs ranging across Skye came from the discovery of a single footprint in 1982. After much research and argument amongst scientists, the print found at Rubha nam Brathairean, not far from Ellishadder, is now thought to be that of an ornithopod, a large herbivore that would have stood up on its two long legs.
It was fifteen years later before more prints were found in blocks of sandstone in roughly the same area.
For visitors looking at the artefacts on display in the museum, probably the most impressive exhibit is a thick length of dinosaur limb bone. There are several separate broken parts to it which, when lined up, fit together. After these sections were found, Dugald went searching in the same area and eventually came upon other parts of dinosaur skeleton including a large vertebra and a tooth.
Now the limb bone, possibly the femur of a Cetiosaurus which roamed around 175 million years ago, gives an indication of the size its owner might have been. At 10metres tall this beast was closely related to the Diplodocus, a huge herbivore which would have been similar in size to the even better known Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Dr. Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, who was alerted to the dinosaur finds on Skye, has studied the fossil evidence and has also made his own remarkable discoveries there. As well as slabs of rock bearing numerous dinosaur footprints, he also found what are believed to be the world’s smallest dinosaur footprints (according to his entry in The Guinness Book of Records) on the northwest corner of Skye’s Trotternish peninsula.
He had had taken a particular lump of rock with black markings back to his office in Glasgow. It was only when he lifted the rock to look at it in bright sunlight that footprints could be made out more clearly, one almost on top of another. On measuring the clearest print he found it to be just under 1.7 cm in length. The rock is now on display in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.
‘The significance of these prints,’ he said ‘is that they show evidence of dinosaurs breaking out of their eggs and leaving the nest at a very young age.’
It may be hard to imagine, but this area of the earth’s crust we now know as the Isle of Skye extends back some 3 billion years. At different times it has been part of an ocean floor, a tropical sea, a desert, a volcano and an estuary upon which dinosaurs roamed.
‘I’m constantly amazed,’ said Dr. Clark ‘that so much evidence of dinosaurs has been recovered from the storm swept beaches of the Atlantic Isle that is the Isle of Skye, Scotland’s Jurassic Isle.’
Sometimes, searching for dinosaur fossils is not for the fainthearted. After a particularly strenuous day on Skye when Dr. Clark and a few helpers had been hammering, drilling, chiselling and sawing apart a large rock, his leg broke and he had to be airlifted in a dramatic helicopter rescue to hospital in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis.
However, some of the most spectacular finds were first spotted by local people walking on An Corran beach, not far from Staffin Museum at Ellishadder. After the sand had been washed away by heavy seas, a big three-toed footprint of a very large meat eating dinosaur was discovered in a flat expanse of exposed rock.
Dugald Ross continues to search for dinosaur fossils. In summer 2013 he recovered a boulder from the shore nearby. Embedded in the boulder was a very large bone – from the time of this finding the process of identifying the bone has been on going. First published in The Scots Magazine
Occasionally there are days of shimmering heat across Scotland’s West Highlands when the sunlight seems to be brilliantly luminous. On such days the countryside appears to radiate colour.
There are countless shades of green, of grass and leaves. The blue of the sky is mirrored in sparkling lochs while the gold of gorse and yellow on the broom looks to be lit from within.
Gleaming white patches of snow still linger in distant mountain corries.
For some wild creatures, this may be the perfect time to relax, to doze in the warmth, out of sight of potential predators.
For wild life spotters, the chances of spotting this same wild life may be thought to be less. However, should they join knowledgeable guide Ian MacLeod on one of his Wild West Safaris, they are guaranteed, whatever the weather, to catch sight of the Big Five – Scotland’s iconic wild life species - and all in the one day!
Ian’s safari tours start from Fort William. After collecting participants from various points he drives his smart mini-bus out of town along the A830, the road to Mallaig, to the jetty on Loch Shiel.
