Elgin Museum holds a Recognised collection of fossils. The display tells the story from primitive fish, through the emergence of the earliest vertebrate land forms to the earliest dinosaurs.
How important is the collection of local fossils in Elgin Museum?
The fossils are “Recognised” by the Scottish Government as a collection of National Significance. This award also acknowledges the major part played by the Museum’s founders and associated amateur geologists in the unravelling of questions of geological succession that so fired the imaginations of 19th century naturalists. The Museum holds a considerable supporting archive of original papers, including letters from the Cromarty stonemason, Hugh Miller, and correspondence with Charles Darwin.
What kinds of fossils are in the collection?
We have more than 900 local fish and reptile fossil specimens, and a similar number of minerals and miscellaneous fossils.
In the Rear Gallery you will find the permanent exhibition, explaining what a fossil is, with examples of the fish and reptiles that have been found in the local area, and several models to help to bring the rocks to life. A recent acquisition is the “lifelike” skull model of a dicynodont reptile, created from MRI and CT analysis of the block of sandstone from Clashach Quarry – funded by the Recognition Fund.
The fish are from the Middle and Upper Old Red Sandstones, and so were swimming here some 350 million years ago. The reptiles lived in desert conditions, 100-150 million years later. The Permian reptiles also left their footprints fossilised in the Hopeman sandstone of the current coast. The later Triassic reptiles include Saltopus elginensis, which for many years was thought to be Scotland’s earliest dinosaur. Recent work by Professor Michael Benton (University of Bristol) has instead identified it as a dinosaurian – a forerunner of the dinosaurs. We have a model on loan, portraying Saltopus as covered in hairy feathers.
In rarity terms, we have nine Type specimens, and one Unique specimen, the fish Rhynchodipterus elginensis, which has been to the Universities of Chicago and Cambridge for scanning.
How can we see the fossils?
On an ordinary visit to the Museum you can see the best of the fossils, on display. These, and the fossils and archive in store, can be made available for study and research, given sufficient notice. Schools and special interest groups can request visits with an explanatory talk, and access to “handling boxes”. The fossils have been the focus of our conferences, and the Proceedings, three times in recent years, and other publications are available in the Museum shop.
Is there any ongoing research on the collection?
Our fossils are not forgotten! With the advent of electronic scanning, there has been a resurgence of interest by palaeontologists as they reassess fossils that may have lain untouched since their discovery in the nineteenth century. Our collection continues to attract international attention, and, for example, since the 1990s, our reptile footprints, and our specimens of Rhynchodipterus elginensis, Leptopleuron lacerticeps and Dicynodon traquairi (now renamed Gordonia traquairi), have appeared in scientific papers.
We have plans for further collaboration with National Museums Scotland and the group Palalba, including a scanning programme, and also for a major refurbishment of our stores and study facilities. As a precursor to refurbishment, we employed a palaeontologist, Dr Sue Beardmore, funded through the Recognition Fund, to review the collection. The store is considerably better organised now, and we have an up-to-date catalogue (on an Excel spreadsheet as well as MDA record cards).
Work in a Museum is never completed. We have formed a Geology Group in the Museum with the purpose: “To provide an ongoing nucleus of volunteers, interested and informed about the Museum’s Recognised collection and its context in the geology of Moray and the Moray Firth, to ensure the collection’s continuing care and its promulgation to the widest possible public, and generally to promote Moray’s geological resource.”
If you are interested in joining the Geology Group, please contact us.
The staff and volunteers at Elgin Museum will try to answer your questions, if necessary referring to the various specialists who have research links with the Museum. Email or ask to speak with the Recognition Volunteer, or a member of the Geology Group.