Yet once the Cairngorms thronged with prospectors, seeking after crystals in the rocks which could – potentially at least – make them rich.
A new book by geologist and mineral collector Roy Starkey takes a fascinating look at the gems of the Cairngorms and the people who once searched them out.
‘Crystal Mountains: Minerals of the Cairngorms’ tells the whole story of Cairngorms crystals – smoky brown quartz – and the other gems, such as beryl and topaz, to be found in the range, from their formation, their nature, their attraction and excavation to their ultimate destination as part of sometimes incredibly tacky and tasteless ornament.
It opens with a history of the fascination with the crystals, from the 1700s through the Victorian heyday to the present day, including a look at the 1960s and ‘70s when even Glenmore Lodge was running crystal hunting courses!
A chapter on geology looks at the processes which went on during the formation of the Cairngorms which led to the existence of crystals, followed by a long, comprehensive and lavishly illustrated section on the minerals themselves – the different shapes, colours and composition of the various gems and crystals.
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter for me is that on ‘The Diggers’.
I’ve known since childhood that crystals could be found – even dug out some miniscule samples myself as a kid – and that in days gone by crystal hunters wandered the hills searching them out. And there’s a climbing route in the Loch Avon Basic named ‘Quartzdigger’s Cave Route’, after an artificial cave at its foot.
What I didn’t realise was the sheer scale and organisation of the operation. Starkey cites accounts from the early 1800s referring to an area on Ben Avon where 25 men laboured on an area covering about 20 acres, all trenched to ‘great depth’ with workings in search of Cairngorm crystals.
And, while the solitary searcher certainly existed, there still exists on the slopes of Ben Avon the remains of a stone-walled hut built by diggers. Far from a tiny howff, the walls, photographed in the book, show a structure nine metres by 4.5. Also photographed is an impressively large cave, five metres in length and penetrating right through a buttress high on Beinn a Bhuird. That I’d love to see – and it’s rekindled the notion that I really should go and take a look at the Loch Avon Basin cave.
Nor were all these hewers of rock anonymous figures lost in time. Some are named and anecdotes told. Among these, and making an interesting connection with the present, is James Grant, who lived at the farm of Rebhoan, now the well-used Ryvoan Bothy. About 1866, just 10 years before the farm was abandoned, he found a cache of crystals near the Feith Bhuidhe on Ben McDui, one of which was said to be over 22kg in weight and was sold to Queen Victoria for £50 – the equivalent now, says Starkey, of £3700!
The dealers, collectors and polishers are also covered and, while their story lacks the fascination of the diggers, it still throws up lots of interest and, by the final pages, you’re left with the feeling that there can be little or no aspect of the crystals not detailed here.
If the book has a fault it is in sometimes relying too much on lengthy quotations from old sources rather than giving the author’s own insight and perspective, but it’s a moot point – many will enjoy the archive content and, if there is a point of clarification to be made from modern knowledge, it is always made.
Where the book stands head and shoulders above any competitors – apart from its geographical focus and comprehensive nature within those bounds – is in its presentation. The large format is fully utilised to present the copious photographs to their best advantage, with their quality fully meriting the treatment. There are hill photos which made me want to put the book down and go up there, and photos of the gems – raw and polished both – which made me thirst: how good would it be to find even a wee wan?
In fact reading ‘Crystal Mountains’ did see me out there, scraping around in gravel newly excavated by the recent floods. Spent the best part of a mochy day, plagued by midges, digging away and forgetting the time like a bairn. Did I find anything? Well, no. But will I do it again? Oh, almost certainly; the photos are that good.
Crystal Mountains: Minerals of the Cairngorms, by Roy E Starkey, is available through http://britishmineralogy.com/ at £25 plus P&P