Learning a Stone by Beatrice Searle

Earlier this year, Little Toller published Alex Woodcock’s memoir King of Dust, a craftsman’s journey through the landscapes and ancient sculpture that inspired him to first pick up tools, eventually becoming a stonemason working at Exeter Cathedral. In this series, writers, artists and those who work with stone have contributed pieces related to stone carving, or to the idea of Artefact  This essay and accompanying photographs have been adapted from a lecture/performance given at Jupiter Rising Festival in Edinburgh, July 2019 by Beatrice Searle. It revolves around Beatrice’s attempts to know a piece of Scottish granite; its history, structure, character and interior. The stone is present, and speaks for itself.





I have been thinking about what a stone is. The trouble is perhaps with my method because I asked the stone itself, and listened to the answer and the stone became all the more elusive.




I ought to know, really. I am a stonemason – a person who builds with, or dresses, stone. Broadly speaking, we cut it with a chisel, configure it in an architectural structure and fix it in place with mortar.  We intend that the stone will have a new function, a function that demands it be square, polished and respectable.


Name? Relative hardness, chemical composition, volumetric weight, load bearing possibilities? All these are necessary to know and can be found on one comparative chart or another. A talented mason has advanced dressing-up skills; she can embellish, preen and pimp; gargoyles, obelisks, ornaments, finials, volutes and pediments all emerge from beneath the chisel.


As a student I lived on a street lined with lime trees. One day a team of men arrived in a van and took the whole lot down within a day, using chainsaws. I was sad to lose the trees, of course, but the most distressing thing to witness, I remember, was the speed with which it was over and done. Had the men gone to the trees with axes or handsaws I could perhaps have considered it a fairer match, one that, if they succeeded in felling all the trees, had been justly won. But the injustice of this contest stung me and the swift and sudden abuse they had perpetrated on the trees stayed with me. The stone industry also offers a lot of options for privileging human odds of conquest. Is it any wonder that dynamite and diamond blades powered by high voltage electricity will succeed in slicing a stone apart? So, when I met my first stone, and all others since, I tried to come to it openly and honestly with a chisel and a mallet as an offering. Nothing more.


I suppose that what I advocate for is a moral code to govern human and natural material relations, borne from a deep reverence of the earth and respect for the time taken to form it. In the case of those lime trees – they were young – perhaps fifty years of the five hundred they might have lived. In the case of a stone, four hundred million years may be swiftly and brutally exposed and subjugated. We, ourselves are now undoubtedly the greatest agents of geomorphic change. So much so that, “the unprecedented scale of human changes to the planets topography is one of the arguments for the concept of the Anthropocene, a new division of the geologic timescale marked by the emergence of humans as a global geologic force”. [1]


But I have had a little insight into what might be discovered by a more courteous engagement with a stone, one that keeps pace with natural processes. A translation, but not a taming.


After four years of training, I know how to change the form of a stone.  Clean lines and sharp chisels- sharp enough to take off a layer of thumbnail. I know the rhythm of a mallet, the beat that is in my muscle memory. It swims into my arms and my ears like a reassuring friend, like a familiar choreography that inhabits my body. I respect the stone’s willfulness and acknowledge its autonomy. I know that it is always trying to retain its fierceness. I know that without proper care it will betray me with an unforeseen twist in its shape. If I am not receptive it will tear the tungsten from my tools. If I am inattentive it will make its escape through any route it chooses. Violence is futile. And so we dance, a dance of reverence and persuasion.  I am the coaxer, the stone is the stoic. We are well matched.  Sometimes I am rewarded for my efforts. Sometimes not.




A sawn-stone presents six faces to the world. Unwillingly. Like all the rock we encounter above ground, it has been forced to show itself. Rocks appear at the earth’s surface via the quarrying process or as a result of removal, by weather, of superincumbent strata.


Within the earth, a stone has already taken many forms.


