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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter X. Geology of the Thurso Coast

A correspondence began between Robert Dick and Hugh Miller, which went on apace. Nothing would satisfy Dick but an early visit from his friend to see the fossils actually lying in their beds. “I have some famous things for you to see,” said Dick. “ There is a head of Holoptychius, which I have left for you to pick out for yourself. There is a cranial buckler of an Asterolepis, which I want you to see in its proper site. 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!” In the meantime, to strengthen his invitation, Dick proceeded to sketch in words the scenery of the sea-shore at Thurso—east and west of the town. He gave a map in outline of the coast, indicating the convolutions of the headlands and the dip of the rocks.

“Come,” said Dick, on the 8th of April 1845, “come, I will lead the way. We shall go round the east shore in the direction of Murkle Bay, and I will direct your attention to a few of the varied peculiarities of our rocky path. Though the tide is at low ebb, we must go round by the bridge, for the wintry spates have driven away the stepping stones across the river. ... We go on, and are now snuffing the sweet sea-breeze, and through the openings of the land we see the fair blue sea,—rippling bright in the morning sun, and stretching far away into worlds of wonders. Behind us lies Scrabster roadstead. You see the Bishop’s Palace, and above it the little burying-ground on the brink of the cliff, sea-worn and ragged, where the echoes of the murmuring waves sing a never-ending requiem to the departed. And there is the old kirk; and there, almost beneath our feet, is the bed of the river. See, there is a nearly horizontal bed of clayey flagstone, highly calcareous and charged with organic remains— scales, bones, spines, snouts of fish, and plants.

“We pass onward. On the beach between us and Thurso East Castle lies a moderate heap of rolled stones of various sizes, and could they be bound together they would form a fine specimen of modern conglomerate.

“We are now between the castle and the sea, and look! yonder lie the upper beds, which dip away north and a little west. The underlying beds are beneath our feet, for the tempests of many years have washed away the upper surfaces at high-water mark; but the underlying strata do not dip in the same direction as the overlying, but nearly west, in fact a little south-west. How is this? Were the edges of the underlying beds turned up before the upper were thrown down?

“We go on for about a gunshot, and come upon a noted fault. We tread on the edges of the strata, which dip apparently due east or north-east. Forty-eight paces farther on we meet another fault. The strata here appear to dip west. We tread again on the edges of the strata. How is this? These are the underlying beds. The cliff is from eight to nine feet high, and look! yonder lie the upper beds, which stretch unbroken out to sea. The lower beds are highly charged with organic remains, and so are the upper. The latter is bituminous and calcareous, and here I find stout bones, droppings, scales of Holoptychius, and plates with warts on them.

“We come to a bit burnie—a little brawling noisy thing in the month of April. We step across, and are now on firm rock, highly calcareous,—a rude, ill-cemented, cross-grained piece of stuff, which, in some places, reminds me of the riddlings of lime. As we pass on, the fossiliferous beds are on our right hand and on our left. They are not all ‘ calcareous flag beds/ as described by Murchison. Indeed, none of them resemble the ordinary flags which are sawn into pavement. They are more bituminous. And see! here is a bed of highly siliceous stuff, and there is one of green clay, slightly sandy. On taking a decomposed piece in the hand, and rubbing it between the fingers, it feels greasy.

“We are now among the low reefs, and look! there are multitudes of black, brilliant, quadrangular scales, and numerous remains of fish,—snouts innumerable, scales of Holoptychius, pieces of fish jaws, teeth, spines, bones, warty plates, and even plants. A little round the point, almost in the line of a fault, under a rock, I found that enormously big plate [of the Holoptychius], thirteen and a half inches across.

“While occupied in belabouring the rock to dig it out, I was so meditative and so wondrously affected, that some ‘town bodies' not understanding my object, looked down upon me, and speaking to each other said, 1 That man is mad!’ But I was not so mad as they thought me to be.

“The dip is nearly north, and the fossils are most abundant in the beds of rock close in with the land. I march on over the remains of departed days, and meditate among the tombs of deceased millions of living creatures,—tombs such as Hervey never dreamt of. As I proceed, I pass successively cliffs innumerable, faults innumerable, fossiliferous beds innumerable; for they occur in detached patches, and are to be seen on the very brink of the precipice. The sea is now dashing its billowy spray unceasingly, and along the outer edge of the breakers the crested cormorant and spotted divei ply their ceaseless vocation.

