Collections and connections: the social life of shells


My fingers sifted through the shells, moving delicate yellow whelks, mussels, and limpets, homes to inhabitants long gone, surrounded by the thick gritty sand that with time and erosion, they too would become. There was a shrill cry as an oystercatcher, closely followed by its mate, took to the air, flapping and circling clumsily before returning to land. I could feel my heart beating, my chest tightening, as my search became more frantic. A lot was changing in my life and I was worried about what the next day would bring.  I needed to find a lucky Groatie Buckie.  This was the place to find them, yet there were none.

I cried, listening to the waves and watching small birds darting in and out of the surf, feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Taking a breath I restarted the search, slower this time, my eyes tracing the line of the rocks, the ripples in sand formed by the retreating tide. Searching for groatie buckies involves a different way of looking, taking the beach as a tapestry, feeling and sensing shape and colour until you see it, the ridged curve of pale pink back, a glimpse of white teeth, a tiny, perfect miracle.

I held it for a moment before placing it carefully in my pocket. The beach, as it always did, had taught me to be calm.

For tens of thousands of years, across the world cowrie shells have been used as currency, for ritual, fertility or luck.  In  northern Scotland they are called Groatie Buckies.  Buckie is a name given to any member of whelk family and Groatie is thought to refer to groat, a type of coin. We have two types, European and Arctic cowrie. They are a rare find, only appearing in certain beaches, their tiny forms often hidden in crevices between rocks. For as long as I can remember I have searched for these shells, each one bringing joy as it joins my collection.

In September, Shetland was battered by days of storms. The sea became a living, mass of energy, steel grey and froth frenzied. Waves reared high, revealing turquoise underbelly, before crashing onto the rocks. Salt spray, whipped from the wave crests, filled the air with a salt laden glaze.  I stood, feeling the wind, listening to it’s stories of impending winter.  Normally I feel energised by this weather, but this winter, so filled with uncertainty, felt different, daunting.

As the winds eased, I walked along the beach, when I suddenly saw a groatie buckie, tiny, delicate, washed in on the storm. Reaching down to pick it up I saw another, and another. That day I found twelve, more than I have ever found in one day. I felt an instant rush of joy, a reminder of the world’s beauty and a sense of hope. The next morning I tweeted:

‘Storms hearalding the start of winter have arrived bringing with them groatie buckies. Considered lucky, I do believe these tiny shells carry some magic from the sea. This winter feels long and daunting so if anybody wants a lucky shell from Shetland I will post one to you’

The response was incredible, and I have now posted over a hundred and fifty shells. From all over the world people got in contact. Some shared pictures of groatie buckies they had found over the years, telling me about the places they found them, who they were with and what these shells meant to them.  Requests for shells came with stories, hopes for future fertility, a lucky charm for a friend undergoing chemotherapy, replacing a cherished shell that was lost, a talisman for a new chapter in life, a gift for a child who loves nature, a reminder of somebody that has died, a small piece of beauty to help feelings of desperation during a difficult time. As I wrapped them, the shells seemed so small, inadequate for these huge purposes. But as people received them, notes of thanks were filled with stories of the hope and joy that this tiny gift brought.  It is so often the small things, a moment or word of kindness from friend or stranger that can bring hope, and that can, even for a moment, change our experiences of the world. In these times, in such a heightened period of uncertainty, kindness is more important than ever. It is something we can all give.

Shells have been important to people before the humans we know today existed. Half a million years ago homo erectus etched patterns onto shells in the earliest known art of this kind. Across the world shells have been found in ancient graves, used as currency and are a common participant in ritual, story and art. Is there some quality to shells themselves, their beauty, symmetry and perfection, that has drawn people to them, across generations, across continents? Or is it the powerful stories we tell, of shells carrying luck and fortune, that travel with us? Perhaps it is not an either or, the social and biological entangled in a continual flow between us and the world through the experience of life. There is no doubt shells carry magic and meaning, they were once part of a living creature, made from the sea, alive as part of a vast ocean. Taken into our homes they become part of our stories, experiences, memories and hopes. Shells may become many things as they join us on our journeys.

I sit with my son, our fingers tracing lines on a map, the journeys these shells will take. ‘bye bye, have a happy journey’ he says to the envelopes, the same words as he used when our tadpoles grew up and it was time to release them.  Cornovirus has paused much of normal life. Things that would brighten a dark northern winter, parties, seeing family, visiting friends, will not be possible this year. But then, through the post, small packets start to arrive, gifts from folk who received groatie buckies. Shells, stones, fossils, postcards, photographs and letters telling of places around the world.  Together we start a scrap book, a collection, curating and recording, telling stories, learning about people and places. I hope that when my son remembers coronavirus, his memories are of these treasures, connections of kindness, with people and places, near and far.

6 thoughts on “Collections and connections: the social life of shells

  1. How lovely- perfectly described.
    I remember your first post (I sent you the photo of the live cowrie).
    What a wonderful way for you & your son to be able to (one day) look back on this strange & trying time. I will think of you & your cowrie searching when I am next doing the same.


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