There are many rituals associated with our annual family transhumance to Northwest Scotland. Rituals of eating, of sociability, of beach life, of arrival, and of departure. They are arrayed on a spectrum from private to public, with a cast of attendant props that includes musical instruments, four-oared skiffs, sheep shears, and homemade sushi. One inevitable sub-ritual – a minor incantation amid the major rite that is packing the car for the journey home – is the annual assay of pebbles collected, in which unwieldy bucketfulls of quintessential wonders are winnowed down to a manageable pile of take-home treasures.

Children, famously, always want to keep every stone on the beach, and ours are no exception. I, however, am in no position to cavil, since I too amass a rubble of favourites over the course of our stay, and am, if anything, even less able to kill my darlings. There is something deeply wrong about abandoning a much loved stone to the winds and tides of a lonely beach, never mind that it was found there, and presumably had been happily abiding there at least since the last ice age. We are not alone in this scavenging, as is attested to by the congregation of natural artefacts which accumulates on every windowsill and dry stone wall not swept clean at least once a week during the summer tourist season.

It helps that we stay on the terminal moraines of the last glacial maximum, so the sheer number and variety of oddball pebbles is greater than normal – in some areas, splinters off the local bedrock are thoroughly outnumbered by mineral assemblages swept in from across most of Northern Scotland. Shells too are gathered, both recently-evacuated contemporary models, and their Neolithic ancestors, which weather in profusion out of the extensive midden at the back of the beach. We try to draw the line at animal parts but despite vigorously-posted ordinances our windowsills still manage to become home to a grim toll of sheep vertebrae, dainty rabbit jawbones and skulls, and the scapulae of various seabirds.





There are two psychological phenomena worthy of note in all this sifting of everyday marvels. The first is the power of wonder, whether in the captivated mind of a child or of an adult gripped by a fossicking bent. The power that the entrancing beauty of quite ordinary objects has over individual sensibilities is remarkable, especially given how societies – people in aggregate – usually venerate the exceptional and the expensive. The second oddity is the strength of the urge to possess the object, not merely to enjoy it in situ. This resists all force of logic – value, rarity, significance, craft, and utility tend to be minimal – but is felt with a power that makes leaving well alone an option which demands Buddha-like self control.

Wonder is important to photographers. A sense of wonder informs and flavours the taking of photographs as keepsakes, as aides memoires, and as family propaganda. Visual note-taking, or its more exalted variant, documentary art photography, is at least partly based upon the deeply felt surprises thrown up by the quotidian world, and being attuned to one’s own sense of wonder is an essential skill for various classes of photographer.

The second aspect though, the monumental avarice, has no parallel in photography. Indeed, one of the odd aspects of modern photography appreciation is that it so rarely involves the owning of anything – images are consumed and internalised without the need to possess a physical print, or at least, nothing more exclusive than a readily-available magazine, book or download. So the strength of feeling with which a child will refuse to share a pebble with their brothers and sisters (or a father with his beloved offspring), can come as a surprise.

In the worst cases, paranoia sets in. Every year after the midsummer high water springs, a group of tweedy ladies with spaniels can be seen quartering the beach, eyes down, dogs, for once, ignored. I am not the only one who has been given a polite but brusque brush-off when enquiring what they might be looking for. The mix of dedication, persistence, and paranoia suggests strongly that these ladies are members of one of the stranger sub-species of amateur naturalist – the cowrie hunters. British cowries are small and hard to spot, but are so jewel-like and seductively shaped, that they inspire a majority proportion of the available deadly sins in anyone unlucky enough to have a companion find one in the sand. The urge to possess is not only deeply felt, but highly personal and individual.




It is commonly said that knowledge displaces wonder, and that scientific familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least indifference. Like many things that are commonly said, these statements contain a mote of truth, but they are largely constructed from dense prejudice. For me, learning that the cowries found in the U.K. are members of the genus Trivia only adds to their charm, and wraps a layer of finespun humour around their cult status as the ultimate beachcomber’s prize.

It is true, however, that learning the names of minerals and how to recognise and find them in the field will lead to fewer surprises of the simple, “gosh, look at that!” kind; but it also admits the possibility of informed surprise – of finding that singular object which is not only a little bit different to look at, but which is so comprehensively abnormal and out of place, that it informs, or overturns, an entire system of understanding. At its best, such informed attention engenders a species of wonder which is both more satisfying and more enduring than the simpler joys of naive observation.





On these beaches piled with red sandstone cobbles, it is most often the green stones, which stand out most clearly and beg to be taken home. Pick one up and look at it closely, especially in the wet, and what began as merely eye-catching becomes truly wondrous. Red sandstone, magnified, is usually just a more grainy red, but the greens, at least those found among the ground-down ancient rocks of Northwest Scotland, are a captivating patchwork of dappled pistachio, spinach, salmon, cream, and pure white bone.

