The earth is the third rock from the sun. Ireland and Scotland combined are 84 percent of that chunk. Visiting these grand lands confirms that notion. There are so many rocks in these Gaelic territories that everything is made from them. Walls, roads, buildings, more walls, homes, roofs, castles -- did I mention walls? -- abbeys and monasteries all are rock solid.
The Stone Age started there and continues to this day. They have stoneware, and weight is measured in stones. When they die, they are pronounced “stone cold dead.” They are buried in stone sarcophaguses under a headstone in a churchyard surrounded by stone walls protecting the stone church.
The rocks, stones, boulders and tiny pebbles are thanks to the last Ice Age. Glaciers covered much of the northern hemisphere and all these isles. These frozen masses shoved and crunched the mountains into the countless fragments. Upon global warming, these ice monsters retreated. In the process, they discarded the collected debris like an army in a rout casts aside its weapons.
This rugged ecosystem molds the spirit and the language of the people.
In Ireland and Scotland, they say that when they plant crops, they harvest rocks. Now they raise sheep. Landowners mark their territories with stone walls. The stone boundaries cover the countryside like edges of a giant patchwork quilt. To make it so, the peasants had to uncover, dislodge, lift and then haul stones over hill and dale. Somehow they assembled the 3-D jigsaw barrier, at times taller than the stonemason.
Christianity prompted the construction of great stone monasteries and abbeys. Sequestered in their boulder bunkers, Irish monks with their intricate manuscripts preserved the world’s knowledge, thereby being credited with saving civilization.
We see evidence of that salvation everyday in our language. For example, they include the Gaelic war chant turned into a modern sports cheer: “We will, we will rock you.” The term rock ‘n’ roll started as Irish kids pushing boulders down a hill. Before man went to the moon, the saying to encourage confidence was “This is not rock science.” Only after Sputnik did missile engineering overtake geology.
Rocks are so important to the Scots that one in particular is called the Stone of Destiny.
To illustrate the influence on their rocky kingdom, the ancient Scots would anoint their king as he sat on the foot-cushion-sized boulder called the Stone of Destiny. It was the king of Scotland’s first throne. In 1296, the victorious Edward I of England, poetically called the Hammer of the Scots, looted the Stone, transported it to London and placed it under his own throne in Westminster Abby. It has been part of the coronation of every English king and queen since that time.
As a token of reconciliation, in 1996 the Stone was returned to Edinburgh Castle for public display along with the Honours of Scotland: the crown, the sword of state and the scepter of authority. However, there is a clause that the Stone of Destiny will be borrowed back for the next royalty investiture.
In visiting both Ireland and Scotland, one can see a huge part of American history. Irish emigration saved a million while another million died from 1844 to 1849 due to the ravages of a potato fungus. Today the shells of small rock “famine cottages” are decaying reminders of the disaster.
Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell and Andrew Carnegie became American heroes. These people, toughened on their natural sharpening stone, carried a spirit of never giving up. In the words of Scotsman John Paul Jones, “I have not yet begun to fight.”
He meant to say, “Rock on.”
(Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children’s Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)