fossil-hunting at achanarras quarry

When I was a child, I explored a lot of Caithness with my family, and I like to think I know the county well. But every so often, I come across a place I’ve either never been or never heard of, and a few weekends ago, the weather was finally decent enough for me to check out two new places – here’s a write-up of the first one.

Achanarras Quarry came to my attention when I was sitting at some temporary traffic lights on the A9. I’d noticed the sign before and had assumed it was a small working quarry, but on this day I really noticed it, and realised it had the Visit Scotland logo on the sign, which meant it was a tourist attraction. A quick google when I got home, and I discovered it was actually a world famous fossil site and nature reserve.

A world famous fossil site!? Barely ten miles from my house and I had NO IDEA!? ME – who has a dinosaur obsession that would put an eight-year-old to shame!? HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS????!!!

Once I’d got over my indignation, I decided it had to be worth a visit. Basically, the quarry was a freshwater lake 380 million years ago, and is now very rich in fossils. At one point, the site was a working quarry, but after work had ceased, entry was by permit only (which may be why it fell under my radar). Now, it’s open to the public, although fossil removal is limited to ten per day, which suggests there are quite a few still out there.

The walk takes about a kilometre, and there are markers along the way that take you ‘back in time’, so that by the time you reached the quarry, you’re 380 million years into the past.

I was intrigued to learn that Caithness once had a tropical climate…..

Halfway along the track was an abandoned farmhouse. I’ve always been intrigued by these old buildings dotted along the causewaymire – who lived there? Why did they leave? How do I get to those houses? Are they even accessible? Well, this one isn’t, but I ignored the ‘danger – keep away’ signs and went for a closer look anyway.

The view from the front step sums Caithness up fairly well for me – flat and empty, with miles and miles of sky. The only thing that would have made the view perfect would be the sea on the horizon, but as this was an inland view, it was the one thing that was missing. Living here couldn’t have been an easy life by any means, especially during winter, but I still always feel a sense of romanticism and nostalgia when I imagine what life would have been like for those who lived on these lands before us.

The windows of the house were blocked but I still managed a glimpse of this wonderful old cooking range. I’d loved to have seen what else was still in there.

Oh, and I found a dead shrew. Random dead creatures fascinate me almost as much as dinosaurs, so here it is…..

The quarry soon came into view, a strange, eerie place that was as spellbinding as it was unnerving. There was no sound except the wind rustling the grass, and the calls of unseen songbirds. It looked as if it should be a hive of activity, but it was devoid of any human life except me. I felt like I was either on the set of some cop show, where they were going to drag a dead body out of the water, or on some distant planet. I half-expected to suddenly hear the TARDIS, or see Cybermen decending down the slopes. And although I knew I knew I was perfectly safe (unless I got too close to said water, or if Cybermen turn out to actually be real), I felt slightly uncomfortable, and didn’t plan to stay long. I felt very, very alone. Which wasn’t necessarily negative, and I was barely a mile from the nearest inhabited house, but it really felt like I was miles from anyone.

I wandered around and turned over some stones in a futile search for fossils, although I hadn’t brought tools on this occasion so knew I was unlikely to find any. I did make my own one though.

As I walked back, the wind blew thistle seeds past me, and a robin followed me along the track. At the car, I sat and watched the fat spider who lives in my wing mirror, expertly cocoon a fly she had caught, then haul it behind the mirror. It had been an exhilarating walk and despite of how desolate it had felt, I was grateful at having had the change to experience the quarry alone, with no company and no other visitors to ruin the other-worldly effect.

I had been at the bottom of a prehistoric lake by myself. Not many people have that experience.


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