In the lower part of the earth’s crust, processes such as decompression melting and convection cause magma to intrude into another geologic formation where it cools slowly, under great pressure. Sometimes these great masses of magma lift up the overlaying beds, sometimes the magma is squeezed along planes of weakness in horizontal, vertical or intermediate directions, occasionally absorbing some of the surrounding rock, almost invariably causing metamorphism by virtue of their high temperature.Similarly, over millions of years, many chambers of magma simply cool to form a pluton or large igneous intrusion. Magma might also be forced through the earth’s crust and omitted via a volcano, where it cools rapidly, on or close to the surface – an extrusive igneous rock.


Meanwhile, above ground, repeated weathering and erosion expose and break down rock; processes of transportation whiz this sediment down the mountain- possibly even a mountain that was formed from the uplift of a magma chamber- and deposit it. Precipitation in water and subsequent laying down of sediment cause compaction and cementation and form a sedimentary rock, such as sandstone. The high temperatures and pressures acting on this rock might, at this stage, also transform it into a metamorphic rock such as marble, unless, through the process of uplift, the sedimentary rock is once more exposed to the elements and broken down into sediment again. Alternatively it might get so hot that it becomes molten again and processes such as decompression melting and convection will cause magma to intrude into another geologic formation where it cools slowly, under great pressure.  And so it goes on…


If all the rock of the world belongs to one mass that runs beneath us, if that which is not solid rock exists in the form of magma, waiting to become so then I am left wondering… is there one rock, or no rock, or simply the rock? Any individual stone is a segment of the whole, divided, fractioned and apportioned. Therefore, to think of a stone in terms of its exterior, its planes, surfaces and faces, omits this stark fact: all stone belongs to an interior, such repeated exposure, nakedness and uniformity is not its natural state of being.  In his essay, The Quarry, Joel Fisher describes the quarry as nibbling away at the vastness of stone:  A fragment, severed from this mass of rock becomes something finite and measurable. The offspring begins a transformative journey to other places.[2]


Can the earth be unearthed?

And can a rock ever become a rock, or cease to be?


A stone belongs to a greater whole.

It belongs to a process.


Marcia Bjornerud describes rocks not as nouns but verbs, visible evidence of processes: a volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt. Everywhere one looks, rocks bear witness to events that unfolded over long stretches of time.[3] Stone is part of a cycle that, though we might slow it, by containment in a museum or by keeping it from natural forces of erosion, will resume and take all stones with it.


Some geological processes, such as the effects of wind and water, are quick to act and visible to us when we walk in the hills or along a coastline. Others, such as the compaction and burial of sediments, take hundreds of millions of years.  David A. Rothery describes the way in which if you were to attempt to trace the history of a particular volume of rock over hundreds of millions of years, you might find it tracing a loop to and fro within just part of the cycle, perhaps being alternately metamorphosed and melted at depth, without ever being brought to the surface. On the other hand, a grain of sediment may be deposited in a whole succession of sedimentary environments, plucked out by erosion and transported to each new environment with out ever becoming deeply buried.[4]




Over human timescales, Bjonerud tells us, our disruption of geography will haunt us. Earth meanwhile will continue to make slow repairs, punctuated by sudden renovation projects that will clear away our proudest constructions, eventually remodelling everything according to its own preferences, either gradually or catastrophically.[5] And when the geological cycle resumes its natural pace, everything it wants will be procurable. Every stone that has taken a previous form will become, once again, a different stone. Every stone and every thing.  You and I too. I think of a stanza from the Stubbs and Avery translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,


Since your beginning and end are only of dust,

Do not imagine you are on the earth, but in it.[6]


An appropriate choice of material to honour the dead then, and a popular one.  Obelisks, memorials, headstones, made of a material that never dies, but is endlessly transformed and re-born.


All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses

And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.[7]




I stand beside a block of granite. It has been pre-drilled with eight 10mm diameter holes, equally spaced and at a depth of 20cm. Eight steel plug and feather pieces, and a hammer, lay on the ground in front of it.


