THE items on offer read like a would-be wizard’s shopping list – amethyst, mammoth’s teeth, dinosaur dung and a 330 million-year-old shrimp. However, this Capital curiosity hasn’t been conjured from the mind of JK Rowling but is quite probably Edinburgh’s quirkiest shop.
Mr Wood’s Fossils in the Grassmarket is Scotland’s only fossil shop and this year it is celebrating 25 years in business offering palaeontologists, amateur geologists and inquiring schoolboys unique snapshots of the history of the planet.
At present, the most expensive piece currently on show is a decorative amethyst worth £3500.
But the shop also stocks a range of prehistoric pieces at pocket money-sized prices. You can pick up some dinosaur teeth for as little as £5, or a lump of meteorite for £6.
The owners of the Cowgatehead shop are, however, keen to point out it is no novelty. The store boasts an international reputation for quality fossils, minerals and meteorites from all over the world built up by original owner and “celebrity” palaeontologist Stan Wood.
An expert in the fauna of Scotland’s Palaeozoic era and a celebrity in the world of geology, Stan’s most famous find is “Lizzie” – Westlothiana lizziae – which is on permanent display in the National Museum of Scotland.
Today, the shop is owned and managed by geologist Matt Dale, who says: “I took over the place from Stan in 2006. He’s quite an inspiring character and is pretty much an icon of palaeontology.
“He has left the business quite a legacy within the world of geology. However, our customers aren’t all fossil hunters; we also get people who buy items as art for display in their homes.
“We also get lots of kids, as every school kid nowadays seems to go through a dinosaur phase and where else can you buy dinosaur teeth, eggshells, coprolite [fossilised dung] or bone? It’s great to watch kids getting really excited about something that’s been part of a real-life monster.
“Curiosity brings people from all walks of life and many also buy fossils for retirement gifts, wedding presents and generally something unusual.”
Fossils are found all over the world and Matt annually visits trade fairs in France and Arizona to buy a large part of his stock.
The most expensive piece ever sold was an elephant bird egg, sourced on special request from Madagascar and sold for £6000.
Meteorites are among the oldest pieces for sale in the shop – they are as old as planet Earth. The oldest fossils are trilobites, which date as far back as 550 million years.
The oldest local fossil in stock is a shrimp found in Gullane which is dated from 330 million years ago.
In recent years the shop has witnessed a steady increase in business thanks in part to TV shows and film- makers featuring dinosaurs and all things prehistoric.
Matt said: “Jurassic Park and David Attenborough’s recent documentary on fossils were great for us.
“We do a lot of business online but it’s always good to see people’s faces as they hold a small piece of the history of the Earth. Each fossil is unique and no two pieces are ever the same. They may be old but they are far from boring, each has their own story to tell.”
June sees the 25th birthday of the shop, and to mark the occasion a shark tooth will be given away to every customer for the whole month.
However, the main celebration will take place on the weekend of June 16 and 17.
For those two days Matt will be giving 25 per cent off all fossils, minerals and jewellery and at 2pm on each of those days he’ll be giving a talk about the history of Mr Wood and the business itself, the running of the shop and the story behind a few of the fossils.
STAN’S THE MAN for fossils
A FORMER shipyard engineer and insurance salesman, Stan Wood turned to fossil hunting in 1968, and has more than 30 previously unknown species to his name as a collector.
Largely self-taught, his important discoveries have given the firm an international reputation
He unearthed the world-famous “Lizzie”– Westlothiana lizziae – in a disused Bathgate quarry in 1987, and in 1973 he found the complete fossilised remains of a stethacanthid shark –Akmonistion zangerli – that was also unknown to science. Lizzie is now on permanent display in the National Museums of Scotland.
At first Stan supplied museums with fossils, then in 1987 he opened his shop, selling fossils from all over the world.
Although he has officially retired, Stan still hunts fossils and makes discoveries.