In the summer of 2016 I part-rode, part-pushed my bicycle, loaded with a tent and some art materials, across the narrow waist of the Udal peninsula on the Hebridean island of North Uist. I was heading for the dunes that frame the crescent of west-facing Traigh Iar, one of those glorious shell-sand beaches that sing white in sunshine.
I abandoned my bicycle to walk barefoot. With two miles of beach to myself, I went north towards a widening series of headlands and dunes where a number of archaeological excavation sites, opened over a thirty-year period from the early 1960s, remain exposed. It was low tide, the August day warm and overcast, offering expansive horizontal stripes of graded greys and blues, the misty peaks of Harris ahead. There was a melancholy to the emptiness.
A line of tangled weed marked the high-tide line, and a foot or so below this, the sea had cast up a parallel band of glossy pebbles. I began to collect, quickly getting my eye in, spotting the gleam of damp, worn quartz among other stones. I gathered them according to how pleasing they felt in my hand, the cool on my palm and their translucent, milky colour. Once they were collected into a cloth bag, I enjoyed their music, clacking against each other as I walked. The word ‘quartz’ comes to us from Slavic languages through German, meaning ‘hard’. This trait makes it the dominant mineral of mountaintops and the main constituent of beach, river and desert sand.
Excavations at Udal revealed a palimpsest of dwellings; continuous occupation from Neolithic times through to the nineteenth century. Among the finds were two quartz pebbles painted with curved lines and dots. Fifty-six of these enigmatic objects have been found around Scotland; all but five in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. They range in date from the first century to the ninth century ad. Experimental archaeology suggests the pigment may be associated with metal workers, and made from distilled peat tar which penetrated the surface of the stone, leaving a ghost-stain.
The emblematic value of quartz in prehistory is well known, but it is not known whether these scarce decorated stones were charms of some sort – perhaps for healing, or slingshots, or perhaps even part of a game. They were certainly portable. Might they have been used as gifts, or for trading, even a type of currency? I like the fact that no one knows, that imagination is required.
The incoming tide gave me a sense of urgency. My walk had magicked up a rough plan, a game I would play with the tides. I chose my favourite twenty-five pebbles, the whitest ones, the most smoothed. I let them dry for a short time and then painted each with waterproof ink. I used a wide palette, imitating patterns I had seen on the ancient pebbles – the saltire-like arrangements of curved lines and dots, other simple motifs. I also had twenty-five words in mind and inscribed these, one on the reverse of each pebble. Each word had some relevance to the place I was in and the story of migrating sand and memory. One excavated site has already been lost to an Atlantic storm; despite the many years of passionate endeavour here, the discoveries made were not published at the time and the memory of what was learned looked threatened.
Finally, as the sea retreated, I settled my grid of stones below the high-tide line. I laid them, pattern up, in a five-by-five square, echoing the grids used to record on archaeological sites. Each pebble was distinct but I loved them together, luminous on the sand with the evening sun milkily suggesting itself out west. It looked like an eccentric board game, a hoard of sweeties, or as if it awaited a casting of the runes. I would return after the next high tide, a chunk of time for which I needed no watch. I was excited to see which words the sea would select for me; my ‘found poem’.
I woke at one in the morning, looked out of my tent at a bright full moon, heard waves soothing at some distance. It was approximately low tide. And I slept again, warm with the knowledge of my pebbles glinting under moonlight on the sand below, left to their tidal dance.
By half nine the next morning the sea had been in and out, far enough to reveal its choices. I ran down onto the still-wet sands, wandered the pebble line, and identified quartz pebbles whose shapes seemed familiar. But unlike the original pigments, my so-called ‘waterproof’ inks had not survived this blink of time. The pebbles were blank. That is, all except for two. Both had lost their painted motif. But one rhomboid flattened shape was still faintly marked with the word ‘wheel’, and another, pointed and pyramid-shaped, ghosted the first few letters of the word ‘share’. Appropriate words, I felt. The wheel of time. The need to share memory and knowledge if it is not to be eroded.
