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ACTIVE OUTDOORS: Finding fossils on beach walk with a difference

By John Davidson

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For a five-year-old, the concept of time can be somewhat confusing – even the next birthday or Christmas seems an age away. So trying to explain what fossils are to a curious kid can be a tricky thing for a parent.

That didn’t stymie Matthew’s enthusiasm for fossil hunting though. He picked up every rock that caught his eye and asked: “Does this one have a fossil?”

It wasn’t long before I did a double-take and answered – yes!

Matthew with his first fossil find.
Matthew with his first fossil find.

He was delighted with his first fossil find at Eathie on the Black Isle – the same spot where the renowned Scottish geologist Hugh Miller found his first ammonite fossil, sparking a lifelong interest in the subject.

Miller, born in nearby Cromarty on October 10, 1802, was considered one of the finest writers on the subject in the 19th century, and he also found wonder in the natural world and in the folklore surrounding it.

Today, you can learn much more about his life of study as well as seeing his fossil collection at Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage Museum, which is run by the National Trust for Scotland in Cromarty.

But to visit the fascinating fossil-hunting spot, you have to head a couple of miles outside the village, following a minor road from Newton up to Navity and over the Eathie Burn, past Eathie Mains to a small parking area beside a gate leading to a grassy track.

There is only room for a few cars here, so please park responsibly and be warned that when I was there recently the minor road was closed partway along, so you could only access Eathie from the Cromarty end, rather than turning towards Eathie from Rosemarkie.

Fossil hunters in the evening light at Eathie.
Fossil hunters in the evening light at Eathie.

The walk begins at the gate, beside which there is an information panel about Miller and the footpath down to the old fishing station at Eathie Haven.

The path initially skirts the edge of the forest, with views over the fields which encompassed everything from the tips of the massive yellow wind turbine jackets at Nigg yard to the triple rolling top of Scaraben in the far north.

Underfoot it was quite muddy and we squelched our way along until we came to the start of the steep descent through the woods. There are some very steep drops off some of the edges so we had to keep a very close eye on the youngest – though the path is wide and cushioned by pine needles most of the way.

It twists downwards, offering only tantalising glimpses to the vast ocean beyond the trees. The sound of the waves crashing against the shore gets louder as you approach the bottom, though. Keep straight on at one point where another path cuts sharp right.

Eventually you emerge from the darkness of the canopy and can see the beach just a short way down. Stick to the path as it continues and goes behind a rather decrepit looking building then turns to reach a fingerpost sign where you can easily access the beach.

A rainbow frames the view from Eathie Haven.
A rainbow frames the view from Eathie Haven.

At low tide it’s possible to walk to Rosemarkie along the shore from here, but our plan for today was just to explore a short way to the old salmon bothy and beyond, where we hoped to find a few fossils.

After a bite to eat on the beach, we took a quick look inside the bothy, part of the old salmon fishing station that was in operation here until 1984. It now houses a few information panels about the flora and fauna of the area, the old fishing station and the geology – not to mention an old stove and a few other bits and bobs you might find in any other bothy.

This building at Eathie Haven was the seasonal home for a crew of four who manned the station – owned by the Moray Firth Fishing Company – between February and August, sleeping in the bothy and spending most of the week on site.

The fishing rights were bought over by the Atlantic Salmon Trust in the 1980s when concerns about salmon stocks around the country were becoming more prominent.

Jennifer looks out to sea, framed in the doorway of the salmon bothy.
Jennifer looks out to sea, framed in the doorway of the salmon bothy.

Most visitors to the bothy today are looking to catch fossils rather than fish, as evidenced by the hammered and split rocks scattered about the area. We explored down to the next mini headland, seeking out the dark grey rocks that split with ease – and many of which reveal part ammonite fossils.

My dream of finding a full perfect specimen wasn’t fulfilled on this visit, but what a fascinating link to the past to expose the fossilised remains of a creature that live millions of years ago at the bottom of the sea, on a continental shelf not too dissimilar to much of the North Sea today.

The ammonites date from the Jurassic period, around 201 to 145 million years ago. The coastline here is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and visitors must not damage it – in particular, the bedrock, exposed at low tide, should not be hammered into. Instead, look for individual rocks among the debris washed up on the tide.

With fossils found and a successful trip in the bag, it was time to tackle the big climb back up to the car. Matthew and I found old tree branches in the forest and used them as walking sticks as we made our way up – and chatting away, it seemed to take no time at all.

The salmon bothy at Eathie Haven fishing station.
The salmon bothy at Eathie Haven fishing station.

Route details

Eathie fossil hunting

Distance 2.75 miles / 4.5 km

Terrain Steep path, muddy in places; rocky beach

Start/finish Small parking area on minor road south of Eathie Mains, near Cromarty, at grid ref: NH768636

Map OS Landranger 21 or 27; OS Explorer 432

A steep walk down through the forest to reach a fossil-rich beach before a long climb back up

Eathie fossil close-up.
Eathie fossil close-up.

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