Despite its crystalline structure, which might be thought to resemble salt crystals left behind after the evaporation of sea water, granite is not, in fact, a precipitate of the sea. As with all igneous rock granite derives from molten rock magma. The magma is in the condition of a structureless fluid, containing all the elements of potential granite. As cooling sets in some of these substances crystallize out of solution in the form of definite minerals. Others follow, according to the regular laws of solutions, until the whole mass has crystalized into a solid rock; the later minerals fitting in between and moulding themselves round those formed at an earlier stage. In the deep plutonic masses the cooling is so slow that the entire rock becomes completely crystalline, and no non-crystalline, undifferentiated materials remain. The crystalline structure of an igneous rock means that bedding planes are practically non existent. Granite is second only to diamond, in terms of the hardness of natural materials, which makes it notoriously difficult to quarry and work.


This stone is Kemnay granite, a grey muscovite-biotite granite, from the geologic period known as the Silurian.


The Silurian began 443 million years ago.Tectonic movement had bought Scotland together from previously scattered fragments and from the joining of these fragments emerged the Highland Boundary Fault, which separates the Lowlands from the Highlands, and the Great Glen Fault that divides the North West Highlands from the Grampians. It was a time of great volcanic activity throughout Scotland and formed magma chambers in the North, which today give us the great granite mountains such as the Cairngorms. This is the time and the setting in which our stone cooled.


Our stone lay sixteen miles west of Aberdeen, beneath the village of Kemnay. It was unearthed from the greater earth, if indeed such a thing is possible, in the years between 1830 and 1971. Our stone narrowly missed out on being part of the Glasgow Cenotaph, Holborn Viaduct, Forth Railway bridge, the Thames Embankment, the Liver building, and the piers of the Forth and Tay railway bridges. The Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh. A North Sea lighthouse.  All these things, its disembodied parts, went out to build.


Granite workers from Kemnay helped to quarry and shape the Australian granite used for the Sydney harbour bridge. Our stone might have known one such stone mason. One such mason might have known our stone.It was donated to the Scottish Sculpture Workshop, where it took its place in a stone circle around a fire pit. In April 2018 it was requested for use in a lecture performance.




520 by 450 by 370 millimetres.


200 kilos in weight.


Old plug and feather marks: top bed, bottom bed, right and left faces.


New drill holes: top bed.


Cement residue: right face.


Natural colour change due to weathering: most prominent on outward face where there is some recent exposure.


Tool marks: left face, entire surface tooled with a bolster chisel.




In her 1962 poem, Conversation with a Stone, Wistawa Szymborska describes the futility of human attempts to enter a stone:


I knock at the stone’s front door

“It’s only me, let me come in.

I want to enter your insides,

have a look around,

breathe my fill of you.


“Go away,” says the stone.

“I’m shut tight.

Even if you break me to pieces,

we’ll all still be closed.

You can grind us to sand,

we still won’t let you in.


At the end of the poem the stone delivers its final and definitive word on the matter:


“I don’t have a door,” says the stone.[8]


So how to begin to map its interior?


Only by listening.


‘Ringing the stone’, that is, dropping the hammer end of a chisel onto the surface and noting the sound omitted reveals to the attentive ear the weak areas where cracks or hollows are lurking. The sound is sometimes bell-like, sometimes shrill and sharp and sometimes a dull thud. In this way is possible to build up a visual picture of a stone’s interior, only by listening.


As I child I first heard a story, whose source I can not remember, but which I retell now as well as I can recall it.


Once there was a monarch, deposed from his throne by a witch. The witch took over rule of the kingdom and revelled in the wealth and the power she had stolen. But she was not an attentive or kind ruler and discontent spread amongst the people, who desired their old King back. Such was her magic that the witch queen could not be removed by force. It was rumoured that, if the witch should look upon something never before seen by human eyes, her powers would leave her and she would become defenceless. Many attempted to overthrow their false queen, bringing before her the rarest and most highly prized objects in the guise of gifts, hoping that their rarity would render her weak. But however rare these objects, all had been seen before, even if as long ago as the last Millennia.


