Memories of the Kinkell Braes, St. Andrews

I grew up in St. Andrews, Fife, on the East coast of Scotland. An agate stone I found in my garden when I was a very young child sparked something – how could a dull brown stone reveal banded grey-blue concentric circles inside? And how did it end up in my garden? Truth be told, I suspect it travelled from elsewhere in the gravel that lined the garden borders. Nevertheless, a fascination was born at that moment; I knew instinctively it was different, obscure, a change to all around it. To this day I retain that trait – the eye to pick out whatever is different in a surface strewn with pebbles and shells, the one fragment that is misplaced.

A friend’s mother picks up on the glimmers of an obsession and buys me an enormous book about fossils for my 9th birthday. I become fixated on ammonites. I maintained a childish refusal to believe that ammonites cannot be found near St. Andrews. My mother was unable to travel far, and so I was restricted to the beauty of my immediate surroundings – I headed to the coast, and the rocky shoreline to the east of the town, the Kinkell Braes.

So I start hunting. Fossil hunting. In and out of the coves along the Braes at the foot of the sandstone cliffs, focusing intently on every pebble and fragment at my feet, to the amusement and at times sheer frustration of my father. In my ammonite-zoned-in-state I do not think to look up and examine the trackways of the giant sea-scorpion, or Eurypterid, which must have been in the overhanging sandstone next to me on numerous occasions. I remember fossilised shells – bivalves and brachiopods – crinoid corals, and fossilised tree roots and tree trunks.

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I never find a single hint of an ammonite.

As a teenager, walks with my father are abandoned and I start to take my friends with me. We check for good weather and favourable tides. We walk for hours, scrambling up and over seaweed-blanketed rock, raised and tilted slabs and volcanic dykes. Every trip, we find treasure. Agate stones, fragments of metamorphosis, chemical precipitates, and above all, colour. A friend of mine in later life comments on my eye for obscurities – to me it is simply about spotting subtleties in colour change, texture change, finding the ‘odd one out’, finding the ones that tell a story.

At seventeen, I discover the bigger picture. Layers of sandstone, mudstones and coals laid down in the early Carboniferous when this part of Scotland lay to the south of the equator. Then a period of deformation in the late Carboniferous – earthquakes and volcanic vents result in a landscape twisted under pressure. The bends and folds in the sedimentary rocks are clearly visible today, with anticlines, synclines and dome structures found all along the coastline. From the cliff path, the anticlines and synclines are laid out on the shore below in several localities. The horizontal layers were pushed from both sides, rippled like a wrinkled carpet. Then they were tilted vertically and the top layers gradually eroded away, exposing perfect waves of alternating rocks whenever the tide is out.

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The Rock and Spindle, a sea-stack formed from the remains of a 290-million-year-old basaltic volcano a few miles along the coast, is so-called because it resembles the tools traditionally used by local people to spin wool. There are a number of igneous rocks to be found in this area, including tuff, or consolidated ash, which fell into the chamber of the volcano on several occasions when the cone collapsed in on itself. The ‘spindle’ is what remains of an intrusion into the volcano – basaltic columns cooled to form a perfect wheel of spokes, radiating out from a central point. I remember being puzzled by the spindle when I first saw it, again at a fairly young age. To me it looked like someone had pressed a huge bicycle wheel into the rock, leaving a bizarre imprint. I also remember my father’s tales of climbing the rocks as a student twenty years before – a somewhat dangerous activity that I would guess is now seriously frowned upon as the stack is fragmenting away.

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I look back and recognise the delightful variety in the geology I had on my own doorstep as a child. Back then it seemed so awe-inspiring (and even awe-ful!) to look back so far in time that I simply couldn’t take it all in. It was just my home, my patch, my place. I knew every nook and cranny along that coast, and I am delighted my parents ‘just let me go’.

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All text and photographs copyright L. Reid 2015

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