Stonemason by Ronald Mackay
By the age of 12, cycling to youth hostels in my native Scotland had become my weekend passion. With my savings of ten shillings, I bought a neighbour’s bike. He’d left school, started his apprenticeship at 15 and bought himself a bicycle with drop handlebars.
His old one suited me just fine. He’d looked after it well. Once I’d cleaned and oiled and rubbed and polished, to me that bike was the finest Raleigh in the whole wide world, with its Sturmey-Archer, 3-speed, hub-gear. With it came an old, canvas saddlebag. Everything I needed for the weekend squeezed into it – a tin plate, a fork-knife-and-spoon set, a bag of oatmeal, two tins of Heinz beans and two of macaroni and cheese, spare socks, and clean underwear. A chipped enamel mug hung from the strap that closed the pocket that held my John Bull puncture repair kit and all-in-one box-spanner. My ex-army, cape-groundsheet was buckled on top by two leather straps for easy access because the rain would pound us at least once every hour.
A school-friend’s father and mother had introduced five or six of us 12-year-olds to the Scottish Youth Hostel Association by generously inviting us on the 26-mile, each-way trip from Dundee to the stone Roundhouse in Glenisla. The Roundhouse had been built circular, we were told, because long ago, a sly tinker had once warned a Scottish gentleman that Auld Nick would catch him in a corner. In an attempt to outsmart the Devil, he had built himself a home without corners. Struck by the drama, we never thought to ask if the Roundhouse had worked as planned.
Soon, two school-friends and I graduated to longer trips with greater distances between the overnight stays in the hostels. Expert, we became, at planning, budgeting, packing and navigating from one simple hostel to the next. We also became expert at battling against headwinds, pushing our bikes up steep mountain braes, surviving on sugared tea, oatmeal, bread and treacle, and mastering the chores all hostellers had to perform before the warden would return your membership card and release you to pursue the next stage of your adventure.
One day, when pedalling into a drizzly head-wind in Caithness, we stopped to watch a stonemason at work in a bleak quarry. He had levered great slabs of rock from the quarry wall with an iron bar many times longer than he was tall.
We watched him examine a grey-green slab for long minutes as if judging a well-finished cattle-beast at a Highland Show. He’d walk around it, hand on chin, bright eyes searching. He’d ponder it from all angles, even getting down on his hands and knees to examine its underbelly. Determining its gender, perhaps?
Then he approached the board where the tools of his trade were laid out like cards ready for a game of patience – bull-set, point, mash, rock-pick, round hand hammer, stone-buster, cold-chisel. He selected two. The perfect combination of hammer and chisel for this job. He placed his cold-chisel just so and tapped it lightly with his stone-buster. A sheet an inch thick and twice the size of my bicycle separated itself from the mother rock, slipping off it like a domino from its stack. It lay there at a gentle angle. He lifted the grey-green sheet and gently laid it on its other side. We marvelled.
“Would you pe looking at that now! Two faces that none but us haff effer seen before this fery moment!”
He’s looking lovingly at the revelation his skill had revealed. He’s tracing his hand over the patterns left by the bones and shells of ancient creatures as if they offered the power to heal. Then he repeats his performance. Again and again. Unhurried, lovingly, with reverence -- bringing the distant past alive before our young eyes.
“How do you do that?” I ventured.
“Once a man understants a rock…” He paused, caressing the thought, looking into infinity. “Once a man understants a rock, all he must too is tap her chently and she will open for him. She will open for him like the paches of your Bible!”
I looked at his eyes, heard the English words infused with his native Gaelic, and have never forgotten.