The next day I crossed the Minch and headed east. Close to home in the heartlands of Perthshire, I drove the length of Loch Tay. This valley hosts one of the richest concentrations of prehistoric rock carvings, particularly on the foothills of the Ben Lawers range rising over my left shoulder to nearly 4,000 feet, its highest summit marked by a great slab of quartz. The main rocks of these hills are mica schist and the denser epidiorite, but both are liberally veined with milky quartz, a variety made translucent by tiny bubbles of salty water and gas – relics of the hot fluid from which the vein minerals crystallised.
At home I realised that, as a walker, I’ve been on the trail of quartz for a long time. Small chips of it that I don’t recall collecting tinkle out of pockets and it gleams out of the small piles of pebbles that end up on windowsills around my house. I’m drawn to those sparks of bright white on a path ahead or forming high and distinct waymarks and can recall walking with a piece clutched in my hand just for the pleasure of carrying it. The childish thrill of discovering it in a mountain pool or on the beach is like seizing natural treasure, redolent of gems, luck and rarity, which is ironic, as it is the most common mineral on Earth.
Quartz rings with magic across the world and back into antiquity. Caches of it are associated with Neolithic sites such as the sparkling facade of Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland. Within living memory I have heard of quartz chips left on graves in Argyll, or as a token when passing St Finnan’s Well on the pass between Stontian and Polloch in the West Highlands. In many cultures of the world it is accredited with animistic powers.
It has more prosaic uses, too. Some varieties are of gem quality and quartz sand is used to make glass. Optical-grade crystals can be used as lenses. But it is the connection with timekeeping that we all know after Jacques and Pierre Curie proved in 1880 that squeezing quartz crystals produced piezoelectricity. Timers and electronic circuits followed, although most now use manufactured crystals.
It wasn’t far off midwinter when I climbed out of the deeply frozen valley up onto the slopes of Ben Lawers. It was a ‘Quartz day’. Every leaf and blade of grass was feathered in ice crystals. My feet crunched through puddles, and icicles hung in rows from the banks of burns waiting to be played like xylophones. Small waterfalls, where shaded, were fashioned into gnarled white grottoes, the boulders cased with ice, pools dotted with quartz pebbles. Sometimes when I saw a sheep’s print filled with white sparkle I wasn’t immediately sure whether it was ice or quartz. There is a natural association between the two. The word for ‘crystal’ comes from ‘ice’ in Greek, and Pliny the Elder believed quartz to be permanently frozen ice. Hand-coolers made from quartz were used through many centuries right up until Victorian times, when egg-shaped smooth pebbles soothed the palms of ladies afraid of offering a sweaty handshake.
But my favourite etymology is in the Irish. Quartz is griancloch, meaning ‘sun rock’. As I walked steeply upwards from the shores of Loch Tay, I understood why. Despite the iron-hard white place below and crisp snow high above, I was in between in a strata of colour – a blaze of russet bracken, tawny grasses and luminous moss. The low sun scudding over the hills to the south of the Loch felt surprisingly warm and visually it sent a thrill through the veins of quartz writhing through rocks.
In knobbles, seams, knots, it stood proud of rock surfaces and brought a visceral memory of my rock-climbing days: how, on a featureless slab, I might have squeezed my fingers around one of these, or wedged a foot on it and felt joyously safe. Quartz is a survivor, withstanding the erosion of softer rock around it so that it almost appears like a jewel in a more mundane setting, in this case, one intricately laced with beautiful but less glitzy lichens. It is the same process that leaves quartzite – the ‘sugary’ sandstone made up of quartz grains – topping hills like the Grey Corries near Fort William, which can appear permanently snow-capped.
Ben Lawers means ‘hill of loud water’ and it earns its name. Numerous burns plummet from the tops of this range, dividing the land laterally into segments so that none of the paths traverse the hill; they climb and descend.
Close to the pounding of a waterfall, I found my first cup mark, a depression highlighted by the low-angled sun. I sank my fingers into it. Found more such marks. At the base of the rock a mole had been working, its archaeology unearthing from the dark soil some small chips and flakes of quartz. One of them had a sharpened, stylus-like point and as an experiment I swivelled it on another rock, easily making a mark, and penetrating more quickly if I used a larger stone to hammer it.
