Corncockle Quarry and the birth of ichnology

Last week I had a spare morning in London, so I went to the British Library in search of a quite extraordinary book.  The Ichnology of Annandale, or Illustrations of Footmarks Impressed on the New Red Sandstone of Corncockle Muir, was written, illustrated and printed by Sir William Jardine in 1851-53.  It describes the fossilized animal tracks discovered in sandstone quarries on his estate, and it is absolutely enormous.

OK, it's not as big as this book, but it's pretty darned large.

However, there is a preamble required before I delve more fully into this huge, extravagant tome.  For the first trackways described from Corncockle Muir (in 1828) were the first fossil trackways described scientifically from anywhere, and it wasn't Jardine who was responsible.  It was an indefatigable local clergyman: the Reverend Henry Duncan.

The Reverend Henry Duncan, 1774-1846

In two recent articles exploring his work, George Pemberton and colleagues describe Henry Duncan as a renaissance man.  As well as being a minister, Duncan was a politician, educator, social reformer, the founder of the first savings bank, and "composed what is considered the best poem ever written on the sport of curling" (Pemberton and Gingras 2003).  It was called 'The Music of the Year is Hushed' and can be read here.

The trackways were presented to Duncan in 1824, and when he saw them, he thought he knew what they were.  However, a couple of years later he sought out expert opinion on what kind of animal might have made them.

Call The Reverend Dr William Buckland, Dean of Westminster and Reader in Geology and Mineralogy at Oxford University!

(Call The Reverend Dr William Buckland!)

I'm sorry, but the Reverend Buckland is currently in a den full of Yorkshire hyaenas.

An extraordinary Earth scientist, interpreter of the Kirkdale Cave bones (for which the Yorkshire Museum was founded), consumer of the animal kingdom, and early glaciologist, Buckland was very excited by the discovery, and decided to carry out some experimental ichnology.  John Murray III, in a fabulous letter to his father, described the occasion:

"I went on Saturday last to a party at Mr. Murchison’s house, assembled to behold tortoises in the act of walking upon dough. Prof. Buckland acted as master of the ceremonies. There were present many other geologists and savants, among them Dr. Wollaston. At first the beasts took it into their heads to be refactory and to stand still. Hereupon the ingenuity of the professor was called forth in order to make them move. This he endeavoured to do by applying sundry flips with his fingers upon their tails; deil a bit however would they stir; and no wonder, for on endeavouring to take them up it was found they had stuck so fast to the piecrust as only to be removed with half a pound of dough sticking to each foot. This being the case it was found necessary to employ a rolling pin, and to knead the paste afresh; nor did geological fingers disdain the culinary offices. It was really a glorious scene to behold all the philosophers, flour-besmearsed, working away with tucked-up sleeves. Their exertions, I am happy to say were at length crowned with success; a proper consistency of paste was attained, and the animals walked over the course in a very satisfactory manner; insomuch that many who came to scoff returned rather better disposed towards believing."

The things I have to do in the name of experimental ichnology.

Having proven to his satisfaction that the Corncockle tracks were made by some form of ancient tortoise, Buckland wrote happily and magnanimously to Duncan:

I look upon your discovery as one of the most curious and most important that has been ever made in geology; and as it is a discovery that will for ever connect your name with the progress of this science, I am very anxious that the entire evidence relating to it should be worked out and recorded by yourself.

Duncan did so, presented his findings to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1828, and they were described the same year in an article by another clergyman, James Grierson.  It was called "On footsteps before the flood, in a specimen of red sandstone" - a provocative title for a provocative discovery.

Duncan's own paper on the trackways was finally published in 1831, in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  Eleven years later, Richard Owen, coiner of Dinosauria, recognized the Reverend's ground-breaking work, officially naming the fossil tracks Testudo duncani Owen, 1842, or 'Duncan's tortoise'.

Footsteps before the flood: the Permian trackways named in 1842 as Testudo duncani
(Image copyright: Dumfries and Galloway Council)

Having been suitably immortalized, Duncan died four years later, in 1846, and Sir William Jardine took over the ichnological duties.  A very talented naturalist, Jardine took them over very seriously indeed, as his amazing book testifies eloquently.  I will delve into it properly in part two of this post, coming soon.