Flaking out over historic discoveries

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Wiping my hands on my waterproofs, I stretched gratefully before climbing out of the ditch.

An assortment of muddy zip-lock bags lays strewn along the bank. Each had been marked up with a grid reference, the better to record its contents.

Safe inside these bags clinked tiny stone flakes and blades – covered in a white patina and pale as bone.

In other places on Tiree, such flakes are a striking blood red. The finest ones shine like glass when wet, and are sharp enough to cut you even now. Larger pieces sport strange melanomas of purple-brown impurity, like fungus on a rose leaf.

Some fragments are the thick, cloying orange of earwax. So cold and so smooth that you can’t stop running your fingers across them in your pocket.

And that, really, is the question: whose thumb tested these edges before my own?

My fingers itch to throw back the dustsheet of Tiree’s machair – but I must content myself by finding the moth-holes. Places where this grassy coverlet is thin and frayed, affording just a peek through to our countrymen 5,000 years or more dead.

It took 12 months for me to ‘get my eye in’. Many frustrating afternoons were spent on Ben Hynish, splattering about shin-deep in liquid cow muck, cursing.

The first worked flint that I found came unexpectedly from Ruaig; spotted by chance during a guided walk. Laying my hand on it, feeling the still-bright edges and the skin-soft faces, time collapsed.

It was a thumb scraper – perhaps used to clean tissue from an animal hide. I looked out over the bay and saw it anew.

What I saw was opportunity, and with the tiny object nestled in my grubby palm, I realised that I wasn’t the first.

It’s an eccentric hobby. As I’ve become more adept at sniffing out flints, I have developed a patience and concentration that must baffle the casual observer.

Once I find a promising spot (a path, a burn, or some other area of erosion), I comb it painstakingly. Like searching for seashells or polished pebbles, losing yourself to the task is oddly relaxing.

Last winter, I badly startled a man and his small dog by crawling out of a thick haar on all fours. The pet was rapidly reeled in on its lead, and I’m convinced its owner thought I was going to eat it.

The cheerful explanation that I was searching for stone-age tools (of course!) didn’t seem to dispel his anxiety. He left quickly, tugging the dog along and glancing back over his shoulder.

That state of mind – blank and still like a glass of water – is fertile ground for the imagination. Hoovering up flakes from the base of a prominent outcrop, I can almost see the figure sitting on top; gazing out over Traigh Bhi, before turning back to their task.

The satisfying snick of the hammer stone, the scrunch of the antler pressure-flaker, the patter of debitage as it falls from the work area – all are almost audible. Just out of reach.

Turning some of the red flint in my fingers, I wonder if they thought its colour attractive, as I do.

Perhaps they liked coming to this place, as I do. Silently I commend them for choosing so pleasant a spot for their labour.

But 5,000 years separate the two of us, and I cannot hope to see their face. Instead, our hands must forever almost touch as I bend to pick up what was cast away.