The Black Isle and Hugh Miller Museum: Sandstones rich in fossil finds

Walk in the footsteps of one of Scotland’s pioneering geologists, Hugh Miller, and you too might find fossil remnants of the Devonian ‘age of fishes’

1. Street view of Hugh Miller Museum and Birthplace Cottage, Cromarty. Image: A Bremner.

The gentle topography and rich farmland of the Black Isle is underlain by Old Red Sandstone rocks of the Devonian ‘age of fishes’, around 416 million to 358 million years ago. The best places to see exposures of the sandstones, many of which were deposited by huge rivers, are in the sea cliffs along the eastern side of the Black Isle. This linear coastline is defined by the Great Glen Fault, and to the east of the fault Jurassic marine shales are exposed in a few localities in the intertidal zone.

The Sutors of Cromarty – vast headlands towering up to 151 metres in height – that guard the entrance to the Cromarty Firth are parts of ancient hills of metamorphic gneiss and granite around which the Old Red Sandstone was deposited. Hugh Miller, pioneering amateur geologist, first discovered fossil fish on the Cromarty shore in shales and limestone deposited in lakes in the first half of the 19th century. This deposit is now known as the Cromarty Fish Bed, and fish fossils can still be found in nodules on the beach. At Eathie shore Devonian fish are also present in cliff exposures, but on the foreshore Jurassic shales yield numerous ammonites, belemnites, and bivalves. Hugh Miller drew a geological section of the rocks at Eathie and Cromarty that appear in his famous book ‘The Old Red Sandstone’.

Hugh Miller Birthplace Cottage and Museum
Fossil hunter, folklorist, Christian evangelist, stonemason, newspaper editor, social justice campaigner – Hugh Miller (1802 – 1856) lives on as one of the great Scots of the 19th century. Both the Cottage, and Miller House, the handsome Georgian villa next door, are Grade A-listed historic buildings. Miller’s own son, Hugh Junior, also a geologist, helped found the first museum in the cottage in the late 1880s.

Miller House contains some splendid Miller fossils on loan from the NMS national collection, including samples from the Cromarty Fish Bed and Eathie foreshore. It displays many other significant artefacts, such as his mason’s mallet, shepherd’s plaid, wife Lydia’s marriage bible, his first writing effort The Village Observer, and copies of his newspaper, The Witness. Facilities for research and lifelong learning are available by appointment.

There are three small gardens. Behind the house, Miller’s Yard Garden of Wonders, is themed on geodiversity. Its highlight is a fabulous ammonite sculpture, crafted in scrap metal. Lydia’s Garden, at the cottage rear, is dedicated to Lydia, their family and the descendants, with Miller’s celebrated ornate sundial as its centrepiece. Adjoining this is a Garden of Contemplation containing the remains of a tiny cottage Hugh built for a homeless aunt.

Text contributed by Nigel Trewin & Bob Davidson

Find out more
The Hugh Miller Birthplace is a 5-star rated visitor attraction in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. It is open to the public most days between April and October.
You can find much more about Hugh Miller from The Friends of Hugh Miller – The Friends is a charity (SC 037351), with an open subscription membership, devoted to promoting the man’s legacy in Scottish sciences and literature.

3. Section of nodule bearing strata (1metre thick): Miller split these nodules open to find many contained fossilised fish remains. Image: Bob Davidson.

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