Investigation Exhibit

compilation  specimen cabinetwith words copy

My investigation into beach litter  around Ullapool  and beaches along the Coigach and Assynt coast this autumn was completed this week . An Investigation Exhibit is now on show at the Macphail Centre, displaying evidence of various types of litter found including a selection of ‘future fossils’ under magnification and specimen bottles ready for analysis to determine the  type of plastic they are made from and how long they would last in the marine environment. I am intending to show all our findings  and resulting artworks as a temporary installation at the Ullapool Museum and in a range of  locations throughout the town in spring.

Closer examination

Arriving back at the A.T.S laboratory a closer examination began with  a significant help from Portfolio Students studying at An Talla Solais .  The largest stone appears to hold a  cross section of all the objects we are likely to find on nearby beaches.

sorting the finds  breaking in to the big stone   braking in 2  students opening big stone  

Tobacco pouch, plastic bag, rope,  cotton wool bud sticks. …..

inside the stone  cataloguing samples  samples waiting for categorisation  boxed specimen

The initial job of cataloging this weeks finds of our ‘ future fossils’ is now underway with samples being subject to  identification, to ascertain its possible origin followed by magnification, to establish the category of material such as polypropylene or polyethylene  which helps to determine the  timeline  of the object.

Specimens which cannot be identified are being boxed up and sent to the expedition consultant  Professor  Cowie at the Millport for further analysis. It is hoped that the full picture of what we have discovered this week will be revealed in the spring. Until then an initial display of the finds made along the coast over the past week can be seen at the Macphail Centre in Ullapool.

Cracking open the evidence

cracking open the stones  pening fossils together

Looking for a weakness in the stones we began to tap a way in order to carefully see if there was any evidence held within the stones. The stones broke easily with our fossil hammers, chisels and scrapers.

gregor close up foil food container smoking fossil fossil

Quite quickly we began to see that the stones held vital evidence in our beach litter investigation with materials from cigarette fibres, plastic caps, a lighter, fishing line to an aluminium food container. We discussed who might have dropped the evidence  originally and and how to came to be encased in stones like the fossils seen in the Geopark and museum.  It was decided to that the only way to understand what we had  found was to forensically  test our  samples. To do this we set off to the A.T.S temporary laboratory  with our array of specimens.

fossil cahe

  box passing Caley oil me and trolley box of stones  the walk up up hill  to the lab.

Ullapool stone cache

My last beach search on this trip to the west coast  took place today on the west shore  of Ullapool harbour  where  we  found many more  odd looking stones .  One of which was so big we had to borrow a sack trolley to transport it along.

ullapool cache   biggest stone found   carrying bggest stone  big stone on trolley

While pushing the trolley  along West Shore I received a call from the Ullapool CSI team  working unbeknown to us on the east side of the pier.

DI phoning CSI team gilly searching notes & photos

They informed me that they had found  three odd stones which I should take a look at . Sure enough they appeared to be of the same type as the ones we had collected so we compared notes of locations they were found in and we decided to crack open a few of the stones to see if there were also similarities within…..

Further finds at Badentarbet

Yesterday children from Achiltibuie School braved the gale force winds at Badentarbet beach to help me continue the hunt for more stones with their teacher and Highland ranger Melanie Gaff. The cold  encouraged us all to focus well and we  quickly managed to locate and collect 7  orange coloured  stones

DSCF2534     IMG_0825  DSCF2539 - Copy  IMG_0836 - Copy

We also collected stones we normally find on the beach  which Meanie was able to tell us about which helped us to begin to sketch out the  prehistoric history of our time line after which we began to crack open the stones to see what they held within. On Friday I will collect more samples at Ullapool Harbur Beach and all will be taken to the lab at An Talla Solais.  Please join us  at 10.30 am on the beach and 1pm at An Talla Solais.

