1.4 The site warden

The site warden of Birk Knowes from around 1980 until after the closure of the site was George Willis; a resident of the nearby town of Lesmahagow.

His involvement with Birk Knowes started when he offered the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow to collect fossils for them. This led to a major research project sponsored by Glasgow University. During this project Willis was acting as NCC (predecessor of SNH) agent on site. Willis collected a large amount of fossils from Birk Knowes which he donated to the Hunterian Museum. He also collected from other localities in the neighbourhood and most of these findings went to the Hunterian Museum as well. In the early 1980s it was possible to visit Birk Knowes with permission from NCC, but only in the company of George Willis and under the condition that specimens could only be removed from the site with the consent of Willis. When his research project came to an end in the mid 80s, Willis was still regarded as ‘site warden’ of Birk Knowes.

George Willis working at Birk Knowes during the early 1980s.

After 1990 NCC/SNH used a written permit system, which was usually valid for two days. However, it seems that the site warden and SNH had a special arrangement. Visitors could collect at the site for a day without a permit when accompanied by the site warden. This arrangement may have functioned to lessen paperwork for SNH.

However, the site warden exceeded his authority when he began to permit visitors to collect from Birk Knowes without his company and for extended periods of time. In particular, a small group of German collectors benefitted from this. At the start of their trip the German collectors would visit Willis in Lesmahagow to receive his blessings to visit Birk Knowes. In effect, Willis thought that he had his own permit system, even though it circumvented the official one. It is unlikely that SNH intended for this to happen.

It was in part because Willis was not doing his job that Edinger was able to gather fossils undisturbed for many years.

This raises the question; what motivated Willis to do this? Two contributing factors may have been:

1) The above-mentioned major research project (1980-1985) ended in a deep disappointment for Willis. By 1985 the Hunterian Museum had lost interest in the project. There was no financial compensation for all his work and not much was done with his donated material. Willis explained to us that he was so frustrated about this that he threw his many notes and photos of the project in the bin.

“I have spoken to Dr. Rolfe as regards the specimens you mentioned going to Stan Woods. He denies being responsible for the exchange, saying he had left the Hunterian before the transaction took place. Neil Clarke said the fossils were given to Stan before he took over the museum. So it seems another person was responsible, but nobody seems to know who. However I let it be known I wasn’t pleased that some of the near perfect fossils given to the museum by me, had made their way to a commercial collector. It would make you distrust all academics.” Source: Post card from George Willis, 1994.

2) Unbeknownst to Willis, fossil water scorpions he had donated to the Hunterian Museum, including top specimens, were swapped with fossils from Stan Wood, a fossil dealer in Edinburgh. Wood was previously employed by the Hunterian Museum during the early 1980s and therefore knew about the beautiful pieces Willis brought in. To take matters worse, when Willis found out about this he asked the Hunterian Museum who was responsible for the transactions, but nobody was willing to own up to it (see letter to the right).

Whether the above swayed Willis to abuse his position is unclear. At the very least it left him bitter about Birk Knowes because he had gained nothing for his work; no financial compensation and no recognition.

Edinger, on the other hand, seems to have given Willis a better offer. According to what Edinger explained to us in person, the site warden was to get 10% of the eventual sale of the Birk Knowes fossils. If this is correct, and there is no reason for Edinger to have made this up about his friend, then it could explain what motivated Willis; he would have seen this as an opportunity to get at least something back for all his work.




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