2.1 The continued closure of Birk Knowes

Following the German raiding expeditions, Scottish Natural Heritage and the representatives of the land owners decided to close Birk Knowes until a new management plan could be implemented which ensured the protection of the site. It was also decided that, before research could continue, a geological survey of Birk Knowes would be carried out by the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh (NMS).

Considering SNH’s handling of the theft and the subsequent cover-up in the press, we had become wary of the integrity of this organisation. Despite this, we still needed them as they have absolute power when it comes to deciding who does, and who does not, gain access to protected fossil sites for research purposes. This situation would prove problematic for us. By informing the representatives of the land owner about SNH’s handling during the fossil theft, we had inadvertently antagonised them. As such we were aware that SNH might be uncooperative if we applied for access to Birk Knowes.

One of several warning signs placed around the Birk Knowes perimeter fence

One of the first clues that SNH would be unwilling to cooperate was visible on the warning signs placed around Birk Knowes (see above). They contain a subtle message. The warning signs are written in English and several foreign languages including Dutch, German, and French. French and German are understandable choices as they are large European countries whose population is not highly proficient with English.  But remarkably, a Dutch warning was also included even though Dutch people have the highest non-native English proficiency in the world and a relatively small population. Spanish would have been a more sensible choice over Dutch as it is the second most common native language in the world. There is not really a sensible reason for a Dutch warning. However, we happen to be Dutch and we were not in SNH’s good books. The Dutch warning was most likely a message to us, and it did not look like SNH was going to let us work at this fossil site.

Despite this, in the years following the plunder we had frequently asked SNH about progress concerning Birk Knowes access. Colin MacFadyen, the SNH geology advisor, kept us apprised of the situation and by the year 2000 it sounded likely that we would be able to continue research after a 5 year hiatus, as explained below:

Source: Letter Colin MacFadyen, 8 February 2000

The survey was not completed yet but Colin MacFadyen was confident about a positive outcome and even said that there is little doubt that we would be able to continue work at Birk Knowes. He also acknowledged that it was our work which showed the “increasing significance of the site“.

Later on that year sometime we presume the survey was completed. We kept asking for updates and in November MacFadyen again stated that we would “very likely feature in future research”:

Source: Letter Colin MacFadyen, 13 November 2000

This sounds hopeful, but all is not as it seems. At the end of this letter he mentions that research will likely be “multidisciplinary in nature“.

What did SNH mean by multidisciplinary?

Believe it or not, this is another way of saying that we can forget about Birk Knowes. To explain:

  1. What SNH means with multidisciplinary is a team of researchers from various disciplines.
  2. SNH said this to someone (W.v.d.B) who had published on Birk Knowes fossils numerous times; including twice in Nature. We also discovered the exceptional preservation of soft tissues at this site, which is what makes the fossil bed spectacular. Under normal circumstances, this should have been more than enough credibility to be granted access. By telling us that research will be multidisciplinary, he is hinting that we are not welcome.
  3. Would a requirement like this have any practical necessity? Consider that Birk Knowes is first and foremost a site of palaeontological interest (=our area). Other fields of work have already been examined: the stratigraphy, sedimentology, and palynology were carried out respectively by Miller et. al. (2000), Lovelock (1998), and Wellman & Richardson (1993).

From this correspondence we surmised that SNH was perhaps not as supportive of us as they first appeared, and were possibly actively preventing us from accessing Birk Knowes. SNH also made no suggestion how we would be able to gain access to the site.

What makes the multidisciplinary requirement also strange is that we learned (not from SNH) that someone else had been granted SNH’s blessings to work at Birk Knowes. This person, a geologist from Aberdeen University, had no publication record or expertise concerning Birk Knowes or fossils from elsewhere that are similar. He was a sedimentologist and was not instructed (as this paper from us shows) on the taphonomy (preservation science) of primitive fishes and arthropods, which is what makes Birk Knowes unique. Furthermore, this person did not constitute multidisciplinary research. If SNH values credible research then they have a funny way of showing it.

(On a side note, despite SNH’s permission, the Aberdeen University geologist could not work at Birk Knowes as he was unable to secure land owner permission).

This is why we believe that the multidisciplinary requirement was devised to keep us out of Birk Knowes, most probably as a form of revenge for informing the land owners of SNH’s failure to protect the site.

As we had other obligations, we sporadically had contact with SNH about access.

In 2006 we asked again about the status of Birk Knowes. This was SNH’s response:

Source: Email from Colin MacFadyen, 25 May 2006

Here SNH repeated the multidisciplinary requirement. But, they now seem to relegate us to the status of casual collectors, and once again makes no effort to accommodate our research.

For the time being we regarded Birk Knowes as too much bother to be worth pursuing. It was clear to us that SNH was using a passive-aggressive tactic to keep us out of Birk Knowes. We also did not have the necessary evidence to show that we had specifically been targeted.

We therefore let the matter rest for the time being and turned our focus to other localities.

However, by 2015 we had described a new fish species from elsewhere in Scotland. We found out that it is closely related to Jamoytius, which is the fish after which the Birk Knowes locality owes its other name: The Jamoytius Horizon. The new fish showed that Jamoytius had been misinterpreted, so we wished to work on it. As the Jamoytius material housed in museums has been thoroughly described, was on an overdue loan at that moment, and an intact specimen has never been found, we required new material.

Therefore, in 2016 we applied to SNH for a permit to access Birk Knowes. We hoped that those keeping us out of Birk Knowes had drifted into retirement, which is what had just happened to Alan McKirdy. A research proposal was sent to Susan Davies, acting CEO of SNH. Our request was dealt with by an Operations Manager.

SNH responded by refusing our request for access. The reason is highlighted below:

Source: Email Lyndsey Kinnes, 22 March 2016

The response from Lyndsey Kinnes tells us several things:

  1. Birk Knowes was still closed to us by 2016, which is 21 years after the initial closure and 16 years after the survey was carried out.
  2. The closure remained in effect after the year 2000 because the NMS survey of the site did not conclude a favourable result concerning the extent of the fossil bed.
  3. Access for multidisciplinary research is mentioned again. By 2016 Colin MacFadyen was still with SNH and this is a word we have come to expect from him. Is it possible that MacFadyen wrote the email, or at least part of it? The email contains geological jargon and knowledge that are unlikely to have come from anyone but a geologist. It is therefore possible that he wrote at least part of the email from Lyndsey Kinnes, as geology does not look like it is in the job description of an Operations Manager.
  4. Concerning the mentioned fields involved in multidisciplinary research, take note how SNH specifically mentions “stratigraphers” and “sedimentologists”, which are two geological disciplines. As for the necessary palaeontological disciplines, SNH is less specific: “researchers covering the widest possible range of specialisms in palaeontology relevant to Silurian biota”. It is remarkable that SNH demands multidisciplinary research at a fossil site, but it cannot name the palaeontological disciplines that would be required.
  5. As mentioned above, the work associated with stratigraphy and sedimentology had been carried out already by Miller et al. (2000) and Lovelock (1998). These are fields where you can only get so much information out of a site before you hit a wall. This makes it a doubtful requirement because the purpose would be merely to confirm previous results.

From this email we gathered that SNH was still being uncooperative after all this time.

But, more importantly, we now understood that SNH had used the survey carried out by the NMS, which apparently claimed that the fossil bed is small, to justify the closure of the site beyond the year 2000.

This was something we knew was wrong, and we could prove it.

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