“The cliffs are now about forty feet high. The bituminous bed underneath is charged with the remains of fish. I used to wonder how the bed here, after running fifty paces or so, suddenly became much harder and highly siliceous. The sea has worn it into ruts—deep ruts—and the remains of fish can be seen peeping out of the sides. There are numerous fossil plants here.

“On we go, and soon tread upon a highly siliceous bed, very rugged, and worn into many strange shapes and gnarled knots. A little after, we pass a fossiliferous bed, charged, as usual, with fragments of fish. In a short while, we meet something like an abrupt wall of rock stretching across the path, over which we must climb. Once up, we find that the sea, which has told on every bed we have hitherto passed, has made no impression here. A highly siliceous bed stretches from the land in a long slope, sheer down into the waves, nearly as entire as it was thousands of years ago, when the real red sandstone beds—once continuous across the Firth from Orkney to Caithness—lay upon it; and though the billows break at every tide with tremendous force, the siliceous bed seems to lie as firm and unworn as ever. The wildest north-west winds that ever blew, and all the rushing force of the dashing waves, have availed but little in shaking the foundations or even abrading the surface of this hard siliceous rock.

“No bed similar to this—neither on the east to Castlehill, nor on the west to Reay—is to be seen at this part of the coast. The beds have everywhere been broken down, more or less.

“It is with a feeling of enjoyment that the ardent admirer of Nature contemplates the surrounding prospect. The view is grand! On the right is Dunnet Bay, with a schooner or two in the offing, beating up the Tentland Birth. Then there are the red cliffs of Dunnet Head. In long perspective, adown the Pentland Firth, we see the white waves chafing the island of Waas; and right over, in solitary state, the swelling Orkney hills and the Man of Hoy close the distance. Westward we look over the wide main, no land between us and the coast of Labrador. To the left, along the land, we see Holborn Head and the bay of Thurso, —a complete panorama.

“We go on, and pass fossiliferous beds, when we are stopped by a deep gully worn by the waves, over which it is impossible to leap. We therefore climb the cliff, and pass along the grassy bank on the top. The rocky beds there assume varied appearances; faults in abundance; here an opening to the sea, there an irregular wall; until we reach Pudding Gyoe, where the cliffs are steeper, and the sea comes closer in.

“Pudding Gyoe is a hollow cave, worn into the solid rock by the ceaseless grinding of the sea. The entrance can only be seen when the tide is at low ebb. The water from above percolates through the strata, highly charged with lime, so that, in creeping through the rocks underneath, it has formed a stalactitic covering, not unlike the entrails of a cow, or cow’s puddings, and hence the name of Pudding Gyoe.

“There is an old tradition of a piper who ventured ‘too far ben,’ and ultimately lost himself; and many people, good people, heard him long long after, playing his pipes in a low hollow sound, some four miles up the country.

“The beds have hitherto been dipping northerly; but at a small distance farther on, a range of rocks dips east; then there is a most notorious fault. The strata drop down almost on end, dipping east. You then enter Sandy Bay.

“On the farther side you come to more fossiliferous rocks. The remains are invariably the same—quadrangular scales, scales of Holoptychius, snouts of Diplopterus, teeth, warty bones, and some other large bones."

Dick resumes the subject of the above ramble along the north-eastern coast on the 29 th of April 1845.

“On leaving Sandy Bay and moving eastward in tlie direction of Murkle Bay, the strata continue to dip northerly. We shortly come upon a fault, when a total change in the direction of the dip takes place. It is now nearly due west. We tread upon their upturned edges, and are soon involved in the mazes of a wilderness of broken rocks. Stones of every shape, size, and description are lying around, as if a multitude of men had been at work with sledge hammers, and left the place a scene of the rudest confusion.

“The truth is, the sea rolling in winter and summer across the strata, in placid or in sullen majesty, or in whirling or dashing storms, has broken but not removed this mass of stony wreck. It is, nevertheless, a noted phenomenon of the scenery.

