I’ve been thinking a lot about colour of late, and about how closely one’s experience of colour is tied up with one’s experience of landscape. I had a conversation with Mel the other day — concerning the crazy hues of the lichens she’d seen in a particular West Highland location — and was reminded of another recent landscape encounter, and the incredible colours it involved. We enjoyed a fleeting visit to Lewis and Harris a few weeks ago (we will be back for a proper holiday later in the year – hurrah), and were lucky enough to visit the standing stones at Calanais. Stone circles are breathtaking spaces, of course, but among these stones at close quarters, what I was most struck by was their varying textures, shades and colours.
Human hands moved these stones into position more than four thousand years ago, but the rock from which they are formed is much, much older. This is some of the most ancient stuff in the world in fact — Lewisian Gneiss, more than three billion years old. For those of you who, like me, find geological time so mind-boggling that it is virtually meaningless, this rock has been around since before the earth cooled down and the mountain-wrapping work of continents began. Lewisian Gneiss is a metamorphic rock, with a foliated and coarsely granular character. And if you are wondering about my geological vocabulary, its partly from the GCSE I did many moons ago (thankyou, Mr Boardman), but mostly drawn from Hutton’s Arse , a book that I quite enjoyed — Malcolm Rider’s deeply dodgy politics notwithstanding. While I found his particular brand of localism offputting to say the least, he knows a hell of a lot about gneiss. Discussing some notable late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century geologists, Rider talks about how their accounts of the landscape of northern Scotland as monochrome and “sterile” really missed the point. The rock that at a distance seems to be a “familiar weathered grey” turns out at close quarters to be something else entirely:
“a closer look . . .shows that the gneiss has a fine banding on a centimetre scale, in greys, whites, and dark colours, beautifully picked out by a combination of ice smoothing and several thousand years of rain and weather. The climate of Scotland is very good at this.”
(Huttons Arse, p. 178)
Rider describes Lewisian gneiss as a “terrestrial mille feuille” and I remembered this when looking at the standing stones at Callanais.
I spent a long time looking at the intrusions of pink granite against the banded grey. And closer inspection of the stone revealed a shimmering mass of many colours: dark flecks of magnetite and mica, luminous quartz and feldspar. This is the composition of the rock itself — and then there are the hues of a changing climate — the stone folds weathered and darkened by wind and water; pale pin pricks of butter and pea-coloured lichen. Around the stones are purple and yellow and white wildflowers, and beyond them, the deep blue-green haze of the ground, lochans, and hills of Lewis.
The banded pinks and greys of the gneiss at Calanais have stayed with me, and I’ve been thinking about them more since I began reading Alice Starmore’s Book of Fairisle Knitting a few days ago. I’m still digesting the implications of Starmore (I lack the words right now) but all I can say is that the woman is a genius, and that her genius is bound up with the Lewisian landscape that surrounds her. There are many things to like about Starmore, but her eye for quotidian detail — for the beautiful and colourful in the ordinary — is really something else. The shades of this tam were inspired by those of a sprig of clover that had pushed its way through the cracks in a strip of tarmac. It just about kills me.