Barns Ness: fossils and hermit crabs


Another short postcard for the Guardian’s Country Diary, which is always a pleasure to contribute to. This time: rockpooling and fossil-hunting at Barns Ness on the East Lothian coast: John Muir country. Full text after the fold, or on the Guardian website here.

In other news, I was pleased to be shortlisted for HorseScotland’s equestrian writer of the year award for my work for EQY (a glossy equestrian annual) and The Sunday Times Magazine. While in Falkirk for their glitzy awards night I also took the opportunity to review Airth Castle hotel for the Telegraph.

Country diary: a rock saga played out on the sea front

Barns Ness, East Lothian: Pools teem with tiny creatures and fossilised coral demands attention – the whole place is dense with life, old and new

Out on the headland at Barns Ness, the strand is pitted with rockpools and slung with seaweed of all textures. Bladderwrack and fleecy gutweed and long-tailed oarweed and sugar kelp lie heaped upon one another, slick and slippery underfoot. The pools themselves seem empty on first approach, but after a minute’s silent watch they come to life: periwinkles inching almost imperceptibly along, shore crabs sidling from under rocks with a suspicious air, and – best of all – tiny hermit crabs in their pilfered shells, peeking shyly out, antennae waving.

We have spent a week here in the lighthouse cottages in Barns Ness, waking to the sound of crashing waves beyond the wall. The weather has been temperamental, so when the sun appears we rush out the door and down to the shoreline. Today the clouds are strung high and thin in the sky, and the sun casts a great halo around itself – a ring of light that encircles the lighthouse too, and the peregrine falcon that perches on its rail.

A fossilised coral bed at White Sands.
 A fossilised coral bed at White Sands. Photograph: Cal Flyn

Further down, towards the beach at White Sands, it is the rocks that demand attention. A layer of limestone appears polka-dotted and busy with detail: a colony of coral turned to stone. In places, they stand proud from the rock – perfect, tiny, cornucopic. Where the rock has worn away they are displayed in delicate cross-section, like botanical diagrams.

There are two types of fossils here: “body fossils” like these, where the creatures themselves have been preserved, and “trace fossils”, which are the fingerprint swirls of burrows laced through what was once soft soil

Limpets cling on in the puckers and creases of the rock, oystercatchers haunt the surf’s edge; the whole place feels dense with life, old and new.

But later, when the wind has changed, the haar sweeps in from the sea. The air is saline, vaporous. Feeling vulnerable, we eschew the rocks for the safe route over the dunes. Cresting the bank, we find the way ahead bright and white and featureless – we are nowhere, walking into nothing. Degree by degree a shape arises, a column takes form in the air. Who knew we’d need a lighthouse to navigate the land?

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