Country diary: these odd rocks wandered in with the ice age

Assynt, Sutherland: The natural monoliths and pink quartzite that dot the landscape are erratics, carried there by glaciers

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.

A single boulder on the horizon.
Out of place? A single boulder on the horizon. Photograph: Robin Patten

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.

A piece of pink quartzite in a wall of mostly grey gneiss.
A piece of pink quartzite in a wall of mostly grey gneiss. Photograph: Robin Patten

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.


Robin Patten

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Country diary: two decades on, an unfamiliar bloom is finally identified
Claxton, Norfolk: An old photo – plus a scree of reference books – brings alive a flower of Scottish mountains that I spotted on Cairn Gorm in 1998: the tiny trailing azalea

Mark Cocker

29, Jan, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: the hollow hills of legend
Bronkham Hill, Dorset: The wind pours larksong over the humps and bumps of a bronze age barrow cemetery

Sara Hudston

01, Jun, 2018 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: treasures that were once beneath the Cambrian sea
Assynt, Sutherland, Highlands: The stromatolite fossils lie on the Eilean Dubh Formation, a geologic stratum often marked by coral and shell fossils

Robin Patten

06, Apr, 2018 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: winter is slow to leave the high ground
Cairn Gorm, Highlands: Ptarmigan waddle determinedly between pockets of snow and rocks feathered with frost

Cal Flyn

15, Apr, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: The bewitching white powder snares us | Merryn Glover
Cairngorms, Highlands: The snow is thick and so softly layered that our steps sink deep, sometimes over our knees

Merryn Glover

23, Mar, 2023 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a city flanked by hulking bodyguards
Belfast Hills, County Antrim: The peaks of Divis and the Black Mountain loom over Belfast, and an air of surveillance lingers

Mary Montague

29, Jul, 2020 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: this cute creature is a cold killer
Aigas, Highlands: The pine marten brought a touch of night in its sharp black muzzle and in the big silent dark-stockinged feet

Mark Cocker

15, May, 2018 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: following in the footsteps of Nan Shepherd
Creag Dubh, Highlands: Described by the Scottish writer as ‘blue cold and brilliant’, the walk was less inviting on our day up the mountain, but no less exciting

Merryn Glover

24, Dec, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: braced for the early morning breeze
Dolgellau, Gwynedd: The car park was already full of folk keen to take advantage of the fine day, which promised to be the last for some time

John Gilbey

22, Oct, 2018 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: An iconic location, with a blaze of yellow to match
Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh: I dodge the crowded summit and am rewarded by perhaps the most abundant patch of blooming gorse I’ve seen

Mark Cocker

02, May, 2022 @4:30 AM