Laich Sandstones, Elgin: Step into a world of extinct herbivores, reptiles and fish

These sandstones, and the fossils of fish and extinct herbivores found in them, are of international significance

The Laich Sandstones exposed in a cliff section near Elgin. Image: Anne Burgess.

The Laich of Moray, an area of relatively flat land north of Elgin, is underlain by aeolian and fluviatile sandstones – solidified, wind-blown sand-dunes created in desert environments. There are two ages of sandstone represented here: Old Red Sandstone (Devonian, between 415 and 360 million years old), and New Red Sandstone (Permian and Triassic, between 250 and 200 million years old). These sandstones were deposited in desert environments showing that Scotland had similar geological conditions in two distinct time periods, representing time spent in the southern desert zone (Devonian) and norther desert zone (Permian and Triassic) as the continent moved north across the globe.

The sandstones are of international importance because of the reptile, fish and other fossils found in them; many of them are species that are not known to have lived elsewhere. They include the Devonian fish Rhynchodipterus elginensis, and several Permo-Triassic reptiles, such as a large herbivore called a pareiasaur Elginia mirabilis, the dicynodonts Gordonia traquairi and Geikia elginensis (herbivores with tusks) and the lizard-like Leptopleuron lacertinum. In 1997, a block of sandstone from Clashach Quarry made history when it was examined using MRI and CT technology and found to contain a mould of a skull of the dicynodont Gordonia traquairi. The reptile fossils form an important part of the geological exhibit in Elgin Museum, and are a regular destination for palaeontologists from all over the world.

Many of the fossils came from Cutties Hillock Quarry, one of numerous sandstone quarries in Quarry Wood, west of Elgin. In Rosebrae Quarry, you can view the unconformity where the New Red Sandstone sits directly on top of the Old Red Sandstone. The age gap between the two rock types is around 100 million years, which means other missing layers must have been eroded away in the interim period.

The best exposures of the New Red Sandstone sediments are in the cliffs and on the shore between Burghead and Lossiemouth. At Clashach Cove an obvious fault has formed a cave beneath golden dune cross-bedded sandstone. Just inland is the vast Clashach Quarry, where the Gordonia traquairi skull was found in 1997.

Numerous trace fossils in the form of trackways have also been found here. Some of them have been put on display just outside the quarry entrance, but sadly the display is becoming very overgrown with whins.

Text contributed by Anne Burgess

Find out more
Cutties Hillock Quarry SSSI (NJ183637) – http://gateway.snh.gov.uk/sitelink/siteinfo.jsp?pa_code=482
Further information about the scan of a block of sandstone from Clashach Quarry that contained the mould of a complete skull of a dicynodont:  http://www.hmag.gla.ac.uk/neil/elgin/marvel.htm
Elgin Museum: http://elginmuseum.org.uk/

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