Robert Dickís Collection of Fossils
Jack Saxon

In 1863, Robert Dick, the baker of Thurso, was on the brink of ruin because of recession and competition from other bakeries in the town. To add to his difficulties he had ordered 23 bags of flour from his merchants in Leith which were shipped in the steamer "Prince Consort" in March 1863. On entering the harbour in Aberdeen the vessel struck the pier; it was said that the helmsman was drunk. The ship eventually broke in half and Dickís flour, as yet unpaid for, was soaked by sea water. He owed his merchant £45.13.6d and was unable to pay the bill; he could not use the spoiled flour nor could he afford to replace it.Mr John Miller F.G.S., a gentleman of property and a native of Thurso, though most of his time was spent in London, bought Robert Dickís collection of fossils for £46. Dick labelled the fossils and sent them off and was thus able to pay his bill on 29 April. This rescued him from bankruptcy but not from his dire financial straits.In a letter to his brother-in-law, he expressed his deep regret at the loss of his fossil collection and said that he could never hope to find their like again. But he said "I am not beat yet. I have resolution, will and ability to work; let me try again".

He visited Holborn Head and Weydale with indifferent success, many of the specimens were rotten. He next went to Murkle where he was a little more successful, then to roadside quarries used for extracting metal and found broken bits, heads, scales and plates. Then westwards, beyond Reay where he found fish remains below the conglomerate completely unexpected.

Dickís health was failing, he suffered from rheumatism and his eyesight was worsening. In 1866, he complained of indigestion and want of breath. On 29 August, he took his last walk to Weydale; he felt faint and became terribly sick, with a burning pain in his heat. He made his way home by fits and starts. He tried to continue his work as a baker, but his health eventually failed and he died on 24 December 1866.After his death his collection was made over to the Thurso Scientific Society by his nearest surviving relative; it was housed on the upper floor of the Carnegie Institute in High Street, Thurso.

During the lifetime of Hugh Miller, Robert Dick sent him specimens of the most interesting fossils from Caithness which Miller used to illustrate his second and subsequent editions of "The Old Red Sandstone". After Millerís death these were passed to the safe keeping of the Royal Scottish Museum in Chambers Street, Edinburgh.In 1966 I was appointed Honorary Curator of Thurso Museum and I proceeded with the aid of half a dozen willing helpers to put on a centenary exhibition on the life of Robert Dick. The Robert Dick collection of fossil fishes consisted of only a few specimens: one large and one small Dipterus, fragments of Dickosterus, Millerosteus and Homostius, fragments of Dipterus and a few specimens of Osteolepis panderi. This would be consistent with Dickís own account of his collecting in the last three years of his life.Since the material was so poor, I augmented the original collection with material which I had collected and I built up a display over the next few years including genera and species unknown to Robert Dick. Of course, visitors to the Museum presumed that they had all been collected by Robert Dick and I was not going to disabuse this belief since the original Dick collection had passed into the hands of John Miller. I wished the activities of Robert Dick to receive the honours they deserved.

I remained Curator for several years until, one day, wishing to do some work in the museum, I requested the key held in the present library. I was told that they had orders not to give the key to anyone, especially myself. Taking this up with the relevant councillor I was told that I was no longer curator and that a paid curator had been recruited. He lasted only a very short time after which I discovered that the Highland Regional Council had laid claim to the entire contents of the Museum. A running battle ensued with the authorities in Inverness and after several years I won the right to remove all the fossils in the collection which bore the label stating that the collector was myself. These are now in my possession.

Thurso Museum was disbanded and the material removed in order to set up the Swanson Gallery. At some future time the collection of fossil fishes was rehoused in the present museum in the Carnegie Institute at which point a new curator was appointed and I was asked to classify the fossil fish remains. These were the same as the original Dick collection. I have no idea where they are now but I assume they are still in the Carnegie Institute.

I have no idea what happened to the original Dick collection which was bought by John Miller. It may have passed after his death to the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. Alternatively, if he had taken the collection to his London home it might have passed to the British Museum (Natural History) Cromwell Road, London. The collection on display in London when I last saw it, contained quite a lot of fossils from the shore between Thurso and Scrabster, one of Dick's favourite walks. The bulk of the collection of fossil fishes which people remember being in the Thurso Museum are now safe from harm in my house.

What has happened to the remainder which, the last thing I knew, were in the Museum in the High Street, I would not know. Perhaps someone could tell.