By Roz Macaskill
When two geologists set out to explore on Skye, they never imagined their discovery would date back 60 million-years.
Dr Simon Drake and Dr Andrew Beard from Birkbeck, University of London visited Skye to examine the volcanic rock in an area south of Broadford. Dr Drake recalls his adventures, saying: "Getting up to one of the sites was horrible! It was very boggy and I said to Andy: 'This had better be worth it!'"
It was! The boggy walk ultimately resulted in finding something unexpected: evidence of a 60 million-year old meteorite impact. "We thought we were looking at ignimbrite, a volcanic pyroclastic flow deposit," says Simon.
However, when they analysed their samples they found something never discovered on Earth before: the meteoritic minerals niobium-rich and vanadium-rich osbornite.
The minerals matched particles collected from the Wild II comet trail by Nasa in 2005. "I have some osbornite sitting on my desk at the moment - it should probably be locked away somewhere," laughs Dr Drake.
Is there any further evidence to suggest meterorite impact? Dr Drake reveals: "We found the presence of redite, a high-pressure zircon polymorph, which is only found naturally at sites of meteorite impact."
A native iron extra-terrestial sphere (orange), surrounded by silicate glass (green) with air bubbles
As yet, nobody knows how big the meteorite impact was, but Dr Drake and his colleagues are examining sites around Scotland and the north of Ireland for further evidence. "It could be tens of hundreds of kilometres," says Dr Drake. "We want to piece everything together and find the extent of the meteorite. Sometimes, a tiny piece is the only evidence left after millions of years, but we think this was a really massive event."
Theories on the formation of Skye could be adjusted to fit with the geologists' findings. Dr Drake reveals: "The established idea in the creation of Skye is that a large plume of magma came up from the earth's liquid outer core and was responsible for present day volcanism in the islands.
“However, incredibly early on, what was then Skye was hit by a meteorite and part of that meteorite is still in existence. It could be that the meteorite was the driver for volcanism, which adds more weight to the argument about why Skye has so much in the way of volcanic rock."
Above: Looking across Loch Slapin at site 1 (above white house and below lowermost lavas just above tree line)
Below: Site 1 meteorite impact Base of An Carnach Lavas
The crack below An Carnach housing site 1 deposits
Dr Drake will be continuing to visit the island in the hopes of making further discoveries. He says: "Skye is a very romantic place as far as geologists are concerned. Everyone comes here to learn. It's my favourite place geologically, and I got married on the side of the Eastern Red Hills near Torrin in 2010 "
No surprise, when you consider that underneath the island's world-renowned beauty spots, sweeping moorlands and rugged mountains, lies a secret story all the way from outer space.