Discovery of over 20 mystery carvings at Caithness beach deemed a very significant find by Oxford academic who calls it a 'grand marine shrine'
Easier access to your trusted, local news. Subscribe to a digital package and support local news publishing.
A Wick man believes he has found over 20 unrecorded carvings on hard to access rocks at Sannick beach in what has been hailed as an "incredible discovery" of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda’s work.
Andrew Simpson was working on a photographic project around the northern coast of Caithness when he came across the neat, stylised script carved into the rocky shoreline at the Bay of Sannick near Duncansby Head. He knew there had been a discovery of finely sculpted Neruda poems at the site but these were unrecorded.
Mr Simpson said: "Three years ago I discovered a line carved on the east side of the bay and what I thought was a Greek word but I knew the poem was elsewhere so I didn't think any more of it. Recently, I thought I could include it for a 52-week project I'm doing on the Duncansby coastline duncansby.me
"The question now turns to who is doing the carvings as they have taken considerable time and effort to work in inaccessible spots?" He believes one particular rock holds a clue to the identity of the carver and could be their signature – with the Greek spelling of the name Stefanos engraved into the surface. After finding the signature, Mr Simpson went looking for more of the carvings related to Pablo Neruda who is regarded as one of Chile’s greatest poets and died less than two weeks after a military coup in his country in 1973.
Neruda’s XVII Sonnet, a love poem written in Spanish, is visible for around an hour a day, before the lapping sea buries it deep within Caithness waters. Edgar White came across the carvings while examining the Old Red Sandstone reefs at the west end of the remote beach in 2013 and thought the words may have been carved in 2004, the 100th anniversary of Neruda’s birth, when there was a celebration of the poet’s life in Edinburgh that year.
After discovering the signature, Mr Simpson looked for more carvings and said he found seven that were never recorded. "I've been back quite a few time since and am now over 20. Approximately seven are from 'Las piedras del cielo' or Skystones. There are also approximately five from '20 Poemas de amor y una canción desesperada' – 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair.” Not all the carvings are of the complete poems – a few are complete and most consist of a few lines.
He then contacted Dr Dominic Moran from Christ Church College at the University of Oxford who thinks the new finds are of "great interest and importance". "He has also said he believes it to be 'one of the most significant and unusual monuments to Neruda and his poetry anywhere'."
Dr Moran specialises in 20th century Spanish American literature having put together a critical edition of Neruda's 20 Love Poems and in 2009 publishing a short literary biography of the poet.
He said: "Stones have an emblematic quality in much of that poetry, often standing for origins, permanence and solidity in a number of different contexts, whether simply 'natural', philosophical or sociohistorical – stones play a key symbolic role in this latter respect in his great Latin American epic poem Canto general (1950), where Neruda is seeking some sort of bedrock on which to found/build his vision of the continent."
The Oxford academic thinks there is no more apt place for Neruda's poetry to be sculpted – "not just on a rock, but on a rock on the shore". He adds: "Andrew Simpson's incredible discovery of many more carvings – 23 and counting, all accompanied by lines of Neruda's poetry – reveal an undertaking of a quite different order, and suggest that the creator of this site, a sort of grand marine shrine to the poet, knew Neruda's poetry intimately and was well aware of just how appropriate an act of homage this is."
Dr Moran says the poetry comes from a variety of works, but most of the lines are taken from the late and little-studied collection Las piedras del cielo (1970) which is virtually unknown to general readers of Neruda's verse and is taken up largely with meditations on rocks and minerals, the sea, and the relationship between them over time. He thinks there is direct relationship between the chosen location at Sannick beach and the wild coastal stretch of southern Chile that Neruda wrote about.
"The quotations have clearly been carefully selected and invite us to ponder over the location itself, as well as the poetry. Is it a coincidence that the sculptor has chosen a comparable setting, about as far north as one can get in the British mainland?"
Dr Moran said identifying the sculptor would be a major coup though they may wish to remain anonymous and "just let the sea/rocks do the talking". He said he will be informing the Neruda Foundation in Chile about the find.
Mr Simpson is still collating all the details of the latest discoveries and is being assisted by Dr Moran who hopes to visit the site soon.
Andrew Simpson's photographic project can be seen online at: duncansby.me/