On the way, we learn a little about the geology of the area, of the unimaginably powerful forces within the earth’s crust which formed the surrounding mountains. Millions of years of weathering and the weight of enormous glaciers reduced the height of these mountains and scraped out Scotland’s lochs and glens.
At the jetty on Loch Shiel we leave the mini-bus and board the cruise boat the MV Sileas and are now in the capable hands of Jim Michie. Some passengers opt to sit in a covered area while others choose to sit in the open, at the prow or along the sides of the boat. After a last look back to the head of Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan Viaduct made famous in the Harry Potter film, ‘The Chamber of Secrets’, we are sailing, awed by the surrounding beauty.
Loch Shiel is relatively narrow and hemmed in at the north end by high mountains. As the boat chugs along, Jim uses a microphone to tell us about people who had lived along this loch.
Small parties of hunter gatherers arrived here some 8000 years ago. The hillsides were heavily wooded then with oak, Scots pine and birch trees. There are still fragments of the ancient Caledonian forest but large coverings of Forestry Commission conifers dominate the lower hillsides. Higher up, sheep and deer have left the slopes bare.
Our first wild life sightings are not too exciting. Common gulls, though they’re not so common nowadays despite the name, crowd on to a small island of rock.
But then, all eyes and binoculars are trained on a black speck in the blue sky above a mountain ridge. A golden eagle it’s agreed! All aboard are wishing this dot in the sky would come much closer, be more convincing, show its impressive wingspan and curved beak – but it doesn’t happen.
However, further along the loch, there is a definite sighting – this pair of birds are arguably even more magnificent. Jim stops the boat. There are two White Tailed Eagles in a nest near the top of a tree. The male flies off, doesn’t reappear but is probably still close by, perched on another tree. The female looks to be hunched over. Is she sheltering chicks?
The birds are relatively safe here as the loch sides are almost empty of people. There’s only one full time resident now. One other cottage belongs to author Mike Tomkies who left a very different life behind to come here to study the wildlife, particularly wildcats.
We leave the boat at the southern end of the loch at Acharacle, a small village that manages to support a bakery and a general store.
When we are seated in the mini-bus again we are driven the few miles to Loch Sunart, a fiord - like sea loch with numerous bays which otters are known to inhabit.
We look for signs of these elusive creatures - but here on this beautiful day, for us, there’s no show!
Our next stop is the Forestry Commission Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide. It’s a well - appointed wooden building with an approach ramp suitable for wheelchair users, wall mounted benches, information boards and windows overlooking an island in Loch Sunart . Here the wild life watchers talk in whispers.
Some way below us seals are easily spotted. There’s much splashing in the water as pairs rise and cavort before disappearing into the depths.
As we continue motoring along Loch Sunart, passing trees that may be three hundred years old, our guide draws our attention to the striking rock falls and formations, the birdlife and two small herds of red deer.
One grouping is moving slowly, mere specks of dark brown on the hillside. Another group of stags and hinds is closer to the single track road. They appear unperturbed by the sight of humans. They watch us watching them – then carry on grazing.
At each stop, as well as pointing out the wildlife including dragonflies, Ian tells us about the importance of some of the flowers at our feet. These plants may now be dismissed as weeds, but were important to local people who could make use of them.
Silverweed is a hairy, silvery creeping perennial with yellow flowers which is plentiful, common and was cultivated from late prehistoric times. The roots were boiled, baked or even eaten raw. During the famine in these parts, Silverweed was used as a substitute for potatoes.
Our last stop is at another wildlife hide. It’s really a high, sturdy wooden fence with holes cut out to accommodate viewers’ different eye levels. We look through into the forest. On a tree not far away, a red squirrel is safely ensconced in a little wooden shelter attached to a feeder with a plentiful supply of food.
Here’s another definite sighting.
Ian leaves us with details of where we might still spot otters on the shore in Fort William.
On this safari we’ve not managed to see all of Scotland’s Big Five. But the searching has been splendid on a glorious day and there’s still time.