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After a wee break over Christmas and the New Year I’m back with a guest post from my collegue at Dumfries Museum. Over to Alex Boyd…

What started as an attempt by museum staff to identify a mystery animal skull  has quickly turned into a story which has captured the imagination of not just the people of Dumfries, but from across the UK!

In December while preparing for our next exhibition Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, I was asked to photograph the skull of a big cat which had some uncertain origins in our collections.

Having examined the skull and realising that none of had a background in paleontology, we decided to upload a few images to our flickr site and ask our twitter followers if they had any suggestions!

Within twenty minutes of putting our object online we had an exchange with Megan Combe from the National Museum of Scotland.

Naturally we were delighted that a specialist (A principal curator of vertebrate biology no less!) had taken the time to have a look at the item, and it confirmed to us that it might be a tiger skull – an item which had been mentioned in our catalogue records along with a leopard skull.

The story however didn’t end there – that afternoon we recieved a call from the local newspaper The Dumfries & Galloway Standard who wanted to run an article about the skull, asking residents if they had any idea where it came from. We duly recieved several correspondence from those who had remembered seeing it when it was last exhibited in the 1960s, however one visitor in particular had an interesting story to tell.

A Burns Connection? 

While we believed that the skull may have come from the Earl of Stair, who gifted the Museum a number of items in the 1960s, or from the Museum of Dr Grierson in Thornhill (which closed around that time), a Mr R Fraser of Devorgilla, Cargenholm, Dumfries got in touch to tell us about a possible connection to Robert Burns!When he was a pupil at Cargenbridge school in the early 1960’s he donated a tiger skull to the school and he wondered if this might be the same one. His grandmother owned a house, Mavis Grove – now Laghall, which had belonged to a succession of colonels who had served in India at some time. When she bought the house and contents it contained lots of animal heads,  skulls etc, most of which she threw out. One of the previous owners of the house was Colonel De Peyster, to whom Burns penned an ode (which you can read here)and he, also,  served in India and may have been the one who shot the tiger!

By this stage the story was spreading, and ITV borders got in touch at the end of the year asking us if we would be happy to film an item for their programme Lookaround. They visited the Museum on the 4th of January and conducted a short interview which can be watched below:

The story however is still far from over. Just this morning we received an email from an American paleontologist who believes that it may be the skull of a Bengal tiger (further supporting the links to India), and a call from a former curator in the area who believes that the skull may have a more sinister origin…

We will continue our research into the object, and are still stunned by the public response to the object. We look forward to putting it on display in February, and invite you to come along and see it for yourself when Animal, Vegetable, Mineral opens on February 25th!