Assynt and Skye 2019 – A Palaeo Perspective

Article by: J. D. Dixon
Edited by: Lewis Haller, Adam Manning, and Harry Jones

If you were to ask any of the University of Birmingham second year Geology, Geology and Physical Geography (GPG), or Palaeobiology students about their recent trip to Scotland, the three groups would tell you entirely different stories. From the outset, the GPGs and Palaeos were split from the Geologists, even taking separate coaches and living in different accommodations in Assynt. Now, I am a Palaeo, and so I can only recount our experience of the trip. Since much of what we found is part of ongoing assessment, field sketches and key answers may be omitted from this article.

We set off with the GPGs at around 08:00 on the 14th September and arrived in Assynt after a gruelling eleven-hour coach journey. The accommodation did make the journey worthwhile, as we were staying in the lovely Ardmair Point chalets, which were self-catered and slept four people each. The view of Loch Canaird every morning was nothing short of beautiful.

The view from the chalet in the morning. Image by Adam Manning.

Day One – The Quinag Climb
The morning kicked off with a briefing led by Dr James Bendle, who split the working groups into a mix between GPG and Palaeo students. This was a great opportunity to get to know people across the GPG course, and we found that talking to people we’d never spoken to before isn’t actually as intimidating as we had all thought. The GPGs were very welcoming to us and we hope that they felt the same way about us Palaeos.

Our first stop was at the Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve. Here, we aimed to understand the work of Peach and Horne (pioneers of the geology of the North-West Highlands), and to learn more about the various lithologies that we would be seeing for the duration of the trip. We also examined the Moine Thrust, but this was a very short observation, as the main portion of this day was spent at Quinag, just south of Inchnadamph.

The Moine Thrust as seen at an outcrop at Knockan Crag. Image by Lewis Haller.

Here we hiked across the slopes, looking for friction cracks, striations and crescentic gouges. These are key indicators of past glaciation, which can even tell us the direction of ice flow in the area, and therefore its origin. Each working group collected the orientations of twenty of each of these ice flow features using a compass-clinometer at six sites across the area. On the way back to our chalets, we also stopped at Elphin, a small crofting township built upon limestone outcrops. Here we sketched the mega-grooves (large channels carved by glaciers) seen in the quartzite bedrock of the mountains across from where we stood. After heading back to the accommodation, we spent the evening, as we did most in Assynt, going over our notes and socialising as a group in one of the chalets.

Friction Cracks from the slopes of Quinag. Image by Adam Manning.

Day Two – Tills and Tillites
We spent the entire day at Allt an t-Srathain, where we examined the sedimentary sequence in the valley. We hiked down into the valley and crossed a shallow river to reach an exposed section of cliff. Here, we examined the units by looking at matrix material and colour, clast colour, size, shape and fabric, bed thickness, and then produced a sedimentary log to represent what we saw. This was done to determine if the units present were as a result of glacial processes or another form of deposition, and in turn, determine what was the direction of glacial flow. We concluded that these deposits consisted of glacial tills and fluvial deposits.

Part of the sedimentary succession viewed at Allt an t-Srathain. The lower unit pictured is a glacial till, while the upper unit pictured is a fluvial deposit. Image by Harry Jones.

Day Three – Mountain Madness
This was the longest day of the trip. We headed to Conival, a mountain around 987 m tall, to examine the rock hardness using Schmidt Hammers. This was to determine where potential trimlines from the last glacial periods could have crossed the mountain, thus indicating the maximum vertical glacial extent.

A view from the peak of Conival. Image by Lewis Haller.

This day included crossing bogs and rivers, besting uneven terrain, scrambling up steep rock faces, and battling multiple midges and ticks. A few people (myself included) sustained wounds, but thankfully I got off lightly, as some people had to return to the accommodation with the severity of their injuries. It may sound like quite an ordeal, but it was actually a great day outdoors. We saw groups of wild deer grazing on the mountain slopes and encountered numerous frogs. It was all worth it for the sense of achievement and spectacular views upon reaching the peak, even though the mist rushed in just as we reached the summit and obscured our views.

Students and lecturers from our university climbing back down the mountain. Image by Adam Manning.

Day Four – Extinction and Recovery
Sadly, we departed from our GPG counterparts on the 18th  of September, as we headed for the Isle of Skye. Senior lecturers Dr Kirsty Edgar and Dr Tom Dunkley Jones accompanied us as we packed our bags and boarded one of the minibuses to leave. When we arrived, we moved into a really nice house on the north coast, and while some of us shared rooms, most had a double room to themselves. After settling into the new location, we headed out to the Ob Lusa Foreshore to examine the Breakish Formation. Here, we split into two groups and used sedimentary analysis and quadrat sampling to study Hettangian coral diversity, structure, and palaeoenvironments after the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction Event.