“Murkle Bay owes its existence to a noted fault, and, in my opinion, every little inlet or bay along the coast is due to the same cause. In moving round the sandy shore, the explorer has time to muse on the sandstone cliffs of Dunnet, now distinctly visible across the waters; and the dip of the yellow cliffs can be seen to have the same general strike as the calcareous, and the other beds of clay he has just left.

“At the eastern inner angle of Murkle Bay the strata are in great confusion—bent, twisted, contorted, and dipping in various directions. Moving on a little farther, they assume the usual appearance of dipping away in the direction of Dunnet Head; and here, for the last time in this direction, the explorer detects a bed of bituminous calcareous slates, full of organic remains.

They crop out between two dissimilar beds, and many warty and other bones are to be found bere.

Dick then proceeds onwards to Dunnet sands and Dunnet cliffs, which have already been described. During the same evening on which he begins the above description, he proceeds to geologise on the west shore of Thurso. He says :—“ Shouldering an old poker, a four-pound hammer, and with two chisels in my pockets, I set out for the burn of Scrabster. After a great deal of hammering, I found no end of young Coccosteus. I might have filled a barrel with them, but they were all broken. What hammering! what sweating! Coat off: got my hands cut to bleeding. Found a very hard bituminous bed. It rings like a piece of metal. What pokering! Got three or four fish, not much worth. Don’t think them new. Found a plant. Found scales of Holoptychius. Wrought on till the moon shone clear in the water of the burn. Returned home at twenty minutes past ten.”

The correspondence between Robert Dick and Hugh Miller proceeds. Dick tells his correspondent of all his findings of fossils. Everything he collects is immediately sent to the Witness office at Edinburgh. Dick had many wanderings for the purpose of finding the richest fossil districts near Thurso before Hugh Miller’s visit. Having described the sea-shore to the east of Thurso, he next proceeded to describe the sea-shore to the west of Thurso. He begins his letter of the 4th of May 1845 by quoting the stanza from Byron’s Childe Harold, beginning—

He that has sailed upon the deep blue sea Has viewed at times, I ween, a full fair sight.’

“Such,” he goes on to say, “is Byron’s beautiful description of a scene at sea; and such has often been my own feeling, when, at evening’s hour, my steps have measured the beach that lies spread out so temptingly fair between this little town and its beautiful hay. Bor, ’tis not unusual, in the month of May, to observe, out in the Firth, some eight or ten large vessels wdth ‘ every white sail set,’ ‘curling the waves before each dashing prow.’ But Dick had not gone down to look at the beautiful hay and the passing ships, or at Dunnet Head and Hoy Head, with the setting sun glinting along their sides, throwing out their rocky projections, and leaving their hollows and gyoes in the shade. Ho! He had gone down to the coast “geologically bent.” He wandered westward on the sand and then on the rocks, hammer in hand, ready to strike a blow, or any number of blows, for the honour of science.

“Passing on,” he says, “I walk over a bed of loose sand smoothed and levelled by the tide, and after a time I reach the solid rocks, of a bluish-grey cast, and dipping northerly, with a little of west. The first beds I meet are not decidedly fossiliferous, though a few scales and droppings may he found. A little farther on I see some warty hones, and still farther, there is a bed decidedly charged with organic remains. Pieces of fish jaws, hones, and tail-half plates of Coccosteus, are seen in considerable numbers.

“Moving on, I reach an opener space, strewed with fragments of a dark blue flag, charged, more or less, with organisms. Some very fine fossil fish have been found there. I next come in sight of the human bury-ing-ground on the top of the bank, as distinguished from the fish burying-ground on the rocks underneath.

“The family to which the burying-ground belonged, though once numbering among the Caithness aristocracy, have experienced a sad reverse. The last of the race is now toiling for his bread in a foreign land. Yet, one cannot help heaving a sigh in passing, to think that through his follies and imprudence, the dust of his fathers should be exposed to the contempt of passers-by. The door of their sepulchre is battered to pieces, and the ground is overspread with dank nettles and hemlocks, and other abominations.

“It must surely have been a refined, a poetic feeling, which prompted the founder of the burying-ground to pitch it in such a spot,—close by the murmuring sea— the image of eternity. He thought to have slept in undisturbed security. Yet the sea is already undermining the graveyard, and it is not improbable that the rock on which the family vault stands may itself be washed away, and the dust of the dead be driven hither and tliither by the wasting and unfeeling waves.

