Fossil Fish & Fossil Fish Addressed


Robert Dick

Recited by Emma Bernard (@NHM_FossilFish & @Emma_Bernard on Twitter)

Oh, gin ye a fossil fish
Long petrified in Auld Red Stanes,
An’ I a wanderin’ found the rock
That held the remnant of yeer banes!
How I would try to dig ye out,
And send ye up to Lon’on fair,
Weel pack’t and sealed, ye needna doubt,
To rest at Rory’ evermair!
Oh, gin ye were an Alpine plant
That grew upon the mountains high,
An’ I a wanderin’ found the plant
The little mossie burnie by!
How I would joy, if ye did ‘scape
The wintry winds and storms severe—
I’d pu’ and put ye in my cap,
An’ dry ye, for a thousand years!

Robert Dick - 1858

Recited by Emma Bernard (@NHM_FossilFish & @Emma_Bernard on Twitter)

“Tell me, thou dust beneath my feet,
Thou dust that once had breath,—
Tell me how many mortals meet
In this small hill of death.
“By wafting winds and flooding rains,
From ocean, earth, and sky,
Collected here, the frail remains
Of slumbering millions lie.
“Like me, though elder-born of clay
Enjoyed the cheerful light;
Bore the brief burden of a day,
And went to rest at night.”

Robert Dick - 1863

A photo of a beach scene. On grey sand lies various debris, there is dead seaweed toward the back of the image, bits of driftwood and rocks lying around, and a large white scallop shell. Lots of other little shells and polished rocks lie around as well, and a bit of coral. Scattered all over the scene are bits of jewelery, all earrings, made of slices of blue geodes and shark teeth. The effect of the image is that all of these items and debris washed ashore and are now visible.
“Relics,” inspired by “Fossil Fish Addressed.” Guest art by Athena at Sea to Sky Jewelry Co. (Instagram: @seatoskyjewelryco)

In 1858, Robert Dick included a poem written in Scots in a letter to his friend, the British naturalist Charles Peach. He was surprised when the poem later appeared in the Wick newspaper, stating that his intention had only been to make Charles laugh “and, that purpose served, to burn it.” Despite this, Robert continued to send comedic poems in letters to his friend, and that’s how “Fossil Fish” came to be. “Fossil Fish Addressed” was written in 1863, after finding a particularly impressive assemblage of fish fossils. Both of these poems are published in Robert Dick, Baker of Thurso, Geologist and Botanist, by Samuel Smiles.

The science behind the poem

In “Fossil Fish”, Robert Dick mentions “Auld Red Stanes” (Old Red Stones). This references the Old Red Sandstone, a rock formation found throughout the UK as well as parts of Norway, Ireland, and Greenland. The Old Red Sandstone represents freshwater and terrestrial environments from the Late Silurian to Early Carboniferous Periods (419 to 358 million years ago). This formation is important to the history of geology as it was the formation from which the Devonian period was first recognized. In fact, before the name Devonian (named after the Devon region) was used, that period was known as the Old Red Age.

The bones mentioned in the poems by Robert refer primarily to two of his most notable finds. One of them was a very large specimen of the fish Holoptychius. Holoptychius is a type of fish called a lobe-finned fish (Class: Sarcopterygii), which is the group that includes modern day lungfish, coelacanths, and all tetrapod animals (4 limbed vertebrates). It was a large predatory fish, growing up to 2.5m long (8 feet) and lived during the Devonian and Carboniferous periods.

The other find, and the subject of “Fossil Fish Addressed”, describes a mass mortality assemblage; a deposit containing the fossilized remains of many multiple individual organisms that died at the same time. The poem writes of the “…hill of death” and “…the frail remains of slumbering millions…”, referencing the Achanarras Fish Bed, part of the Old Red Sandstone containing the mass mortality assemblage. The remains Robert found mostly belonged to Coccosteus, a species of fish belonging to the extinct armored fish group known as the placoderms. These fish lived in a massive lake known as Lake Orcadie and died when the lake was affected by toxic algae blooms and low water oxygen levels caused by storms and temperature differences.

Robert Dick

A black and white ink illustration of Robert Dick. The shading is done with cross-hatching, and it resembles the style of a Victorian newspaper (It was probably illustrated back then). He is slightly smiling, and has absolutely huge hair and sideburns.
Robert Dick
By Charles Roberts, Public Domain.

Robert Dick was born in Tullibody, Scotland, in 1811, where he received schooling and apprenticed to become a baker. In 1826 his father moved to Thurso for work, and Robert joined him in 1830, setting up a bakery that he would run for the rest of his life. When he wasn’t working, Robert devoted himself wholeheartedly to the collection of fossils and plants. He would hike all around Caithness, and bring home as much as he could carry. His major goal was to find a complete fossil fish, but the nature of the geology (see above) made that extremely difficult. Robert wrote poetry throughout his life, and was set to be quiet and contemplative, perfectly at home in nature.

Throughout his life, Robert corresponded with other naturalists such as Charles W. Peach, Roderick Murchison (husband of geologist Charlotte Murchison), and High Miller. Robert avoided publicity, he even seemed mildly annoyed when Charles Peach had his poetry sent to local newspapers, and never published his own research. When Charles visited the British Association at Aberdeen, Dick apparently told him “Pray, do not mention me; if anybody asks about me, say that I am well; I want to be let alone.” Robert did, however, send specimens to other geologists who figured and wrote about his findings. He even taught Roderick Murchison about the geography of Caithness using flour on a baking board. These were invaluable contributions to Scottish geology, for which he never wished to be credited.