Fossil Hunting in Shetland

by Elizabeth Atia -

It's funny how one thing can often lead to another, in the most unexpected of ways.

Being a food blogger means I get sent all sorts of weird and wonderful things to try out, and payment for work doesn't always involve cash. I often receive products as payment in kind. Some time ago I was sent a large bottle of rum in exhange for a few social media tweets (it's hard work, I tell you! </wink>) and this led to me investigating rum smuggling in Shetland.

This, in turn, led me to find out about the existence of a Smuggler's Cave in Burra - 200 metres inland at the headland of Pundsar. You can read all about our adventures exploring that cave here. The information I needed to find this cave was found on a Shetland Amenity Trust leaflet on the geology of the west mainland.

In this leaflet I also discovered that there were fish beds on the west coast of Shetland - the Melby fish beds are a short coastal walk from the end of the road at Sandness. The kids and I went off to explore and we were, unfortunately, unsuccessful in our attempts to locate any fossils. To be honest we didn't really know what we were looking for.

While speaking about the Melby fish beds with friends I learned of the existence of an even better fossil fish bed down in The Cletts, Exnaboe, on the south mainland near the airport.

I made a mental note to explore the area the next time we were down there, which was last Sunday!

We recently had some absolutely glorious summer weather so I baked a cake with some Shetland grown fruit and we packed a picnic and headed to St. Ninian's with some friends for a beach barbecue and some sun bathing and swimming.

We were there the best part of the day and after we packed up our things to leave, none of us quite wanted to go home yet, so we headed to the fish beds to see what we could find.

The Cletts fish beds in Exnaboe were easy enough to locate given the instructions on the Shetland Amenity Trust leaflet - they're only a 10 minute walk away from the car parking area, and that was with small children in tow.

The geology in this area is absolutely stunning! The power of those waves and the intriguing rock formations in the area are remarkable. They'd probably be more fascinating if I knew what I was looking at, and what processes formed them.

Once, several years ago, I went on one of Allen Fraser's Shetland Geotours and everything (very little!) I know about Shetland rocks came from what I learned that day. I highly recommend his tours if you're up visiting or even if you're a local wanting to know more about our wonderful geopark!

It only took a matter of minutes after arriving before my eldest shouted in his most excited voice: "Mum, I think I've found something!"

That definitely looks like fish scales, and a bit of a smooshed (that's totally a scientific term) fish head, no?

We kept looking and it only took another minute or so for the kids to spy the next one.

Yep. Definitely a fossil fish! You can see scales and fins in this one!

And then I found one! A whole fish!

I remembered, from my previous photographs at Melby, that I should put something to compare size with next to the geological feature I am photographing. None of us had a coin on hand, so a 7-Up bottle lid had to do.

But I found a fossil fish and I crossed #14 off my 40 Things to Do Before I Turn 40 list. It bugged me that I hadn't found a fossil fish at Melby so it got added to the list when I was compling it earlier in the year.

We also found some rocks which looked like they had plant matter fossilised in them. Again, I'm no geologist and don't know what I am looking for, but a few papers I've read about Exnaboe indicate that yes, there are fossilized plants in this area too.

The sun was starting to inch towards the horizon when we finally called it a day and headed home, smiles on our faces.

Being self employed means that I can officially designate sunny days in Shetland as holiday days, so when full sun was anticipated for the whole of Monday I packed the kids off to school, packed another picnic, grabbed a friend and headed back to the Melby fish beds since this time I knew roughly what I was looking for.

The coastal walk around Sandess is a beautiful walk, even on a windy day like last Monday, more so because the wind was warm and the sun was bright! Visiting this area for a second time, and this time with grown up company instead of small children, meant that I could get a bit closer to the cliff edges and see below.

This would be a great area to kayak in, I think! Plenty of rock hopping opportunities!

We weren't alone either. We were espied from below!

There are several exposed areas of the Melby fish beds, according to what I've read online - divided into Upper and Lower Fish Beds running from the Ayre of Huxter in the north to Matta Taing in the south. It was the lower fish bed at Pund Geo, as recommended in the Shetland Amenity Trust leaflet, we were headed for, but not before stopping off and photographing and admiring all sorts of geological formations (is that lava, above?).

It was a beautiful day for it, and I have to confess it was nice being there with another grown up with the same interests as me. We both reckon that next time we should take a geologist with us who can explain what it is we are looking at though!

The fossils in this area aren't quite as obvious as the ones found in Exnaboe. It took awhile but we eventually found a thing which looked like it could be a fossil, but it wasn't until I returned home and searched the internet for the fossil species which are supposed to be located in this area that I designated this black scaly lump as officially a fossil. I could be wrong, but it does look a lot like it could be the dorsal view of osteichthyid Gyroptychius (see this paper for more info).

We spent hours searching this area, pausing only for a brief lunch before carrying on with our explorations.

We were determined!

These too look like fossils, no? I don't know what they are, but they're intriguing! Could the one on the left be an example of Pterichthyodes milleri, an armoured fish said to have been found in this area?

The one on the right has some rather unusual bumps on it. It's not really scaly, like you would expect a fish to be, but it's definitely from something organic.

Again, on the left we have a rather unusual fossil-like thing (again with the sciencey words, eh?). On the right, we have a shiny! While searching for fossils little nodules like this were glinting in the sunlight.

Oh I wish I knew more about geology! My degree is in Life Sciences, not rocks. Perhaps I should begin studying for a second degree?

All in all, this was a pretty fantastic way to spend two back-to-back sunny days, and I would encourage anyone who is interested in such things to visit the areas.

To find out more about Shetland geology visit the Shetland Geology website, the Shetland Amenity Trust or the geology section of Shetland.org.