The rich and diverse fossil heritage of Scotland spans 1,200 million years of Earth history. Scotland has yielded the world’s oldest known insect, important transitional forms between amphibians and reptiles, some of the oldest known plants, and significant earliest mammal remains. Scotland’s fossil heritage has therefore had a crucial role in the study of evolution.
Scotland’s fossils are of great scientific and educational value. They provide an insight into prehistoric life and allow the reconstruction of environmental conditions that existed millions of years ago, as Scotland drifted across the face of the Earth. They enable us to piece together past life and its evolution to the present day.
If collecting fossils in Scotland, please do so responsibly and follow the fossil collecting advice on our website and in the Scottish Fossil Code, which can be viewed and downloaded from www.snh.gov.uk. Some coastal areas offer good opportunities to collect fossils. Some localities are protected by law and so please restrict collecting to loose material and do not hammer rock.
Follow the links below to find out more about Scotland’s most important fossil groups …
The Irish Elk (Megaloceros) – Scotland’s claims to the extinct Irish Elk, or giant deer Megaloceros, lie in fossilised remains found at Maybole in Ayrshire in 1837.
Jurassic ammonites – Ammonites are one of the most recognisable fossils, and are found at many sites across Scotland from the Black Isle to the Inner Hebrides.
Jurassic dinosaurs of the Isle of Skye – Fossilised footprints and bone remains found on the Isle of Skye show that rarely-preserved Middle Jurassic dinosaurs once roamed there.
Jurassic oysters (Gryphaea) – Fossilised oyster shells, known as Gryphaea or ‘devil’s toenails’, are common at many locations along the West coast of Scotland.
Triassic reptiles – Huge reptilian footprints on Arran and skulls from Elgin have shed light on some of the large land-living reptiles from the Triassic period.
Bearsden sharks – The conditions in the shallow tropical seas of the Carboniferous period left Scotland with a wealth of rare, beautifully preserved shark fossils.
Fossil trees – During the late Carboniferous period around 310 million years ago, the Scottish Lowlands were covered in dense tropical rainforest.
Carboniferous shrimps (Tealliocaris) – fossil shrimps found in Southern and Central Scotland represent the country’s best preserved Carboniferous crustaceans.
Early tetrapods – The search for the missing link between amphibians and land-dwelling reptiles has been greatly enhanced by fossil discoveries in Scotland.
Conodont animals from Granton, Edinburgh – The now extinct, eel-like conodont animal was something of a mystery until fossils found in Edinburgh helped scientists uncover its biology.
Eurypterids – A number of rare, near-complete fossils of sea scorpions, or eurypterids, have been found in Scotland over the past 150 years.
Devonian Fish – Fossils from the Devonian ‘Age of Fishes’ are found across Scotland, recording a time when life flourished in rivers and lakes.
Early land plants – An amazing diversity of land plants from many time periods, including some species dating back 400 million years, are found in Scotland.
Trilobites – Perhaps one of the most recognisable fossils, slater-like trilobites of all different shapes and sizes can be found across Lowland Scotland.
Graptolites – The prolific preservation of small, marine planktonic organisms called graptolites throughout southern Scotland has helped scientists date British rock strata.
Stromatolites – Fossilised microbial deposits called stromatolites are the oldest lifeforms found in rocks across Scotland.
We are very grateful for the assistance of science writer Lara Reid on a voluntary basis in compiling this section, with the support of other members of the Scottish Geodiversity Forum. This material was prepared in 2014 in preparation for the Scotland’s Fossil Five poll.