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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter IX. Geology Discovery of a Holoptychius


Robert Dick had now been engaged for many years in studying the wonderful aspects of Nature in the North. Caithness was not too wild or dreary for him. The shells on the sea-shore, the grasses along the river-sides, the mosses growing on the boulders, the ferns abounding in Dunnet cliffs, were all full of interest. And now he proceeded to probe the ground under his feet.

He had long had a taste for geology. While gathering his botanical specimens he had often found fossil fishes in the slaty rocks. He first observed them in 1835, a few years after he had settled at Thurso. At first they excited his wonder; then his surprise,—for distinguished geologists had asserted that no fossil remains were to be found in the Scotch Highlands. But here they were under his own eyes! Why should he not explore them? Why should he not study them, and verify the facts for himself?

Among the first books that he bought was Mantel! s Wonders of Geology. This revealed to him quite a new world—the world of wonders at his feet. He afterwards bought Dr. Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise. This book also greatly excited his imagination. But there was nothing in it about the fossils of Caithness. He next borrowed a book from Sir George Sinclair, containing a journal of Mr. Bushby’s travels through Caithness. He made copious extracts from it, and endeavoured to verify the facts therein stated.

Mr. Bushby’s object seems to have been to discover whether Caithness contained any metalliferous ores. He also bored largely for shell marl, with the object of mixing it with the mosses, and thus producing cultivable land. Bushby was not a geologist, and, in his search for what was valuable, he overlooked the flags, the fossils, the old red sandstone, and many of the most interesting facts in the geology of Caithness.

It was not until the appearance of Hugh Miller’s publications that Dick’s mind was set in the right direction. In the month of September 1840, there appeared in the Witness newspaper the first of a series of articles under the title of “ The Old Bed Sandstone.”

in such abundance as to constitute nearly the entire mass of the particular strata. ... In some counties, he will perceive, none of these remains occur—for instance, in Cornwall and the Scotch Highlands; in others (as in the south-eastern counties of England) not a well can be sunk, or a pit opened, without presenting them in abundance.”

The articles were collected and published in the form of a hook in the following year. Dick purchased a copy, and read it with great interest.

He immediately set to work to investigate the geology of Caithness. He again wandered over it from one end of the county to the other. But his best findings were near Thurso. Along the coast there, he had already found fish bones, fish heads, fish snouts, fish scales, sufficient to freight a large ship. But he had never yet found an entire specimen. At last he succeeded; and then began his correspondence with Hugh Miller.

He did not know Hugh Miller; so that he addressed him through an intermediate friend, Mr. Alexander Sinclair. The letter is dated the 10th of March 1845. Dick intimated that he was about to send off from Thurso to Leith, by the “Union” steamer, a number of fossil bones for Mr. Miller. He said, “If Mr. M. has seen anything similar to the piece No. 1, with the triangular knob, all my dreams of astonishing the geological world by something new are in a measure at an end; for ’tis not alone the size of the pieces that I value, but their singularity.

“An acquaintance here has suggested that the piece I have attempted to delineate was the plate that covered the lower half of the Coccosteus; but in this I find it hard to agree, for I have two lower halves of Coccosteus tilted over on their backs, and they are not at all like tins strange piece. The lower half of these pieces has no triangular knob at the upper end in the centre of the plate. Nor will it do, in my opinion, to say that perhaps the knob and the rib-like processes were separated from the centre plate, and washed away before it was buried, for, to my certain knowledge, they were originally solidly united in one piece, and the knob could not even have been wrenched away without leaving a mark.

“Besides, in these two pieces of Coccosteus cuspidatus alluded to, there is a knot-like bone, with a long stalk at the lower end, and nothing of the same kind in the piece now sent. If this piece, strange as it is, was in reality the lower half of a Coccosteus, Mr. Miller must correct his description when he speaks of it as one plate or piece, save the two small side pieces that ‘ fill up the angle.’ Mr. Miller knows what I mean.

“I am pretty confident that I have got something new to geologists, and for this reason—rude as my sketch of the fish jaws is—Mr. Miller must know them to be the remains of a Holoptychius.”

Five days later (15th March) Mr. Dick again writes to Mr. Miller:—“Not a moment shall be lost in sending you by steamer those curious Old Bones. At the same time, I cannot send you one of them—the largest piece —as it was found; but I will send you a cast of it—a stucco likeness of what the huge buckler was when it lay in the bed of the rock, after I had brought it to light after its long entombment.”

The fossil fish found by Dick was indeed a discovery. The frontal plates of the Holoptychius measured full sixteen inches across, and from the nape of the neck to a little above the place of the eyes, full eighteen; while a single plate belonging to the lower part of the head measured thirteen and a half inches by seven and a half. Dick was rejoiced to find that Hugh Miller valued the discovery so much, and that he complimented him on the results of his laborious investigations.

