1.5 The oral permit

Alan McKirdy, Head of Earth Sciences, Scottish Natural Heritage, during the mid 1990s when Birk Knowes was plundered. ©Unknown

By 1994 the site warden was aware that Edinger was removing chunks of fossil bed with each trip and that the ever-increasing debris pile would attract attention at some point.

Therefore, he advised Edinger to send an application for a permit to Alan McKirdy, the SNH Head of Earth Sciences (left), located in Edinburgh.

However, Alan McKirdy was not responsive. When the date was nearing for Edinger to come over and he still had not heard anything, the site warden took it upon himself to phone McKirdy about the progress of Edinger’s permit request. What was discussed during this phone call was written in a letter to us by the site warden:


She [=his wife] was listening to the conversation with Alan McKirdy as regards a collecting permit for Ernst Edinger. He told me he had just discovered it that morning at the bottom of his intray. I told him Ernst had to have a decision right away as he would have to arrange bookings etc, and that [he] would be over here for a week. He said under the circumstances it would OK. Later on he told me he said it was on condition I accompanied him. He never said that whilst I was asking about a permit. Source: Letter George Willis 3rd of May 199[7]
It turned out that McKirdy had overlooked Edinger’s permit request, but shortly before the phone call he discovered it at the bottom of his intray. The site warden then told McKirdy that Edinger needed a decision right away because he had to make bookings etc. and that he was planning to come over for a week.

According to the site warden, McKirdy said that it was “O.K.” under these circumstances and that he applied no restrictions to the permit.

The site warden seems to have taken advantage of McKirdy’s ambiguity and interpreted this oral permission as an unrestricted permit for Edinger.

This is a remarkable situation because SNH permits given to researchers were normally restricted to two collecting days and the permit was in a written form that was usually sent by post. Therefore, it is unlikely that McKirdy intended to give an unrestricted permit.

However, even if the permission McKirdy gave was meant for one afternoon, it was still given to someone who had already been visiting the site for many years without a permit, and who was known to police in Scotland about an earlier incident involving fossil theft, but for which he was not prosecuted. It also happened to be the same unauthorised collector that SNH had been warned about previously. By giving a permit to a thief, you are essentially providing a device to launder the stolen fossils as it would be exceedingly difficult to prove which fossils were found at which time.

It was not long after the site warden arranged the oral permit for Edinger that he first told us about it. As we were only getting two-day permits, we sent a letter to SNH asking how it is possible that the site warden could arrange an unrestricted permit for Edinger. This should have raised alarm bells at SNH, as it would have been clear by now that the site warden was acting as a liaison for the unauthorised collectors that SNH had been alerted about for many years. More importantly, our mentioning to SNH that the site warden had arranged this unrestricted oral permit for Edinger through SNH should have, at the very least, called for having some words with the site warden. SNH did nothing in response to our letter. What is even more remarkable is that we copied our letter to Alan McKirdy. As he was the one who spoke to the site warden through the phone, he should have immediately been on top of this situation and rectified the unrestricted permit with the site warden. Nothing was done.

It was around a year after the oral permit was issued and numerous plunder expeditions later when SNH staff would finally confront Edinger.

However, the oral permit would come back to haunt them…

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