Thought to date from 4000 to 2000 bc, rock art in its simplest form is such cup-marking – small dish-shaped depressions made by pecking at the rock surface with a stone implement. Sometimes they appear in elaborate groups with concentric rings and channels. Like the decorated pebbles, the purpose of these carvings is gloriously mysterious. Are they maps, constellation diagrams, doodles by bored shepherds, graffiti? One thing is certain: quartz was used to make these marks.
A series of excavations between 2007 and 2010 around some of these carved stones has shed new light on the significance, not only of the carvings themselves but the materials used to make them, their location and the event of their making. Archaeologists Richard Bradley and Aaron Watson noted that carvings often accumulate close to the sight or sound of a waterfall, in the most sheltered spots of the hillside, and below the highest peaks. Pollen samples indicate that this was an open landscape much as it is now and the carvings would have been seen from significant viewpoints. Because they are nearly all on south-facing slopes, the designs would have been highlighted at particular times by both the sun and moon, seen travelling across the sky and reflected in the fifteen-mile length of Loch Tay below. It all suggests a special relationship to place.
Quartz was the tool, but the way it was deliberately left around the carved rocks suggests that it was not only chosen for its hardness and practical properties. Perhaps in the thinking of animistic society, the image remaining on the rock was powerful partly because of what was used to make it. For comparison, the archaeologists excavated around the base of two rocks in the area which had not been carved. They made no finds at these, whereas the carved ones presented artefacts, some on the top of the rocks and others at their base. Included were two pieces of pitchstone from Arran, worked flint, a quartzite pebble from a beach, possibly on the west coast, and a substantial quantity of broken and flaked quartz, probably collected as pebbles in nearby streams.
Contouring the hillside at around 15,000 feet, I spent the afternoon wandering between natural basins as if through a series of rooms. Most contained remnants of sheilings, simple buildings remembered now in tumbled stone where women and children stayed in the summer months, bringing the cattle for the high grazing. If I paused and closed my eyes on this still, un-peopled day, I soon conjured voices; voices associated with games and stories and cheese-making. These are the same places – sheltered, perched above a steep drop to the loch – where rock carvings from a much earlier people are found.
In my own ‘pecking’ experiments, I noted the high-pitched ‘music’ of quartz on quartz. Might this have echoed around these enclosed hollows in the hillside and made Ben Lawers ‘the loud one’ in more than one way? Even more exciting was the thought that friction might have generated quartz’s special electricity. How potent a spectacle this would be if carvers at work glowed with triboluminescence – a phenomenon I had read about, but could barely believe. In Kilmartin, Argyll, platforms have been found close to carved rocks, possibly to accommodate an audience. They were covered in quartz. Might rock art have been partly about a performance?
A shamanistic connection between rock art and quartz might be hard for us to grasp with our twenty-first century rational minds and with the Enlightenment behind us. But like a slim mineral seam, I still sense it in my wish to hold and to collect quartz; a privilege I don’t completely understand. The energy between the hand, quartz, sun, and vigorous water flow is unmistakable and in the depths of winter it fills me with hope, propels me towards lengthening days.
Back at home in the town, I slipped out into my dark garden with two pieces of quartz. It was an experiment I undertook sceptically. I rubbed them together, struck them off each other, and felt a surge of wintery pleasure as they illuminated my hands. I was a child with her first sparkler. I held a stone of light. I have held back from saying it directly, but this made me sure: quartz is a magic stone.
This essay is taken Cornerstones (Little Toller, July 2018), a new anthology of subterranean writing, from contributors including John Burnside, Tim Dee, Sara Maitland, Alan Garner, Sarah Wheeler and Esther Woolfson, edited by Mark Smalley.
Linda Cracknell lives among the hills in Highland Perthshire. She has had several dramas broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and has published two collections of short stories and a novel, Call of the Undertow. A committed walker, her collection Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory was published in 2014 and was a Radio 4 Book of the Week. She is currently a Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Stirling.