In the same letter in which he communicated the finding of the fossil Holoptychius, Dick described to Hugh Miller the beginning of his geological studies. He had been long wandering about Caithness, making general inquiries, gathering fossils, finding old sea-beaches, and watching the grindings made by icebergs on the rocks; but now he had begun to excavate the rocks, and endeavoured to dissect them so far as he could.

“I never,” he said, “wielded the hammer and chisel until last spring—March 1844; and the laying hare of the large fossil (of which I send you the cast, and the remaining fossils) was one of my first exploits. It was about the vernal equinox. The wind blew off the land. A merry sea tripped through the Pentland Firth. The tide was about full. The waves came dashing in on the rocky shore, in long rolling billows, scattering in spindrift.

“I had laid the large plate bare, and was resting in mute astonishment at the size of the fossil—for I measured it with the handle of the hammer, and found it fully eighteen inches in length—when I was roused from my reverie by the waves dashing against my feet. The tide was now coming in! What was I to do? To raise it, stone and all, was impossible, and I feared that it might be damaged or taken away if I left it until next evening. There was no time to deliberate. The tide was nearly up to the stone.

“I then attempted to lift it whole out of its bed, little thinking, in my ignorance, of the extremely brittle nature of petrified bones. Alas! the bone broke across! I gave a gasp, and cried ‘Oh!’ But I set to work and lifted the rest out, and put the whole in my handkerchief. When I reached home they were a mass of broken debris. I managed, however, to put the bits together again, and of these I send you the plaster cast.

“What was it? was it really a Coccosteus, six feet long including the tail? What do you think I imagined it to be ? Nothing more nor less than a gigantic King Crab I wanting the tail; eighteen inches one way and sixteen inches the other. I wandered through Buck-land in vain, and then believed that it was the upper piece of a Trilobite. But the ‘Old Bed’ dissipated all these fancies.

“I have a piece or two of fossil bone that would puzzle Agassiz himself. They shall all be sent you. Whether you engrave any of them or not, you are on no account to return them. They would never see the light with me.

“I have taken note of what you say, and will endeavour to comply with your kind suggestions that I should make further searches. ... I have been along the shore once or twice already, and know of a job or two—one of them rather promising—a bone, as long as my finger, is standing out of an impure bituminous limestone, but what the bone may be can only be known when it is dug out.”

Hugh Miller afterwards refers to the circumstances under which Dick sent him the Holoptychius. He says, “I do not know what the savans of Russia have been doing for the last few years; but mainly through the labours of an intelligent tradesman of Thurso, Mr. Robert Dick—one of those working men of Scotland, of active curiosity and well-developed intellect, that give character and standing to the rest—I am enabled to justify the classification and confirm the conjectures of Agassiz. Mr. Dick, after acquainting himself in the leisure hours of a laborious profession with the shells, insects, and plants of the northern locality in which he resides, had set himself to study its geology; and with this view he procured a copy of the little treatise on the Old Red Sandstone, which was at that time, as Agassiz’s monograph of the Old Eed fishes had not yet appeared, the only work specially devoted to the palaeontology of the system so largely developed in the neighbourhood of Thurso. With perhaps a single exception—for the Thurso rocks do not yet seem to have yielded a Pterichthys—he succeeded in finding specimens, in a state of better or worse keeping, of all the various ichthyolites which I have described as peculiar to the Lower Old Eed Sandstone. He found, however, what I had not described, the remains of apparently a very gigantic ichthyolite; and, communicating with me through the medium of a common friend, he submitted to me, in the first instance, drawings of his new set of fossils; and ultimately, as I could arrive at no satisfactory conclusion from the drawings, he with great liberality made over to me the fossils themselves.”

With reference to the manual labour by which Dick earned his bread, Hugh Miller says—“There is no working man, if he be a person of intelligence and information, however unlearned, in the vulgar acceptation of the phrase, who may not derive as much pleasure and enlargement of ideas from the study of geology, and acquaint himself as minutely with its truths, as if he were possessed of all the learning of Bentley.”

In a subsequent letter, written during the same month, Dick says—“We have gentlemen-geologists here; but not one of them—though they have been many years in the pursuit—have a single piece similar to those I send you. They have repeatedly gone down to Thurso East, and returned empty. And why? For this simple reason, that they were afraid to fylef their trousers!”

Certainly, Dick discovered and elucidated many things which lie hidden from the eyes of common men. His indefatigable industry in the cause of science enabled him to accomplish much more than thousands of men furnished with the best available education, and with ample means and time at their command, had been able to achieve. His was only another case of “the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties.”

