When we acquired our Eriskay croft, eleven years ago, it was reported to us that some islanders said that we’d bought the land in the hope of finding a hidden stash of whisky from the SS Politician! (Wrecked, in 1944, just a few hundred metres from our croft, islanders ‘rescued’ from the ship a substantial cargo of whisky. The story of what followed was retold in the famous novel Whisky Galore by Compton MacKenzie, and films based on the book soon followed.) In truth our only hope was that we might make a fair success of our crofting and other enterprises, and that our investment and hard work would help to sustain us.
Eleven years later, we certainly do not feel that our labours have been in vain : and though we certainly have done some digging and delving, it’s not been in search of the fabled whisky, but to lay foundations, clear drains, install services, plant trees … Such ‘treasures’ that we have found have been far more mundane – the detritus from many generations of ordinary island lives. A very few of these found items are complete and in working condition – they survived intact thanks to particular circumstances. But the vast majority – almost everything – has been found broken or incomplete in some way – discarded and simply cast aside as worthless.
Recently, whilst using a mattock to remove tussock grass, I unearthed a small lump of sandstone, of a size and shape – roughly trapezoidal – that fits very nicely in my hand, – but certainly doesn’t fit in with the geology of Eriskay – or indeed any other of these islands. The geology of the Outer Hebrides is almost entirely Lewisian Gneiss (metamorphosed granite), and where it isn’t gneiss then it’s just granite. But never sandstone – the nearest being in Torridon, way across The Minch – in the North West Highlands. And I’m not at all it sure it didn’t come here from even further away than that – perhaps the Central Belt (roughly defined as the part of Scotland between the Clyde and the Forth).
Freshly lifted from the ground – the damp surface glistening in the daylight, ingrained dirt accentuating the texture, numerous linear grooves – mostly aligned along the length of the stone – were readily apparent. The idea came to me like a revelation emerging from the mists of time: this was a pocket sharpening stone, lost many many years ago.
Since the early to mid 20thC, anyone in need of a sharpening stone would buy a carborundum, which are more effective than natural stone, more even in quality, are offered in various grades of fine-ness, are lighter in the hand or pocket, and are in so many ways so much more preferable than using natural stone – even if suitable natural stone is available free on one’s own land. Surely, then, the stone was in use as a pocket sharpener before the 20thC.
Whetstones of fine-grade natural sandstone were produced commercially, and distributed through local merchants, from perhaps as early as the 1820s, quite possibly a generation earlier, as the industrial revolution took hold in Scotland, and in time reached into every branch of the economy – even eventually into the outer isles. But this sharpening stone doesn’t have the character of a commercial offering : it looks and feels like nothing more than something ‘found’ – perhaps by the Eriskay owner himself when away from home on the mainland.
This stone has a coarse uneven texture, with inclusions of hard grit, and air voids, all of which make for a very inferior whetstone, requiring much skill in use to avoid damaging a good blade. Surely, no-one would keep such a whetstone if better stones were readily available at a fair price. Well, they might keep what they already had, but it’s unlikely they’d go to the trouble to look out for such a stone in far away places! To me, then, it seems likely that this pocket sharpening stone dates from before the advent of commercially-distributed fine sandstone whetstones, and so from the 18thC, at the very latest. And in fact I’m inclined to think it may be much older, because I found it in an area, in High Field – near to the Hill Fence, which an archaeological report of 1999 identified as having been worked, in mediaeval times, for growing grains – possibly oats or barley, the faint remains of ridge and furrow cultivation still being visible to this day.
I’m inclined to believe, then, that this stone was last used 400 or more years ago to sharpen a harvesting sickle (an agricultural tool originating in ancient Mesopotamia, which spread to other civilizations ancient and modern, and is now found right around the world). It’s fascinating to speculate as to the circumstances when it was left there, up on the hill : was it simply put down and forgotten – and never found again despite searching? ; or was it cast aside (at a more recent date) in favour of a new fine-grained sandstone tool, just received from the merchant?
The newer fine-grained whetstone would, no doubt, have looked much like the example in this second photo. (Who knows, this might be the very stone that succeeded the mediaeval whetstone!) This stone is longer, and roughly in the form of a tetrahedron, and that means it can be reversed and used at both ends. The sandstone is very finely and uniformly textured and the piece is beautifully curved and smoothed – partly by nature, and partly by use. It’s a lovely piece that seems to want to be used! I reckon this one’s about perfect for sharpening sickles, scythes, and similar tools with long fine blades, rather than, say, an axe.
Other sandstone sharpeners we’ve found are all much bigger, and have been discovered either in the old ruined house in Home Park (the field down by the shore), or close to it. All of these would have been too big to be portable, and would probably have been set up on the top of a low wall, or a natural bank, or on a bench : knives and other blades would be run across the stationary stone, rather than the reverse (as with a pocket sharpener). The large square whetstone appears to be intact : it was found covered by a very thin layer of turf at the top of a steep but low slope just beside the old thatched house.
The others – the rounded pieces – seem to be the remains of long roughly rectangular sandstones that would in time have narrowed at the middle over many years of frequent use. Each piece seems to be one half of an original … though none of them match with any other! They may have broken as a result of being worn down to a narrow waist – too narrow to sustain much rough usage. But two of these – in fact the two that may just possibly have come from the same complete stone – were found lodged in the head of the front wall of the old house : this is strongly suggestive of the ancient superstition of sacrificing something of value and importance by ceremoniously or symbolically breaking it or rendering it unusable and valueless. It may also reflect the superstitious practice – when moving house, of bringing something of value from the old dwelling and incorporating it into the new home, bringing with it the spirit of the ancestors with whom the artifact was thought to be associated.
The pocket carborundum of the 21stC is a product of advanced technology, being compact and light yet strong – and above all a very effective and reliable sharpening tool … but completely lacking in character!