“A little past the burying-ground, and on the beach. I find a change in the dip of the strata. The beds dip east, though almost immediately thereafter they return to their former dip—namely northerly, with a little of west; and continue so until we arrive at the Bishop’s Palace, where yellowish, whitish, and striped beds of sandstone prevail. The beds on which the ruined palace stands are reddish and yellowish looking, and dip in the same direction.

It must have been selected by one possessed of a true relish for the beauties of nature. On the south-east side you observe a wide circular hollow of land, swelling gently up to the heath-clad hill of Forss. The headland, running round towards the north, breaks the force of the western storms. On the east there is a series of swelling uplands. Looking seaward the prospect is grand. Towards the north, the Orkneys are seen in the distance, with the Man of Hoy standing out to sea. Hearer, Dunnet cliffs are observed boldly fronting the Pentland Firth; and the eye aches in its inability to penetrate the mystery beyond.

“I can well imagine the warm, sunny, summer evenings of bygone days, when the bishop would sit watching the rippling waters, or gazing at the last beams of the setting sun, going down behind the world of waters in a blaze of crimson and gold!

“Sixteen years ago, I remember making an attempt to explore the inner recesses of the ruined palace. I entered the cave underneath with a lighted candle; but I found it utterly impracticable to make my way without pick and spade. There is a low door, which seems to lead to subterraneous chambers; but the passage is choked with rubbish.

“The little burn of Scrabster runs round the rock, entering the sea at its north-west side. The water would be useful to the castle inmates. I have sometimes seen sailors ashore filling their barrels there.

“Close beside the burn, a ridge of clay occurs, and sweeping round Scrabster Bay it rises in some places to about a hundred feet. It is blue and full of stones of various sizes. I have often been astonished at its appearance, and wondered where it could have come from. Some call it boulder clay, and say that it is similar to what skirts the base of some of the Alpine mountains. It may be a Moraine. It seems to fill an irregular hollow. The hare rocks are through the soil on the hilltop, immediately behind. Can it really he that those hill-tops, now so insignificant, once towered above the clouds, capped in snow, hound up in ice, and that they have gradually mouldered away down to their present elevation of a few hundred feet above the level of the sea.

“Low down, at the Coastguard house, beneath a weight of clay, the strata crop out, and are at first slightly charged with organisms. A little farther on I find beds charged with warty hones; and the strata dip northerly. Then there is a fault, the strata are in confusion, and dip westerly. They then become nearly horizontal, and continue so until the extreme end of Holbom Head ; where I find them slaty, and highly calcareous, bituminous, and containing many remains of fish.

“There is a noted fault to be seen almost atop of the point of the promontory. The strata slope in different directions. They are bent, twisted, contorted, and in great confusion. At one place, they are quite on end. What a subterraneous convulsion there must have been here at one time !

“We pass along, and walk over the Deil’s Brig. The sea washes underneath. It is one of the great goes, or gyoes, which abound along the coast. In stormy weather, the sea drives into it with overpowering force, and sends clouds of spray far inland. The Brig clearly shows the hard clay-flag of which the headland ia composed.

“Then we come to that very singular rock, The Clett. Who, in reading about Caithness, has not heard of Thurso Clett? In fact, it is our great lion. The Clett is an oblong rock of calcareous slate of about 100 feet high. It has been separated by the action of the sea from the adjoining mainland. It is the resort, in summer, of innumerable sea-birds, who breed on the ledges of the cliffs. When sitting on end, in rows, they have not inaptly been compared to rows of bottles in an apothecary’s shop.

“Passing on, the cliffs begin to rise until we reach a monument of white sandstone, erected to the memory of Captain M. A. Slater, who, it is said, either fell down or threw himself down the precipice, and was never afterwards heard of.

“A very little past the monument we meet a kind of a ditch, with a very little water trickling over the slates at its bottom. In these slates are fish; fish without end, but very rotten. Going on a little farther, we come to a spot of rocks washed bare by the wintry storms and the dashing sea-spray. There we find a patch of calcareous slates full of fish ! The flags are for the most part much decayed; and the fish themselves have long been dead and decayed, and their scales and head bones had lain scattered about, ere the limy mud and dust wrapped them up.