Geologists have folded names into this mixture of tints and textures: such as quartz, feldspar, amphibole, serpentine, calcite, or epidote. Such terms appeal less to the senses and more to the intellect – they give off a smell, not of the sea, or the gunpowder whiff of a lobbed pebble ricochet, but of laboratories and book-lined reading rooms. The advantage of nomenclature though, is that names link the particular stone in your hand to other stones, other beaches, and other worlds. The wasabi green of epidote tells of a deep underground past spent poised on a finely balanced combination of heat and pressure. The alkali nature of creamy calcite is the reason why sibling pebbles immersed in the streams running off the peat are etched by the bog acid to a granulated, distressed version of their sea-beach selves.




In this case, the extra dimension that knowledge lends to wonder is not often a pure sense of discovery or revelation. The natural geography of most of the Western World has been comprehensively categorised and indexed by the cumulative effort of one hundred and fifty years of organised professional science, not to mention centuries of amateur and antiquarian observation before that. It is exceedingly unlikely that any of the odd pebbles you might pick up on the beach will contain rare gemstones, or nodules of noble metals, or fossils which re-write the history of life on our planet. If you can only find the correct reference work, and the correct analysis tools, the mineral assemblages are standard and codified, and no surprise to anybody.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no surprises of any kind. Some of the many pebbles we inevitably cart home are chosen for their amusing shapes – a mobile phone, a fishing hook, a doughnut. Others are simply so far out of place that they attract by their oddity: these include the glittering schists and dense, iron-banded stones which weather out of the scattered lines of moraines outlining the snouts of ancient glaciers. Lately, our walks have extended into an area where mudstones and siltstones form beguiling cobbles that are all so similarly smooth to the touch that professional geologists are taught to test them with their teeth to differentiate their textures.

My personal favourites are those stones which combine shape and mineral structure so that, like a satisfying abstract painting or photograph, the interaction of pattern and frame gives aesthetic pleasure greater than either alone. Sometimes though, sheer elegance or lucent beauty win over any concerns of geological or aesthetic complexity, which explains why the heaps of transplanted pebbles outside the door of our home in Sweden include so many smooth, white, palm-sized quartz baubles.





So where, amid all this sensuous gathering of heftable delights, does the knowledge come in? In some cases there is a sort of fame attached to a particular rock. A celebrity among pebbles would be the distinctively patterned ‘pipe rock’ which is found at the boundary where 500 million-year old bright, white Cambrian quartzites give way to more distinctive rocks bearing tell-tale fossils. In the older red sandstones beneath the quartzite there are no fossils more advanced than algae and their limestone concretions, life, at that stage, was single-cellular and microscopic. By the early Cambrian though, there were worms, who dug finger-sized holes in the sand to live in, which then filled with a slightly different sand when the worm died, leaving tubular structures running through the lithified remains of their habitats. The tubes are found in the pure white quarzite, but they show up most dramatically in the pipe rock where the matrix sands are stained red, but the holes were filled with white, so that the resulting rock looks like a normal red sandstone run through with veins of milky quartzite.

In the nineteenth century pipe rock was cause for large-scale debate – sometimes learned and noble, sometimes vituperative and mean. This was an age when geology was not just fascinating and useful: it was subversive, and actively engaged in challenging a wide range of tenaciously held mainstream beliefs. The clearly defined structure of pipe rock is a natural invitation to speculate on the processes which formed it, and several such theories were advanced, debated, promoted and disparaged. What is remarkable is not so much the ingenuity and erudition of those attempting to solve the puzzle, but the fact that by this time it no longer sufficed simply to assert that the rock had a particular structure because that was the way God had made it.





The nearest outcrops of pipe rock to where we play on the beach are twenty or more kilometres away to the east. A naive observer, unburdened by any need to explain their gathering impulses, would be unworried by this example of the inanimate made animate, but to the curious, this too presents a puzzle. The solution in this case is not life, but ice – the raw material of the prettily-veined pipe rock cobbles was plucked from the bedrock and shoved down to the sea by a two-kilometre thick layer of moving glacier. Once again, what is now regarded as established fact took many years of nineteenth and early twentieth century argument and evidence gathering before it acquired the uncontroversial status it now enjoys; and once again, it is the sheer lack of satisfaction offered by gnostic just-so stories which drives a search for an explanation involving a comprehensible mechanical process.

Pipe rock plays a part in a third great geological debate, this time one belonging wholly to the twentieth century: continental drift and plate tectonics. The patterned rock and the distinctive fossils found in the other early Cambrian strata also crop up in Greenland and North America, and are part of the evidence that the Northwest of Scotland was once part of a super-continent called Laurentia. The opening of the Atlantic Ocean in a blaze of volcanism and shuddering fault slippage sliced a tiny sliver off this giant landmass, leaving it attached to a hodgepodge of other slivers and the newly-arrived gatecrasher we now called England.

