Alison StewartThe mystery of the white rocks

Was there a Victorian or Edwardian fashion for making garden features from large lumps of white quartz? We have several examples in our garden in Argyll in the west of Scotland. I’m guessing the rocks were found locally rather than being brought in; websites on the local geology confirm that quartz-rich rocks, and metamorphic quartzite, are commonly found in this area. So maybe I should be celebrating the use of this natural material.

I suppose these ones might be useful as they mark the side of the drive and are visible in the dark

I suppose these ones might be useful as they mark the side of the drive and are visible in the dark

The problem is, I hate it. I remember a few years ago reading an article by one of the gardening gurus who bemoaned the use of white garden furniture, whether plastic or painted wrought iron. Its stark whiteness, he thought, was too much at odds with the greens, browns and greys that make up the backbone colour palette of most gardens.

The corner of the garden at the top of the drive - really in your face

The corner of the garden at the top of the drive – really in your face

I agree with him, and I think the same reasoning applies to the white rocks. They are just too dominant: the shiny white leaps forward towards the eye, eclipsing the softer colours of the planting around it. And the rough, angular shapes when used for walling are far too “rustic” for my taste. They remind me of gardens I’ve seen featuring artificial grottoes – also hideous in my view. In fact we even have a garden feature that looks as if it might belong in a fake grotto: a ghastly concrete wall topped with – you guessed it – a row of white rocks, and adorned with a curious sculptured head, perhaps supposed to be either Bacchus or a satyr. Oh dear.

White rocks used as capping for delightful concrete wall and very weird sculpture head (Bacchus maybe)

White rocks used as capping for delightful concrete wall and very weird sculpture head (Bacchus maybe)

Unidentified relations with white rocks

Unidentified relations with white rocks

My sister (who is also not enamoured of the white rocks) sent me some old photos – probably dating from about 1910 – of our grandfather and various unidentified friends or relations against a background of some very similar rocks. The photos were taken in Scotland but Grandad came from Edinburgh, not the west coast. Perhaps the white rocks were considered a “romantic” backdrop for photographs or were just a common feature of Scottish gardens at the time.

Grandad and friend with white rocks

Grandad and friend with white rocks




In a fit of madness I decided to get rid of as many of the offending rocks as possible so I started digging them out of various bits of wall around the garden. I pulled out dozens of them and dumped them in the old ruin at the back of the garden (the repository for all things I don’t know how to dispose of!) but that was only possible for the smaller ones, by which I mean up to about 25 kg.

The stone steps would look great without the rocks

The stone steps would look great without the rocks

Some of the larger ones turned out to be mortared in, so unless I attack them with a sledgehammer I guess I’m stuck with them. And even when the larger ones were loose I couldn’t lift them so I had to just roll them to the sides of the paths, where they are still sitting weeks later, reproaching me for hating them so much.

These are the ones I couldn't lift. Looks like they are there for the foreseeable future.

These are the ones I couldn’t lift. Looks like they are there for the foreseeable future.


As my husband doesn’t agree that they are horrible, they are likely to lie there until I can persuade Jim D, who helps in the garden, to do something with them. However, as he informs me that he is now 79, perhaps his days of hefting large rocks are over.






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9 thoughts on “The mystery of the white rocks

  1. Bwahahaha, a wickedly entertaining post!

    The disease here in Australia manifests as Shark Tooth Syndrome. Not only are the white rocks laid in lines edging the beds, but it’s as if whoever puts them there wants maximum bang for the buck so the rocks are placed as upright as possible, with the flat planes aligned vertically rather than the more natural horizontal aspect. When the rocks are angular instead of weathered, it’s like walking past the gaping jaws of the star of Jaws II!

    There is another syndrome, where rocks are dotted randomly atop the soil, especially on top of mounds, like raisins in a muffin or smarties on top of a cupcake. Not my (ahem) cup of tea either!

    Burt then, my use of rocks in walls is also very far from perfect (perhaps, “Vernacular” syndrome?).

    PS. That Bacchus or satyr face, in combination with the rocks, is seriously disturbing!

    • Helen, my white rocks and the shark tooth ones you describe in NO WAY resemble your “vernacular” walls, which are beautiful and subtle. My good news is that I think I have found a use for at least a few of the discarded rocks. The Council is busy trying to shore up the road between the house and the shore (sorry, two different “shores” there but you’ll know what I mean). In the process, their large vehicles have carved an enormous bite out of the sloping verge outside our gate. Once it has been reinstated (how many whingeing phone calls to the Council will that take?), a row of white rocks along the edge will be a very effective “Do not park or turn your vehicle here” sign.
      As for Bacchus face: maybe, in the spirit of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” we should hold some Saturnalian revels!

  2. Quite a challenge – and I so agree about white. I remember how relieved I felt when I discovered that Wordsworth hated the habit of painting cottages with whitewash in the Lake District, since I hate that white house habit locally and thought I was on my own. These days the cottages have grown into large houses, so the glaring ‘look at me’ in the landscape is worsened.

    Are you trying to work against the rocks you dig up and actually garden on? Or are they imported? If they are your natural rocks you must have a challenge for life to try to disguise/lose them? They clearly don’t moss up either..

    Worse: how do you cope with having such a different aesthetic sensibility to your husband??


  3. This is a very old custom, on Anglesey quartz lumps are used as grave markers in early christian cemetaries, as well as in Victorian gardens. They are visible, do not deteriorate, decorative and have the odd witchy connotations, what’s not to like!

  4. I think they look perfect for finding your way about on a moonlit night. And nothing else. The problem is not just that they’re white but so misshapen – there’s no way you can tessellate them or even butt them up against each other to form a continuous line or edging. Every single one stands proudly apart and says ‘look at me!’ Blob, blob, blob. Have you asked Bernhard Feistel? He so good at finding artistic ways of using garden bits and pieces – perhaps he can weave some sort of stone cairn magic on them…..

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