History of research at Rhynie

History of research at Rhynie
The Early Days

Dr William Mackie.The Rhynie chert was discovered in 1912 by Dr William Mackie (see inset left), a medical practitioner from the town of Elgin to the north of Rhynie, during a study of the geology of Craigbeg and Ord Hill (Mackie 1913). Whilst geologically mapping the area around Rhynie he found some unusual siliceous rocks incorporated into a dry-stone wall field boundary. Upon making thin sections of the rock, he observed perfectly preserved plant axes (stems) showing detail of individual cellular structure. We are fortunate indeed that he realised the profound significance of this deposit and made his find known to specialist workers in palaeontology.


Dr Robert Kidston.In October 1912 a trench was dug in the cherts by Mr. D. Tait (a fossil collector to the Geological Survey). Trenching was coordinated by a committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the report (Horne et al. 1917) contains a brief report on the plants by Dr Robert Kidston (see inset right and below), introducing the names Rhynia gwynne-vaughanii and Asteroxylon mackiei.

In a series of five classic papers Kidston and Professor William Henry Lang  described in detail the plants we now know as Rhynia, Aglaophyton, Horneophyton and  Asteroxylon (Kidston & Lang 1917, 1920a,b, 1921a,b). They also described parts of Nothia but included it as part of Asteroxylon. Kidston died in 1924, and although Lang continued to produce papers on Scottish palaeobotany until 1952, he did not add to his Rhynie work.

Dr Robert Kidston (right) and the palaeobotanist Professor David Thomas Gwynne-Vaughan (left).

In the 1920's the first arthropods were described from the chert with Hirst (1923) describing the trigonotarbids, Scourfield (1926) the freshwater crustacean Lepidocaris, and Hirst and Maulik (1926) the earliest 'insect', a springtail, Rhyniella.

The late Dr Geoffrey Lyon, a photograph taken in the greenhouse at his home in Rhynie in 1982.A period of some thirty years went by without any major contributions, but in the late 1950's interest was rekindled through the work of Dr. A. G. Lyon (see inset left) who described spores fossilised in the process of germination (Lyon 1957). He and his research students at Cardiff continued to contribute papers on the chert flora using material from trenches dug in the 1960's and 1970's. Dr Lyon owned the Rhynie chert site (a designated SSSI or Site of Special Scientific Interest) for many years, gifting it to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH)  in 1982.

Over the years Geoffrey Lyon gave chert material to many palaeobotanists, but it was the team at the University of Münster, led by the late Professor Remy who had the greatest success finding the small gametophytes of the sexual generation of several of the plants (Remy & Remy 1980; Remy & Hass 1991a,b,c,d).

Recent Research and Discoveries

By the late 1980's there was increasing production of research papers on the Rhynie flora and fauna. During this time and into the 1990's research by the University of Münster, often in collaboration with various specialists from other institutions, saw the advancement of our knowledge of the Rhynie flora. As well as the discovery of the gametophyte stages of several of the plants, they also discovered a number of new flora, including various types of fungi (Hass & Remy 1992; Hass et al. 1994; Remy et al. 1994a & b) and the earliest known fossil lichen.  It was also in the early 1990's that the first zosterophyll plant from the chert was discovered, Trichopherophyton (Lyon & Edwards 1991).

However, the basic geology of the Rhynie area had not been revised since Geikie's description in 1878. The British Geological Survey remapped the area with the new map published in 1993 (BGS Alford Sheet 76W) but surface outcrop on this poorly exposed area revealed little to augment existing knowledge.

Interest in the area from the University of Aberdeen commenced when Rice and Trewin (1988) demonstrated that the chert and silicified rocks in the area are enriched in gold and arsenic and confirmed the hot spring origin of the cherts. A mineral exploration programme of drilling and trenching ensued, revealing much about the subsurface geology (Trewin & Rice 1992; Rice et al. 1995). The exploration rig used by the mineral exploration company was hired by the university and  core was taken through the Rhynie chert sequence. For the first time the unweathered lithologies of sandstone and shale between the chert beds could be examined and the plant sequence and palaeoenvironment interpreted (Trewin 1994; Trewin 1996; Powell et al. 2000b). A second phase of drilling in 1997 (see inset below), followed by more recent trenching programmes and magnetic surveys in the Rhynie area, has produced more surprises, requiring further revision of the geology of the area (Rice et al. 2002; Rice & Ashcroft in press).

Drilling rig at Rhynie during the summer of 1997.

The discovery of a fossiliferous chert (the Windyfield chert) some 700m from the original chert locality (Trewin & Rice 1992; Trewin 1994) resulted in recognition of part of a geyser vent rim with typical splash texture (see insets below). This new chert also yielded Ventarura, a second zosterophyll plant from the area (Powell et al. 2000a) to add to Trichopherophyton from the Rhynie chert (Lyon & Edwards 1991). The Windyfield chert is also rich in arthropods, including trigonotarbid arachnids, centipedes, branchiopod crustaceans and euthycarcinoid remains (Anderson & Trewin 2003). Numerous new arthropods from the Windyfield chert await publication or are currently being described (Fayers & Trewin in press; Fayers et al. in press).

A block of the 'Windyfield chert' showing splash textures directly comparable to those seen around modern day geyser vents Close up of the splash textures on a block of the 'Windyfield chert'.

Splash textures seen around a modern geyser vent.

Fieldwork during the autumn of 2000 resulted in the discovery of a concentration of numerous chert float blocks near Castlehill (approximately 1500m east of the Rhynie chert locality) (Rice et al. 2002). It remains uncertain as to whether these are sourced locally from weathered in situ chert bodies beneath the surface or are glacially derived from the Rhynie area. One block of chert from Castlehill has yielded a completely new branchiopod crustacean, Castracollis (Fayers & Trewin 2003), and the attached fertile elements of the charophyte alga Palaeonitella (Kelman et al. in press).

In September 2003 an international meeting entitled "The Rhynie Hot Spring System: Geology, Biota and Mineralisation" was held at the University of Aberdeen. Numerous papers presented at this conference will form the content of a special volume to be published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences later in 2004. 

A history of research of the Rhynie chert, its palaeontology, and the geology of the Rhynie area is currently awaiting publication (Trewin in press).

Future Work

Research continues in several universities involving specialists on different groups of plants and animals, and new elements of this ancient biota continue to be found. There is clearly still considerable research potential in the description and interpretation of this remarkable community of plants and animals that lived near the hot springs of Rhynie 400 million years ago.

In September 2003 a new trench was excavated through part of the Rhynie chert succession with permission from Scottish Natural Heritage. During the excavation oriented in situ beds of chert were sampled from numerous plant-bearing horizons, each covering an area of at least 1m2. Using this material it is hoped further research will enable the 3-dimensional palaeoecology of the chert to be determined, a study that hitherto has not been attempted. Prof. Dr Nigel Trewin and Dr Stephen Fayers are currently seeking funds to proceed with this research.