Following the plunder, Scottish Natural Heritage arranged the Lanark Forum on the 25th of October 1995 to discuss the threat posed to fossil resources and ways to counter this, and to discuss the plunder at Birk Knowes. What happened here was remarkable.
Among the invited were representatives from the National Museums of Scotland, Hunterian Museum, University of Edinburgh, and British Geological Survey. Also included was a representative of the land owner (the land was, and still is, owned by Electricity Supply Nominees), as well as people with fieldwork experience, including one of us.
The site warden was not on the list of invited people sent to us by SNH.
A month prior, in a meeting between SNH and representatives of the landowner, both parties agreed that one of the main weaknesses in the protection of Birk Knowes was the site warden George Willis.
Prior to the conference we had sent a letter to Colin MacFadyen, one of the SNH organisers of the meeting, to reiterate the site warden’s role in the plunder. We thought we’d forewarn SNH that the site warden has no place in the Lanark Forum as his allegiance lay with Edinger (see below).
The reason this letter was written was that we knew that SNH staff had been indifferent about the role of the site warden in the theft, and that there would be a small chance they would invite him. Surely, after receiving this letter SNH would know not to let him attend the meeting?
However, upon arriving at the venue the site warden was present and he had been invited by Scottish Natural Heritage.
His presence disrupted the course of the conference. When it was his turn to have his say the site warden pretended that he did not know about the large amounts of fossil material Edinger took away.
The presence of Willis was compromising for several reasons:
- Up until now, one of us (W.v.d.B) had informed SNH in confidence about the plunder activities of Edinger with the support of the site warden. By inviting the site warden to a meeting discussing the plunder, our confidential position was compromised. This had unpleasant consequences for us. Later, the site warden would go on to tell the farmers to keep us away from the area, which limited our access to another fossil site in the neighbourhood.
- The site warden reported back to Edinger about everything that was discussed. We had warned SNH that he would do this. By inviting the site warden SNH had undermined the conference.
This showed that SNH was still not taking the plunder seriously, which called for a drastic move. When it was the turn of W.v.d.B to give his say, it was explained to those present what had really happened at Birk Knowes, including our warnings that were ignored by SNH. Most of those present had been unaware of this, so they were surprised. The representative of the land owner even called SNH “lax“.
Much of the remainder of the meeting was taken up by Alan McKirdy who, as host, used the time to promote geological books he would be writing. This steered the subject away from Birk Knowes. In the end, not a lot came about from the conference. Afterwards, one of the SNH staff remarked:
“Do you think that George Willis [=the site warden] will be more responsible now?”
This again showed that SNH was still oblivious to what the site warden had done – and that they wanted to keep him on as site warden.
This spurred us to write a report about the plunder, which also detailed SNH’s role. This report was sent to SNH, the representatives of the land owner, and the National Museums of Scotland.
As a result of the report, the representatives of the land owner held SNH partly accountable for the theft and called on SNH to make efforts to retrieve the stolen fossils. This report caused Alan McKirdy embarrassment as it became known to the land owners, and possibly certain levels of the SNH hierarchy, that he had been negligent in the protection of the site, and that he had given Edinger oral permission.
By outing SNH as negligent we acted in the best interest of the fossil site. It was also the truth about the matter. However, SNH was not pleased with this and the consequences this had for us can be seen in chapter 2.
Next we will look at how it went with SNH’s attempts to retrieve the stolen fossils when they were sold to a German museum.