Time back, way back, on the Atlantic coast of the Isle of Lewis a raiding party was wrecked in a storm. Much gear could be retrieved by the villagers of Uig Bay and in a shoreline pool there floated the body of a woman who could surely only have been a princess. Her dress was a wonder of weaving and about her neck was a leather wallet which contained a ring with a red stone in it, a silver key, and a small pebble pierced by a round hole. Seemingly useless this later proved to be a Seeing Stone through which a person so-gifted might descry all manner of things from local events or weather warnings to threats or prophecies of future calamity and death.
Such stones are the matter of folklore but for all the plural of its title this rendition of their magic is confined to the fates of those who had to do with the stone of the drowned Princess Gradhag. It is a much-travelled object originating perhaps in Norway and then finding its way with its companionate objects around the waters of the North from Norway to Shetland and Orkney and then to the sea and lochs around the Western Highlands. Nor is it attached to any family, although kings and chieftains are the movers and shakers of their times and may thus particularly heed its significance, but it moves too among common folk, women seers, even a selkie, but especially as an instrument in the hands of Kenneth Odhar, the Brahan Seer, whose prophecies and fate are one of the book’s themes.
Themes indeed are Neil Rackham’s business rather than making a consistent story about the Stone. His seventeen chapters weave about among rumours and tales (knots and the fluidity of time are also a theme) and there is no sort of orderly chronology, characters having different histories in different stories. But the genius of the book lies in its respect for the nature of folklore where authenticity belongs to whoever is telling the story.
The knotted narratives are hardly fare for child readers and their sequencing owes everything to the shaping hand of Rackham who gives sources from which he has selected the tellings of the Stone. But (for all that he is an American and an author of books about global business practice) his writing chimes with an oral culture that is for everyone and, in an unusual device, he follows the theme of each chapter with a distinctive interlude, printed on pale blue tinted paper, where he takes the reader into other stories, anecdotes, and superstitions on such matters as Knots, and Selkies, and the Blue Men of the Minch. This and the rock-strewn decorations of Alistair Wiseman, make for an hypnotic tour around one of the Seas of Story.