In a future letter to Hugh Miller he said—“I got your enclosed extract. I will proceed to make you a map of Caithness. As to the dip of the strata, the geologists are right; but as to the localities of the fossils, they are greenhorns. I have traced all the shores, from Eatter on the east to Drumholister on the west. Some beds are perfect Museums of fish heads and hones. I will send you some coprolites of a size that will make you doubt if they really have been voided by fish. Sometimes I think larger animals must have inhabited the sea of the Old Eed Sandstone.”

On the 8th of April he writes—“In your outlines of Mr. Bose’s lecture, in your last paper [the Witness], I find a more rational view of the probable use of the thick coverings of the animals of the Old Eed. Dr. Buckland’s scalding theory always appeared to me to be ludicrous, and not in keeping with facts. Thus, in the same strata in which I found the very large plate, there were scattered promiscuously scales of the Osteolepis. You know how thick they are, and you now also know that some kind of animal was covered with mail in some places nearly an inch thick.

“Now, there is no proportion between the protecting fragments of the two creatures; and if Buckland was right in his views, it must have been as perilous for poor Osteolepis to swim side by side with Coccosteus as it would be for a modern dandy to attempt braving the rigours of a polar winter in night-gown and slippers. The heat must have been as speedily fatal in the one instance as the cold would be in the other.

“Sing beneath his impenetrable bone, methinks I hear sanry Oocco laughing at poor Osteolep, and ironically saying, ‘ Poor fellow, how I pity you ! Why don’t you put on more clothes? You will never be right till you get a thicker jacket to keep out the heat.’ ‘Well, Cocco/ replies his comrade, ‘ I am very warm already. This coat of mine is horrid hot, and I do not see how it would mend the matter to put on another!’ This would be the proper answer to scalding seas, oceans of hot water, and fish with thick coats to keep out the heat! ”

Prom this time forward Robert Dick sent all the new fossils that he found to Hugh Miller for the purpose of illustrating his books on geology, especially that describing The Old Red Sandstone. He sent numerous specimens of the Coccosteus, the Diplopterus, the Asterolepis, the Dipterus, the Osteolepis, the Glyptolepis, and many other remains of ancient fishes, now found only in a fossil state. In 1845, he sent Hugh Miller the first specimen of the Coccosteus minor, which he had found near Thurso. “It was from one of Mr. Dick’s specimens of this species,” says Mr. Miller, “that I first determined the true position of the eyes of the Coccosteus—a position which some of my lately found ichthyolites conclusively demonstrate,—and which Agassiz, in his restoration, deceived by ill-preserved specimens, has fixed at a point considerably more lateral and posterior, and where eyes would have been of greatly less use to the animal.”

In his future editions of The Old Bed Sandstone Hugh Miller found it necessary to make many alterations in the text, consequent upon the observations and discoveries of Robert Dick. In his preface to the third edition, published in 1846, Mr. Miller says that he had found it necessary to make a good many additions tc the volume, and several alterations in the text, where the statements appeared to require modification.

“I need here,” he says, “refer to but one of those modifications; and this chiefly that I may have an opportunity of acknowledging my obligations to the meritorious individual through whose kindness I have been furnished with the data on which it has been made. It was stated in the two former editions that there is a gradual increase of size observable in the progress of ichthyolitic life, from the minute fish of the Silurian System up to the enormous Holoptychius of the Coal Measures, the largest of all the ganoids; and that the Old Bed System, whose lower beds border on the deposits of the Silurian fish, and upper beds on those of the gigantic ganoid, exhibited in its various formations this gradation of bulk, beginning with an age of dwarfs, and ending with an age of giants.

“Since the appearance of the second edition, however, it has been ascertained that there were giants among the dwarfs. The remains of one of the largest fish found anywhere in the system have been discovered in its lowest formation near Thurso by Mr. Robert Dick, who, by devoting his leisure hours to the study of geology, in a singularly rich locality, has been enabled to add not a few interesting facts to those previously accumulated truths of the science on which its sounder theories can alone be erected, and who has kindly placed at my disposal his collection of fossils. And the positive proof which they furnish has convinced me that the theory of a gradual progression in size, from the earlier to the later Palaeozoic formations, though based originally on no inconsiderable amount of negative evidence, must be permitted to drop.”

He afterwards refers to the comparatively recent discovery of a gigantic Holoptychius in the Lower Old Eed Sandstone of Thurso by Mr. Robert Dick of that place. “It bears shrewdly,” he says, “against the line of statement in the text of the book, and it serves to show how large an amount of negative evidence may be dissipated by a single positive fact, and to inculcate on the geologist the necessity of cautious induction.”


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