Can’t see the rocks for the view – inspired by the Hugh Miller Writing Competition

We’re delighted to announce that SNH’s Stuart Graham has been given a Highly Commended Award in this year’s prestigious Hugh Miller Writing Competition. Here he shares the inspiration behind his work and the winning poem.

The Old Man of Stoer on the Trotternish Ridge, Isle of Skye.©Lorne gill/SNH

The Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye ©Lorne Gill/SNH

In these uncertain times we often look for havens that promise long-term stability. Our wilder landscapes, for example, can seem permanent and resistant to change.

Working from home during lockdown, I have taken comfort in my view of our local hill Criffel, made from reassuringly strong granite.  It was named by the Vikings and, while the native woodland clothing its sides has vanished, has not changed noticeably in shape or form since mankind first set foot in Scotland.

Criffel at sunset from Caerlaverock NNR_JPEG Image Height 720px_m82420

Criffel at sunset from Caerlaverock NNR. ©Nick Gedge/SNH

With just a little knowledge and imagination however, our seemingly static landscapes can erupt into life and personally I see many Scottish landscapes as wildly dynamic.

Take Skye for example, where the Old Man of Storr has slid in a brief few thousand years over slippy Jurassic clays towards the sea and geologically recent lavas spilt out as Europe and America drifted apart a mere 60 million year ago.


Pillow lavas on the coast south of Ballantrae ©Lorne Gill/SNH

In South Ayrshire at Ballantrae, you can see the muds that lay on the ocean floor between Scotland and England now stacked like a deck of cards and crumpled into mountains as the ocean crust was pushed up onto the earth’s surface.

For me however, it is the deep time of Lewisian Gneiss that signifies true stability. A quarter the age of the earth, it has rested deep in the crust with only an occasional episode disturbing it from its long sleep.

Aerial view of Suilven and Assynt ©P&A Macdonald SNH

Suilven resting on a platform of Lewisian Gneiss ©P&A Macdonald/SNH

I was lucky to do extensive fieldwork in Sutherland during my Ph.D. 30 years ago, enjoying the self-imposed isolation of staying six months in a one man tent in a peat bog. As I worked on Lewisian Gneiss, Europe’s ancient crust, I learnt of my predecessors, the now famous survey geologists of the nineteenth century “Peach and Horne”, who unravelled the mysteries of the area’s geology and are now celebrated with bronze statues at Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve.  When they encountered the Lewisian Gneiss in the field they tapped it reassuringly and referred to it affectionately as “Old Boy”.

When I saw the Hugh Miller Writing Competition call for submissions on a geological theme earlier this year I saw an opportunity to combine two of my interests to celebrate the legacy of Hugh Miller – Cromarty’s pioneering geologist and poet of the early 19th century – and raise the profile of Scotland’s outstanding geology and landscapes through poetry. Having carried out part of the geological research for my Ph.D. studying the Black Isle near Hugh Miller’s birthplace, our connections were now too frequent to ignore!

I was delighted to receive a “Highly Commended Poetry Award” and while the award ceremony in Edinburgh is on hold for obvious reasons, geologically speaking it will come around quick enough! In the interim the winning entries are now available for view on the competition web page and here you can read my three submissions, inspired by the three areas described above:

The “Old Man” Teeters – Highly Commended Award

 Pangea has her breakdown

As Laurentia departs. Unconcerned

The Plesiosaurs dance from Eigg to Muck,

Dodging the shark infested waters

Where the three toed treads

Point their way to Skye.


McLeod’s Table is set for the show,

Whilst Quirang to Storr

The Trotternish teeters,

His high point looking down

On the Bodach, the

“Old Man”, who dances

His rotational glide,

Lowering his book forged in stone,

His two dozen leaves of lava,

Outpourings of Beinn Edra’s wisdom.


He Skudiburghs down on Kilmaluag

As below Valtos gathers the dinosaurs

Under the helm of his kilt

And fastens tight with

Sparkling broach of zeolite.



Ghost castle watches smuggler’s coast

Where catch is Sawney’s brand

Or contraband on this, the

Coast of the hidden secrets.


Secrets that should be buried deep

Yet we cannot see the wood for the trees

Where ocean floor crests the hill

With Ordovician obduction,


And pillow lavas bulge with excitement

As serpentinite slithers inland

With jasper red eyes

To nestle with the trilobites.


Old Boy

Older than life the ancient dark whale

of Europe surfaces, his back just visible.

Many have tried to remould him, rework him,

all have failed.  Time means nothing to him,

he has it on his side.  He adsorbs all comers,

dyke or Meteorite.  All get treated

with the same indifference.  You are the

foundation on which great things lie.


Sliced and spliced and stacked.  Still the

same expression, the sheared out dead pan,

gives nothing away.


Peach, Horne and Clough tough in tweed

unravelled your mysteries Old Boy,

gave you your name.


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