From 1st December 2011 - 29 January 2012 we are bringing Scotland's historical treasures to life at the National Museum of Scotland, telling stories from Scotland's geological roots to its technological future. Treasure indeed.
|Lewisian Gneiss, Janette Currie
My object is the Lewisian Gneiss [rhymes with ‘nice’]. It isn’t a personal object - didn’t belong to someone famous or infamous. What can be said about a lump of grey rock? What can you even think about a rock? I’m a researcher at heart, so, being paired with an object and subject-matter completely outside my field, I scurried in search of the undiscovered country: geology.
Both in the NMS bookshop and online I delved into scientific information which was often illustrated with stunning photographs of rugged Scottish landscape and scenery – the structure below and the towering mountain peaks. And of course, I read about James Hutton, the important Scottish Enlightenment thinker, friend to Robert Burns and founder of modern geology.
I traipsed off with teenager to meet my gneiss. He’s grey but not dull [the gneiss, not the teenager]. He shimmers under the exhibition lights in the ‘Beginnings’ Gallery. We read about the long process that formed metamorphic rock and watched the video which opens with the evocative words translated from Derik Thomson’s Gaelic poem called ‘Strong Foundations’. But most of all we looked at [and touched and stroked] the Lewisian gneiss.
Gneiss is ancient rock. Over millions of years, or ‘super-eons’ it stretched and split from the Earth’s crust and found its way across the globe to Norway and North America as well as places like Loch Finbay in the Outer Hebrides. Sometimes called ‘the old boy’ and ‘the haunted wing of geology’, it’s Scotland’s basement. ‘Haunted’? Criss-crossed with stripes of white and pink, sparkling within the folds are ghostly shades of granite and ancient rock deposits.
I dug a word bank from out of the dry statistics– chipped away the facts to discover a story [forgive the geology puns].
undulate, meld, shimmer, spark, steam, fold, cleave, building blocks,
South Pole, Cape Wrath, volcanic, ice-laden
Thinking of the rock as a person, ‘the old boy’, combined with these deliciously descriptive words, an image emerged, not of ‘the old boy’, but of his younger self. And a story began to emerge of how his movements across the globe created the dramatic Scottish landscape we now have. It’s a story about a journey – a young man’s quest northwards from the ‘ice-laden seas’ at the South Pole.
Using ‘found’ words I decided that the epic, the oldest written poetic form, was the best structure for my poem about the oldest European rock. It isn’t a story of conquest, although, to be frank, it takes a lot of force and steam and volcanic pressure to create gneiss. Nor did I want to write a ballad romance of a swooning female waiting for the handsome southerner to rescue her. What I hope to represent is a 21st Century retelling of the story before the history of Scotland where the union of equals in passionate embrace shapes the landscape.
So - I’ve got the beginnings of my poem about Scotland’s beginnings
…‘From the South he came.’
All of which goes to show that you can write a lot about a rock, once you get to know him.
It’s a myth to think that writing is a solitary occupation. I’ve found staff at NMS, friends and family only to happy to put me right on science and wonky thinking. So I’d like to thank them for letting me bounce ideas around and for their patience and forbearance as the poem takes shape. Thank you – David Currie; Peter Davidson [Curator, NMS]; Mardi Stewart and Jane Stewart. My poem grows out of a conversation with Nicky Melville after his presentation on conceptual and found poetry at the Write Now Conference, University of Strathclyde, June 2011.