I know of no greater salve for the troubled soul than the hunting of the groatie buckie. It’s an endeavour that draws the mind away from the source of its troubles and a successful search can leave the hunter with a tremendous sense of achievement. Objectively speaking the process is utterly pointless and totally without consequence, but I truly believe that the finding of the buckie can also help us find some hidden truths about ourselves and the world around us.
Today’s haul was a good one. Seventeen in all. Sometimes I’ll come away from a 50-yard beach with only one or two, so 17 is a good result.
Groatie buckie is the name given in the north of Scotland to the pale, oval shells of two species of snail-like mollusc, the spotted or European cowrie which has three brown spots along its ridge, and the Arctic cowrie which has no spots. In both species, the roof of the shell is domed and silky and it has the most delicate lines etched into its surface, fine as a fingerprint, draped from side to side over its back. Underneath it has a gently curved split running from one end to the other which, in the absence of the tiny blob of a creature that once inhabited it, rewards the searcher with a gummy smile when it’s found. And it is tiny. Never is the groatie buckie any bigger than half an inch long, so we aren’t going to see it without some focused effort.
I have no practical use for the groatie buckie, but that hasn’t stopped me spending many days stalking them along a storm-washed shore like some kind of grotesque heron – hands clasped wing-like behind my back, bent forward for a better view of the ground, treading slowly and deliberately in a zig-zag search pattern. All it takes to turn the game into an obsession is the finding of the first buckie. After that, I’m addicted and off in pursuit of the next one.
Finding the groatie buckie is a learned skill and I’ve taught myself how to unearth them on my own beach. To start with, there are environmental elements that can make them easier to spot. If there has been a storm within the last few days, that will bring the shells ashore. The tide has to be fairly well out because on a stony shore they never seem to make it up to the high water mark. And if the pebbles on the beach have been wetted dark by the outgoing tide or rain, that also makes the pale and contrasting buckies easier to see.
Luckily here in Shetland we have plenty of wet days after a storm… and there’s lesson one. A wet day after a storm is frankly a disappointing thing to wake up to, but I’ve found that when it helps me find treasure, my attitude towards it changes significantly.
The next thing to do is find out which part of the beach you’re most likely to find the noble prize. I know my beach pretty well. I know that if I stand at a point on the shore that’s in line with the tip of the distant headland and small rocky islet in the bay, this is the most likely area in which to find success. It isn’t always the case, depending I assume on the direction the waves come from onto the shore, but more often than not, this is where I will start.
Regular beachcombers know that pebbles are sifted and sorted to size by the waves and tides. On my beach they never seem to wash up to the high tide mark, nor into the coarse sand or gravel areas. They never seem to be among pebbles of a similar size to themselves either. Here I always find them among stones about two inches across where they always look so vulnerable to being ground to grit. Maybe there’s something about the shape that makes their structure inherently strong because if you do manage to find a broken one, the shell appears to be paper-thin and brittle.
My search strategy varies with the conditions, but if it’s my own sloping beach I start at the high-tide line where the tangle of kelp and wrack has been washed up with bits of driftwood and old floats. I’ll then pace slowly down to the sea, swinging my head from side to side, scanning a strip of ground about four yards wide. If I find a buckie I make a note of how far down the beach it is and that gives me a fair idea of where I’m likely find more. Then it’s a case of walking slowly along the fruitful strata, parallel to the waves, surveying as broad a strip as my eyesight allows.
It’s surprising how quickly a searcher can “get their eye in” and start spotting groatie buckies fairly easily. I’ve taken beginners out on buckie-hunts and once they’ve seen their first shell, there’s no stopping them. There’s something eye-catching about the flesh-tones of the upper shell, its symmetrical shape, its clean shining dome. If it’s upside down it’s very easy to spot, smiling a cheery white smile from among the dark, wet stones. They’re almost pleading to be picked up and loved.
A second important lesson I’ve learned is how easy it is to build my own traditions and superstitions with absolutely no evidence to back them up. For instance I have convinced myself that if I should take out the buckies I’ve collected so far and count them while still on the beach, I will find no more that day. I have also decided that if I rake around in the pebbles to look for buried cowries, I will equally find no more. Granted, the latter is probably just the invention of a “reason” for not drawing out the already protracted process even further, but it’s fascinating to me that even though I know I’m doing it, I’m actually inventing some supernatural rites and observances with the aim of garnering a bumper crop. I’m starting to understand how some of the weirder rural traditions of Britain could get started.
The process of finding and gathering in the groatie buckie is utterly absorbing. I have on occasions spent an entire winter’s afternoon, waterproofed from cap to boot, hunched against the wind-blown drizzle, crunching my way through a slow and methodical search pattern. Other potentially meditative tasks like hiking, grass-cutting and double-digging can allow my mind to freewheel for a while, but that often allows it to roll downhill to the Mire of Stupid Things I’ve Done, and that is where the tangled vines of self-loathing grow. Hunting for groatie buckies, on the other hand, requires concentration as I try to pick out the familiar pattern, colour and texture of the little shells from the millions of pebbles that surround them. That focus becomes the imperative and there’s no room to let my thoughts wander off into the dark places.
Here’s a third lesson. I once discovered something important about myself while searching for cowrie shells. One day last winter I clambered down onto the beach by way of the gushing little burn that exits onto the stones at the westernmost end. Hunched against the driving shower of rain I crested the shoulder of the shingle and there, grinning at me from a nest of pebbles, was my first buckie of the day. That, of course, was me hooked and the search for more began. Part way down to the sea I found another, and then another. Three was a good number so I thought that was probably all I’d find on that day. Then I found a fourth and thought to myself that would definitely be it. Shortly afterwards, there was a fifth and beside it a sixth. That would certainly be it for the day.
Sixty-two groatie buckies later, when I got to the end of the beach, I realised that every time I’d found one I had been convinced that it would be the last of the day. This showed me one bad thing and one good thing about my nature. The bad thing was that the pessimist in me was the loudest voice. At every point in the search, even in the face of an increasing body of evidence to the contrary, I was always convinced that this was the point at which my luck would run out. The good thing I learned was that even in the face of such pessimism I still didn’t give up the search.
Traditionally, the groatie buckie is a good-luck charm. People in the north of Scotland used to gather them and turn them into lucky bracelets to sell to visiting tourists. But I would attest that it’s more of an holistic cure for melancholia. Like I say, today I found 17 groatie buckies. Bundled up in my warm winter waterproofs, I’d arrived on the beach, slapped by the wind and rain and with my mind writhing over pointless mistakes of the past and doubts about the future. After just half an hour of searching for these tiny shells my brain became calm and the cold wet-laden breeze on my face had become fresh and cleansing. When I was done, I stood for a while in peace, breathing the salt-laden air and watching the surf rumbling into the bay.
I took some rubbish off the beach as a way of repaying the favour it had done me, and I walked home with a smile to count my hoard over a relaxed coffee and biscuits beside the kitchen window. It just wouldn’t have been right to count them on the beach.