Until, one day, a boy approached the throne with a basket of apples for his Queen. She was not impressed, but he begged her not to be hasty, for the gift was inside the fruit. Anticipating a precious jewel, or a coin at the heart of the apple the witch queen cut it open eagerly and stared down at the two open halves. Fool! she cried, there is nothing in here! and made to harm him with a spell. But to no effect; her powers were undone for she had looked into the inside of the apple, which no human had ever laid eyes on before. She threw the two halves to the floor, and fled the kingdom.


This year marks fifty years since the USA successfully put two men onto an astronomical mass rock, 4.5 billion years old, suspended in our galaxy 240,000 miles away. Elon Musk of Space X proposes that by 2024 colonisation of Mars will be possible. The race is on to discover the secrets of these, most ancient bodies of rock and to do there what has never been done, see what no human has ever before seen, to uncover the new in the incredibly, incomprehensibly old.


Celestial rocks are not my area and probably will never be. But the wonder of earth-made rocks, whilst there is still so much to know, might yet suffice for me. Looking to space for a new discovery, I find, is not so necessary. Because if you are fortunate enough to be close by when a stone comes apart you might catch in your nostrils the most fleeting whisp of the air that was contained there, inhale the atmosphere of four hundred million years ago. And if you are first on the scene and look into what is revealed there, you look upon what no-one has ever seen before, an interior not meant for human eyes. Working stone makes pioneers of us.


A stone can be divided in any place by drilling a line of holes or carving a channel where the break is intended. Wedges, commonly known as plug and feathers are arranged in the holes and then hammered evenly until the pressure eventually cracks the stone in the specified place. This is an ancient and ritualistic quarrying technique which demands patience and vigilance. The stone says what is about to happen and whether it will be cooperative, or not.  With each hit of the plug and feathers it adjusts to the new pressure within. This might sound like a creaking, a groaning, a popping, which translates as:


I am accommodating. I am shape shifting. Dont rush me.


The stone ceases to make a speak when it has settled around the plug and feathers and is ready to continue. If I ignore this communication and resume the process too soon, the stone will almost certainly rip out a chunk of itself along the path of least resistance.


I pick up the hammer and tap down each plug into place between the feathers. I hit along the line two or three times, until the plug grips the inside of the feathers and I feel a little resistance. I wait a few seconds and tap along the line again then pause to hear the sound emitted by the stone, waiting in complete stillness for its speaking to subside. When the stone is settled, I repeat the process and wait again for its commentary and so this continues until the stone falls open.


We inhale quickly, and peer into the interior.






Beatrice trained in Fine Art and subsequently completed a stonemasonry apprenticeship at Lincoln Cathedral. She now lives and works in Scotland where she has a small studio in which to work stone and devise work about greater intimacy with stone. Her multi-disciplinary practice draws on ecological and geological research to explore how human beings connect to their landscape and natural environment, our relationship with vital ecosystems, the internal landscapes we construct for ourselves and the power of landscape to affirm and strengthen. Beatrice is regularly a panel member in discussions about artists addressing the biodiversity and climate crisis. Her writing has been published online at The Learned Pig and The Big Picture, Scotland. Her book Stone will Answer, is to be published by Harvill Secker. Find out more about her work here.




[1] Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness: 2018 Princeton University Press

[2] Joel Fisher, The Quarry: STONE: Black Dog Publishing

[3] Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness: 2018 Princeton University Press

[4] David A. Rothery, Geology- The Key Ideas: 1997 Hodder Education, Hachette UK

[5] Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness: 2018 Princeton University Press

[6] The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Peter Avery and John Heath Stubbs: 1979 Penguin Books Ltd

[7] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: 2008 Oxford University Press

[8] Wistawa Szymborska, Poems New and Collected 1957-1997: 1998 Harcourt, Inc

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