“Come, come without delay; there is no end of wonders here – no end of dead fish. Even the town of Thurso is built of dead fish!” Thus wrote Robert Dick (1811-1866), baker, scholar and amateur collector, to the distinguished geologist, Hugh Miller, about the fossils that he was finding. The true extent of the fossil remains of Caithness was not revealed until a quarry at Achanarras, near Spittal, was opened in the 1870s.

The easiest way to visualise how this came about is to go to the movies. Half an hour of flames, hurtling rocks and boiling seas and the cataclysm that took place about 385 million years ago between Shetland and Inverness is easily imaginable. What is called the Orcadian Basin was formed. Fish entered the basin and then – did the water get too hot, too salty, too depleted in oxygen? At any rate they were unable to withstand the conditions and died en masse. Little by little their carcasses were covered by sediment and little by little this sediment was turned into rock and from that time to this, these many millions of years, their skeletons lay undisturbed in a sort of rock sandwich at Achanarras. Many exceptional specimens have been recovered from the site by fossil-hunters, some of them the recognisable ancestors of  what one sees displayed on the fishmonger’s slab. In the case of the lamprey, the prehistoric form is said to be virtually identical to its present form. For details go to the Scottish Natural Heritage website.


Photo Alasdair Ogilvie