So for me at least, a cobble of pipe rock has a kind of celebrity, a cloud of facts which surrounds and enhances it so that it becomes more than just a physical object. Like mundane articles of clothing auctioned off by the famous, it has an aura inherited from its back-story and connections, and a value derived from what it represents rather than what it is. It is not just a rock, although it is just a rock. Wonder, in this case, is an alloy of the aesthetic and the intellectual.





At other times, a sly form of wonder is engendered by the incongruities which sprout in curlicue tendrils whenever science attempts to attach universally valid labels to complex reality. An organically developed nomenclature necessarily creates dead ends and contradictions when seen in the light of later knowledge, and unlike animal and plant taxonomy, rock types tend to retain their names as the art advances or the location varies. Misfits persist. This can lead to beauties like the intrusions of no-nonsense mining terms such as ‘whinstone’ or ‘skarn’ into the bedrock of Latinate terminology, but it can also generate paradoxes, as terms invented successfully to describe one geological structure are propagated to others by the application of Occam’s razor, until eventually, somewhere, they defy common sense.

Thus we find that the white rocks capping the topmost summits of many of the local mountains are given the name ‘basal’ quartzite, because further east, when the same rocks have slanted downwards to the bottom of the stack, they signal the start of the Cambrian sequence. A special place in the historiography of geology is reserved for the “Old Red Sandstone”, a phrase of deliberately biblical resonance applied to sedimentary rocks in the Scottish Lowlands and elsewhere, but which turn out to be the Mewling Infant Red Sandstone when compared to the truly old strata making up the Northwest Highlands.

The area we visit, Coigach, has the curious property that its rocks are all named after other places on the Scottish West Coast. Lewis, Torridon, Stoer, Applecross, Durness, Scourie. It is as if the professional bodies, which determine and codify geological names have just allowed the nomenclature to seep in under the door by accident. It would be easy to take this as a slight, but curiously, it actually enhances the specificity of the real, physical structures, because it makes it plain that the labels do not express any ineffable quintessence of place, but are merely broad categorisations of type. Names do have a resonance, and a presence, but for me, the geology of Coigach is interesting for its mixtures and juxtapositions, not its raw ingredients.

It would be tempting to come over all Whiggish and construct a hierarchy of wonder, with respected but naive childlike amazement as a base, and the informed appreciation of the expert perched on top. I find it impossible to do so, and both my pebble-picking and my photography represent a sampling of all points on what I see as a spectrum of responses – made up of informed choices, but not necessarily values. Communicating wonder to others is easier at the naive end of the spectrum, and keeping your sense of perception fresh and inclusive gets more press than the merits of teaching yourself the reasons for and meanings of what you are seeing, but that is a secondary problem which can be solved at leisure. Tackling the primary problem, of viewing and appreciating the world with an unbiased yet unjaundiced eye, is only helped by a willingness to be seduced by these everyday wonders.




  1. Mike Chisholm says:

    Wonder, indeed — a new post (and so soon!)…

    I think you’ve touched on a universal here: I recently tracked down the source of various annoying rattles in our Scenic, and extracted assorted fossils and pebbles that had worked their way down into the bodywork.

    I am also a fan of that tweed-clad, collecting-and-pondering phase before science proper kicked in. I could happily have spent my life on serial geography field trips, hunting moraines and eskers. Actually, that’s pretty much what our weekends and holidays have amounted to — no wonder the kids got bored…

    It takes a special curiosity to determine that there is a consistent, tiny difference between a Goldcrest and a Firecrest (as I discovered from a convenient manual last week). It’s a lot easier if you kill the things first, of course.

    Best wishes for 2014!


  2. struan says:

    As I point out to our kids, regularly doesn’t mean often :-)

    The beauty of early C19th science is that it is comprehensible. There is a dramatic change from the late romantics (at which point various polymaths are proclaimed as “the last man who knew everything”) to the 1880’s, where science had professionalised, and even today you need undergraduate maths to properly grasp the significance of the ideas.

    The new(ish) National Museum of Scotland has gone back to the cabinet of curiosities style of layout, with themed halls, but a jumbled mixture of artifacts within them. It works well, letting you find your own connections between things, and lessening the guilt when you hop over the worthy but dull.

    Firecrests do not nest in Sweden, but no-one seems to have told the ones living in the junipers of the graveyard next to our house. Every now and then one will suffer a collision with our windows, which allows a closer look – if you get there before the cats. “Brandkronad kungsfågel” is a big name for a little bird.