by Lesley Andrews

On a recent visit overseas, Richard and I travelled around the Scottish coast, including the Highlands and Islands. I found that nothing had changed weather-wise in the country of my birth – rain in the west, and wind in the east – but that new varieties of ornaments and jewellery are now available country-wide. The factors driving these changes are the increased number of potential buyers (tourist numbers have rocketed; on top of this there are now many on-line orders), and the increasing rarity of many of the traditional Scottish gemstones.

Carved or polished rocks are now popular with buyers, as they are cheaper than gemstones or crystals. Chunkier jewellery is the fashion, as are stones carved and set in Celtic or traditional mountings. The most popular stones in the Highlands are granites, marbles and gneiss (pronounced “nice”). Agates and jasper are still available further south, and these are also popular, although the more colourful agates are increasingly hard to find.

This article describes the increase in popular demand for gneiss. Gneiss pebbles were always a great find on the beach – I still have some that I picked up as a child.


Gneiss beach pebbles

Gneiss slab containing quartz, feldspar, quartz, epidote and ferromags

Gneiss is a banded or folded metamorphic rock. The material used in most of the creations described here is Lewisian gneiss from the Outer Hebrides - these are the oldest rocks in Scotland, and their mineralogy is complex. White and pink bands are granitic and consist of quartz and feldspar, darker bands are schistose and contain mica, pyroxene and amphibole. Pockets of marble are included in some areas, and veins of green epidote add to the colourful appearance of the rock. The type locality is the Isle of Lewis where the beauty of these rocks has been appreciated for years. The Calanish stone circle was built from carefully-selected gneiss pieces during the Stone Age.

Geological map of the Highlands. The pink areas in the northwest are mainly gneiss

Gneiss outcrop in Harris. Note the folding and banding 

The use of smaller gneiss pieces in jewellery has crept in to the shops over the years, but the real gneiss success story started in the Isle of Harris, an area of rocky outcrop, lochs and peat bogs, scattered with hardy blackface sheep.

At first chunky pendants were introduced to wear with the world-famous Harris Tweed, the main product of the island. This rough woollen fabric is hand-woven in traditional designs from coarse wool produced from local sheep. The gneiss is “sculpted, drilled and polished” as a croft industry and was started by just one couple. Products now include the pendants with simulated leather thongs, key rings with copper bands, earrings set in sterling silver and even light pulls on natural twine! These are now available in shops all over Scotland, and in all the tourist information outlets.

Gneiss pendants against a backdrop of Harris Tweed


View of an area in South Harris

The venture is doubly successful because there is so much material available – not just the Isle of Harris, but virtually the entire Outer Hebrides, consist of gneiss. This allows selection of colours and textures for the production of customised jewellery.

Some idea of the history and the variety of gneiss products from Harris can be found at the “Gneiss Things” website

Photographs taken by Lesley Andrews.

Map provided by the Trustees of National Museums Scotland.