Following the success of The Crying of the wind: Ireland, Colquhoun proposed to her publisher a follow-up book on the Azores. Owen was not opposed to this but funding could not be obtained and she agreed to set her sights closer to home: a book on Cornwall.
In Ireland Colquhoun was a tourist. In Cornwall she was at home. The Living Stones: Cornwall is the most personal of her books. It is about the land and landscape of Cornwall. It is about the effects of mankind upon the landscape. Above all, it is about Colquhoun’s personal responses to the land, which begin with the rocks themselves:
“The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic
substratum for this sets up a chain reaction which
passes, determining their character, in turn through
its streams and wells, its vegetation and the animal
life that feeds on this, and finally through the type of
human attracted to live there. In a profound sense
also the structure of its rocks gives rise to the
psychic life of the land: granite, serpentine, slate,
sandstone,limestone, chalk and the rest each have
their special personality dependant on the age in
which they were laid down, each being co-existent
with a special phase of the earth-spirit’s
manifestation” (p. 46)
Part of the book deals with her search for a studio and living space away from the speed and noise of city life in London. This she eventually found in a tiny tin-roofed hut in the Lamorna Valley, near Mousehole, in West Penwith. A home is a shelter but also a representation of our priorities and attitudes. She was prepared to put up with (or even welcome) considerable privations. Even for post-war England it lacked basic amenities: no electricity, no permanent sewage system and water had to be collected in a bucket from a nearby stream. What it did have was rural remoteness, proximity to nature and silence. It had unlimited opportunities for uninterrupted work, for long walks to visit the moorland antiquities, and for absorbing the local folklore.
Geographically and culturally, Cornwall has always been a place on the margin. In West Penwith Colquhoun could not have located herself at a place more in tune with its Celtic and early Christian past. Rich in megalithic remains and ancient holy places, it has the greatest concentration of antiquities to the acre of anywhere in the British Isles. It is a palimpsest of landscapes: in a complex layering of materialities and spiritualities, vestiges of a recent industrial past lie amid places of ancient religious significance.
West Penwith, the westernmost peninsula of mainland Britain, is virtually an island, surrounded by sea on three sides and the Hayle estuary on the fourth. It is one of the few places in Britain where, at certain times of the year, the sun both rises and sets over the sea: a watery birth, death and resurrection.
Much of the coastline is made of granite outcrops which rise directly out of the sea; an elemental clash between the hardness of the rock and the power of the water, resulting in a dramatic coast with high cliffs and weathered stacks. On the hills, rock-strewn ridges are crowned by tors and cut by streams.
In prehistoric times each feature of the landscape would have had its own meaning and supernatural associations. The hills, tors, solution basins, rocking stones and other distinctive features would have possessed their own ancestral links, with certain of them, such as caves and wells, being regarded as places where the quotidian world and the Other world met. These associations live on in myth, place name and folklore. Once regarded as self-evidently true by the local population and early antiquarians, these ideas were later dismissed by the archeological orthodoxy, but are, once again, being taken seriously. (1) To an artist attuned to the atmosphere, such attributions could never be in doubt.
Drawn to places she perceived as significant and sacred, she constantly displays a profound kinship with nature, and reverence for the life-force. She did not recognise the modern distinction between nature and culture and blurred the boundary between the animate and the inanimate. Throughout the book she dwells on what she calls ‘the animist’s trinity’ of rocks, wells and trees. Her animism is laid bare in the sketches and vignettes that illustrate the volume. Colquhoun finds human and animal forms in the rocks and vegetation: the fork of a tree is, at the same time, a torso with twisting limbs; a phallic menhir penetrates the mossy turf; fungi and granite boulders possess rounded female forms; the sea-stack at Porthgwarra is a phallic axis mundi, joining the sea below with the sky above.
Colquhoun’s world is one beyond contradictions. It is, at the same time, animate and inanimate, solid yet yielding. It is a place where the wind cries and the stones live.
1. Tilley, C. and Bennett, W. 2001. An Archaeology of Supernatural Places: the Case of West Penwith. J. Roy. Anthropological Institute (NS). 7: 335-362.
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