Fossil record: Dippy the dinosaur proves huge attraction in Scotland

More than 373,000 people have visited replica diplodocus since it arrived in Glasgow in January

Dippy the dinosaur raises its elegant neck towards the vaulted ceiling of the Centre Hall in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum. The 21-metre-long replica diplodocus skeleton appears nonchalant in advance of the anticipated onrush of young fans during Scotland’s Easter school holidays.

Since the Natural History Museum’s much-loved exhibit arrived in January on the only Scottish stop of its three-year UK-wide tour, the reception has been rapturous, with more than 373,000 visitors so far, already besting the next most popular venue, Birmingham, by more than 100,000.

“It has taken everybody by storm,” says Ann Ainsworth, curator of geology at Kelvingrove Museum. “We hoped it would be popular but we didn’t expect these figures. It’s an amazing specimen, it looks spectacular and its fits so well in our central hall.”

Dippy’s arrival was a homecoming of sorts. The 292-bone replica was commissioned by Scotland-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who financed the excavation of the original fossilised skeleton in the US state of Wyoming in 1899, as the centrepiece for his new museum in Pittsburgh, and had a plaster cast made at the request of Edward VII.

But the sauropod’s visit has also sealed Scotland’s love affair with dinosaurs, thanks to the serendipitous arrival of another famous reptile in Glasgow later this month. Dippy departs for its next berth at the Great North Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne, in early May, but for a few weeks dinosaur fanatics will also be able to see the diplodocus and Trix, one of the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons in the world, a mere prehistoric stomp across the road from the museum at the newly refurbished Kelvin Hall.

“It’s completely by chance that they’re both exhibited together,” says Ainsworth. “They are from two very different groups and lived at different times so it gives a much fuller picture of what the whole dinosaur story is about.”

Scotland has long been at the forefront of dinosaur research and a treasure trove for palaeontologists, with the Isle of Skye offering up hundreds of dinosaur footprints, teeth and bones and considered one of the most significant sites of fossils from the Middle Jurassic period, about 170m years ago, when Scotland was located closer to the equator, with a subtropical climate.

Other globally famous fossils include 445m-year-old graptolites from the Borders; the 330m-year-old “Bearsden shark”, discovered near Glasgow and the most complete specimen of that age; as well as early reptiles, including the cat-sized Saltopus, from about 230m years ago, found around Elgin.

“The reason that Scotland is so important is that very few places in the world have rocks from the middle Jurassic [period],” explains Ainsworth. “It provides the only evidence we have about those dinosaurs and it’s really crucial for our understanding of how they evolved.”

Neil Clark is curator of palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, which is directing Trix’s arrival. He explains: “There are more middle Jurassic relics in Scotland than in North America, where a lot of dinosaurs have been found. It was at that time that many of the dinosaurs we know today, like sauropods and therapods, were evolving. The reason why we’ll be putting some of the Skye fossils on display alongside Trix is because we think it is possible that some of the early ancestors of T Rex evolved in Scotland.” The first evidence that these early ancestors lived in family groups was also found on Skye, he explains.

The 12-metre-long, five-metre-high, 67m-year-old female will receive her first visitors on 18 April, for what will be her only UK stop on a European tour that has taken her to Paris, Lisbon and Barcelona. She awaits new museum digs to be completed at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in her home city of Leiden, in the Netherlands.

Clarke is expecting a similar surge in interest as Scotland’s enduring fascination with dinosaurs finds another focus. “It’s one of the iconic dinosaurs and the favourite for many people. There is the sheer size of them. No other animal, other than the blue whale, is that huge. And I think that children especially find the names quite fascinating. It’s like learning a new language.”


Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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