“This fish bed reminds me very much of the fish bed at Weydale, a few miles south of Thurso. The fish are of the same species. I remember very well hiring a flagman, and toiling with him half a day, and all that we gathered was two fossil fish out of some hundreds of broken worthless stuff.

“Beyond the ditch the cliffs rise again, and continue of the same height—about 190 feet; and then they swell up suddenly about ten feet more, into a sort of round hill. From thence the cliffs gradually fall, and slope away down to Brims. Before arriving there we find, a bed of calcareous slates, of noted appearance, full of the remains of fish, snouts of Diplopterus, jaws, scales, and warty bones. Westward of the house of Brims, there is the same appearance of fish remains amongst bituminous rocks.

“The strata west of Brims are well worthy the inspection of the geologist, on account of the very extraordinary position many of them assume. Their appearance is singular in the extreme.”

Holborn Head, and the rocks beyond, continued to be a favourite haunt of our geologist. He not only haunted the top of the cliffs, but by a difficult and dangerous path descended to the rocks underneath them. He resolved that nothing should remain concealed where the pick and chisel could reach them. “Determined,” he says, in a letter addressed to Hugh Miller, dated the 6th of May, only two days after the above inspection, “to put down nothing but what I had seen with my own eyes, I started this evening at seven o’clock; and walking double-quick time, I reached the extreme point of Holhorn Head at a little after eight. By this time the sun had set, and I felt it cruel cold. But I had scarcely set my foot upon the bare slates ere I picked up a very stout piece of fish bone, about seven inches in length. I also found a warty bone, a piece of fossil wood, a scale of Holoptychius; and I left two pieces sticking in the flags until to-morrow, when, if I can, I will hammer them out. These will be sent to you, not so much for their value, as because of their being found at the extreme point of the promontory. . . . And yet I was told by Mr. Manson that nothing was to be got there.”

On the 12th of May following, he proceeds—

“To the regions of the dead
Long and painful is the way!"

“I have thought that this ought to be reversed, more especially in the case of poor geological bone-hunters; for it is not when a man sets out on his journey ‘ to the regions of the dead/ full of hope and strong in spirit, that he is inclined to feel the way long. Ho; even though he has 3 pounds of iron chisels in his trousers pocket, a 4-pound hammer in one hand, and a 14-pound smiddy forehammer in the other; and his old beaver hat filled with paper and twine. Away he speeds—

“The folk still thinking as before
That Gilpin rode a race"

Nor does he halt, nor lag, nor look behind, till fairly hammering at the blue slate.

“But the matter is sadly altered when, after playing for some three hours at Blind Man’s Buff, he looks round and finds that the sun has gone down, that a cold wind is whistling along the crags, that ‘gloomy night is gathering fast,’ and that he finds he must begone! When he looks at the result of his toil, he is forced to sigh at its very meagreness when contrasted with his splendid opening dreams. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, he trusses up his burden, whistles 'o’er the lave o’t,’ speeds up the brow of the hill, and sees before him the six or eight miles that he has to walk between him and his home,—then it is that he desponds, and sighs—

“From the regions of the dead
Long and painful is the way."

“As intimated in my last palaver, I returned to Holborn Head, and after digging out the two pieces of hone left by me on the previous night, I explored a little longer, and found the pieces of very stout hones sketched on the other side. [Six pieces of fossil hone are sketched in pencil—one is the ‘ tail half of the Coccosteus,’ two are warty bones. These are all taken from the point of the promontory. I think they must have belonged to some very large fish, similar to those which had the very thick skull-caps, found at Thurso East.”

With respect to the cliffs of Holborn Head, he says— “ They are rugged and fearful-looking in many places. They are hollowed out by the winter tempests. The whole force of the North Sea breaks in violently upon the rocks, while a strong tide runs continually either east or west. So that one might almost prophesy death and ruin to Holborn Head. In that case, the tide must rise considerably higher in Thurso, for the Head has a great effect in turning aside the flood, and throwing it back into the open firth.

“Fearful as the crags seem, there is a possibility of getting down at one particular spot. I have been down there. I intend to go down again. I should be enraptured to find a fish head in such a place, or even a piece of jaw.”

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