‘Islands of stone’ would have been a good name for the Orkney archipelago, George Mackay Brown once wrote. The salt Atlantic winds mean that very few trees grow there, so stone provides for the dead – in the burial chamber at Maeshowe, for example – and the living. Less than a century ago, there were Orcadians sleeping in stone box beds.
For Beatrice Searle, one Orkney stone proved life-changing. While still a teenager, she felt the stirrings of a vocation to work with stone. It spoke to her, almost literally: ‘There is information to be found in the sound of the stone, just-audible messages from the deep past to be drawn out.’ She attempted to eat it (but ‘nothing about stone eating is instinctive’). Then she heard about the St Magnus Boat at Burwick on South Ronaldsay, a stone bearing two footprints on which Orkney’s patron saint, Magnus, is said to have skimmed across the Pentland Firth. Magnus, she discovered, was not the only ‘stone-surfing saint’. Others included St Moluag, St Ronan and St Vouga, whose stone ‘boats’ sailed them, respectively, to Lismore, to Brittany and across the Irish Sea.
But it was Magnus, and Orkney, that gripped her, and helped her address a gnawing anxiety. Searle’s work as a stonemason in Lincoln Cathedral demanded that she shore up ‘the unnatural stasis of a startling and shifting material’. ‘Fixity,’ she writes, ‘is valued higher than flux and change. And yet flux and change is what a stone does best.’
She felt a growing urge to be on the move, in the company of an Orkney stone: ‘A stone that offered union with it, to be a safe port and a moving vessel.’ On a stretch of Orkney coastline, near where Lord Kitchener drowned in a ferocious storm with more than 700 of his crew, she found a 40kg siltstone, which she christened the Orkney Boat, and on which she chiselled two footprints.