A quadrat used to measure coral diversity. Looking closely will let you see the coral colonies. Image by Adam Manning.

This helped us to determine the success of these fauna and possible trials they had to overcome moving into the second period of the Mesozoic, such as a storm we deduced had occurred from the presence of hummocks and swales in coarser-grained rock. We even walked across the formation to see an igneous intrusion. The rocks were quite slippery and the midges ever-present, but we managed to finish all of the work in a short amount of time.

A coral colony from within a quadrat. Image by Adam Manning.

Day Five – Dinosaur Day
This was the day we Palaeos were most excited about the most since getting onto the coach to Assynt. On this day we started off by visiting Staffin Dinosaur Museum, opened by Dugald Ross in 1976. There was a large selection of terrestrial and marine fossils collected on Skye on display, as well as some other artefacts, such as ancient arrowheads. We saw many amazing specimens, including a theropod fossil trackway with both large and smaller footprints, indicating the presence of a family unit. There was also the world’s smallest dinosaur footprint, a tiny theropod print in the centre of a larger print, no bigger than a five pence piece. We learned from the museum’s founder all about the geovandalism that had occurred on Skye in the past, and how he is seeking to stop such occurrences and preserve the fossils available in the area.

A trackway from the museum which showed footprints from adult and young theropods. Image by J. D. Dixon.

After this, we visited the Staffin Shales, an Upper Jurassic sequence preserving wonderful marine pelagic fossils. We made lithological and fossil observations and found many ammonite, gastropod, bivalve and belemnite remains both in situ and loose on the beach.

Ammonite from the Staffin Shales. Image by J. D. Dixon.

Finally, we visited the dinosaur trackways in the Duntulm Formation. We split into our groups and measured the footprint width and length, as well as the stride length of the trackway and used calculations to determine the hip height and speed of the animal which made the tracks. We determined they were narrow gauge and rounded, and so were likely created by sauropods walking across the coastline. We then returned to the house and in our groups had to prepare presentations on the Breakish corals we had seen on the previous day. Our presentations needed to cover how we sampled the corals and our interpretations of the palaeoenvironment and success of the fauna.

Jurassic Sauropod trackways from the Duntulm Formation. Image by J. D. Dixon.

Day Six – Classified
We started our final day early in order to finish our presentations, which we then delivered to Kirsty and Tom. After this, we headed out to an active research site which is currently used by palaeontologists to recover Mesozoic mammal and dinosaur faunal remains. We were only permitted to sketch and record fossils and their locations using a GPS, however, we cannot publicise any of the locality information due to the vulnerability of the site to geovandalism or independent collectors. Nevertheless, this was an incredible experience, and what we did see were truly unique in-the-field specimens not accessible to the general public, and was an immense honour for young palaeontologists such as ourselves. 

We finished our final day with fish and chips with Kirsty and Tom in the house and talked about our course, how we all got involved in palaeontology and provided feedback on how the university could better publicise or encourage their palaeo programme to new students.

Day Seven – Homeward Bound
The next morning, we headed off in the minibus and rendezvoused with the GPG cohort in Inverness, where we joined their coach for our final drive back to Birmingham.
Overall, our trip was an enlightening and unique experience, one which we will always value as palaeontologists and as students, who were lucky enough to be able to get this experience from our course.

I would like to give a huge thank you to Dr James Bendle, Dr Kirsty Edgar, Dr Tom Dunkley Jones, Amy Jones, and Jonathan Hall for their organisation and enthusiasm on this trip, and for making it a memorable and fun event for all of us.

Image References:
[1] The view from the chalet in the morning. Image by Adam Manning.
[2] The Moine Thrust as seen at an outcrop at Knockan Crag. Image by Lewis Haller.
[3] Friction Cracks from the slopes of Quinag. Image by Adam Manning.
[4] Part of the sedimentary succession viewed at Allt an t-Srathain. The lower unit pictured is a glacial till, while the upper unit pictured is a fluvial deposit. Image by Harry Jones.
[5] A view from the peak of Conival. Image by Lewis Haller.
[6] Students and lecturers from our university climbing back down the mountain. Image by Adam Manning.
[7] A quadrat used to measure coral diversity. Looking closely will let you see the coral colonies. Image by Adam Manning.
[8] A coral colony from within a quadrat. Image by Adam Manning.
[9] A trackway from the museum which showed footprints from adult and young theropods. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[10] Ammonite from the Staffin Shales. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[11] Jurassic Sauropod trackways from the Duntulm Formation. Image by J. D. Dixon.