Hunting for unusual stones

Twelve pupils  their teacher Mrs Mason, Any Summers ( Head Highland Ranger) and I made a short expedition through the Culag woods at Lochinver to White beach,  a month ago we had  surveyed the litter on this beach. With a break in the stormy weather the children found 8 strange orange/yellow rocks which had been reported to me, some were almost buried in amongst the small pebbles or drifts of seaweed and one was caught between the big rocks at the top of the beach.

white beach search

Coming together we displayed our finds including samples of pebbles that making up the beach,  Andy was able to start us off on our timeline the oldest of which being the Lewisian Gneiss  at 3 billion years, Sandstone 1 billion, and Quartzite 600 million and Canis Porphyry that make up the beach normally.

   rock samples big rock all of us  listening to Andy

We returned to the school to begin looking closer at our bigger specimens and work out where they might fit into our future  timeline. I will resume my  quest tomorrow with pupils at Achiltibuie Primary school.

Just how long will it all last?

Working through all my observations of beach litter  my focus is drawn  to  the length of time that our litter will last on our beaches and floating in the seas.

The time line for the existence of  litter into the future is something I am grappling to understand.  Figures vary hugely for instance on many educational websites for schools covering organic waste such as Oranges & bananas Orange peel upto 2 years cigarette butts 1-5 years, plastic coated paper 5yrs, plastic bags 10-20years, nylon fabric 30-40yrs, aluminum cans 80-100 years glass bottles 1million years, plastic bottles indefinitely.  Other sources predict little breakdown of  tough plastics (boxes etc) in 10’s of thousands of years. Such figures are generalised projection estimates for degrading in the environment.

Many scientific  organisations  are trying to shed light on  biodegrading of  different materials specifically in the marine environment , one such research body is published by the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) in Honolulu,  USA, they have calculated an estimate below with which I intend to use over the next few days as I set about trying to date how long the  litter  on our beaches will exist with the help of pupils and residents along the coast.

                                       Marine Debris Biodegradation Time Line


Time to degrade

Paper towel

2-4 weeks


6 weeks

Cardboard box

2 months

Waxed milk carton

3 months

Apple core

2 months

Cotton gloves

1-5 months

Wool gloves

1 year


1-3 years

Painted wooden sticks

13 years

Photo-degradable beverage holder

6 months

Plastic beverage holder

400 years

Plastic bags

10-20 years

Plastic bottle

100 years

Glass bottle and jars


Disposable diapers

50-100 years

Tin can

50 years

Aluminium can

200 years

Monofilament fishing line

600 years

(Mote Marine Laboratory, 1993)

Resuming my search for the oranges

Arriving back on the  west coast this afternoon I headed straight for  a beach on Loch Broom, to see if I could spot one of the  oranges I had launched back in October . I quickly began to  understand  how the oranges may well not be found as the on set of  wild weather and high tides in  the last four weeks had driven massive mounds of seaweed up  onto the beach, which could quite easily contain many of the oranges which might never be found. Thankfully if the  oranges are in there they will rot down.

Checking Rhue beach for oranges  cal proud of her find  new stone on rhue beach

My dog Cal is a great companion to have around while surveying the beach litter  and  today she joined me on Rhue Beach in my twilight  hunt for  oranges, no oranges were found  but she decided to sit down close to what looks to be one of the strange stones recently reported to me this week.  The  orange  coloured cobble stone is now tagged with its co-ordinates and will to be taken to the   A.T.S*  temporary laboratory for analysis later this week .

* An Talla Solais    Market St    Ullapool

Unusual observations from the beach

Over the last four weeks people have been looking out for the oranges that I put into the sea so far two people have found and recovered oranges along Loch Broom and Coigach. The full findings will soon be posted.

But what is coming to light from beach observers is a number of sightings of brightly coloured pebbles and stones, which have been reported on a number of beaches from  Lochinver to Loch Broom.

strange stones ws

The Highland Rangers have been notified and have agreed to help me investigate these stones next week. The plan is to collect samples at Lochinver on Tuesday, Achiltibuie on Wednesday and Ullapool on Thursday. Please get in touch if you spot one of these unusual pebbles or stones. If you would like to help us investigate them please join us on Ullapool beach next Thursday at 10.30am – 12 noon after which we will then be taking our specimens to a temporary laboratory being set up at An Talla Solais from 1 pm. Please drop in to help with the investigation. All welcome. Our initial findings will be put on display at the Macphail Centre.

Tel or text sightings to Julia on 07977997605