Coun­try diary

Assynt, Suther­land

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters - Robin Pat­ten

Com­fort­ably seated on the slopes be­low Glas Bheinn, I’m im­mersed in a view that stretches past the Assynt moun­tains to the sea. Then a chunk of pink quartzite by my boots draws my at­ten­tion. Mor­phed by the Earth’s heat and pres­sure into some­thing re­sem­bling ce­mented sugar, that rock sits in rosy con­trast to the som­bre grey stone be­low. Cu­ri­ous, I plant a fin­ger on the ge­ol­ogy map, to learn that the grey be­drock be­neath my perch is an­cient Lewisian gneiss. That pink stone at my feet has no source in sight.

Other anom­alies dec­o­rate the sur­round­ings, rocks of un­ex­pected com­po­si­tion or sit­u­ated in odd places: one boul­der roosts on small rocks sev­eral inches above the ground, an­other leans over the cliff as if ready to take flight, iso­lated nat­u­ral mono­liths dot the hori­zon like watch­ing beasts. They seem at once out of place yet in­te­gral to the set­ting, as if they wan­dered in from else­where to stay awhile. Which, in a sense, they did.

The quartzite and other strangely lo­cated stones are er­rat­ics, car­ried to their cur­rent po­si­tion by ice-age glaciers, their name de­rived from the Latin er­rare, to wan­der, ram­ble, or stray. Twenty thou­sand years ago, ice buried the slope where

I sit, the en­tire re­gion a frozen mass with only the high­est of peaks pro­trud­ing above the glacial ex­panse, is­lands of earth in an ocean of white. The er­rat­ics are like glacial me­men­tos, de­posited hither and yon as the world re­volved into a warmer time, and the ice melted, drop­ping its to­kens on the scoured land­scape be­low.

The pink chunk next to me stirs a mem­ory. In the land­scape be­low, I pin­point where a 19th-cen­tury house is crum­bling into the earth.

Its dry­s­tone walls con­sist mainly of grey gneiss, yet I re­mem­ber oc­ca­sional quartzite sparkles amid the leaden hues, a con­trast as de­light­fully sur­pris­ing as the rosy rock on this slope. Once I thought the ma­son might have brought in quartzite from afar for rea­sons of luck or lore. Now, I think of an er­ratic, trav­el­ling by glacier, dropped dur­ing the melt, picked up by hu­man hands and placed in the wall, its jour­ney con­tin­u­ing well be­yond its ice age wan­der­ings.


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