Set in Stone

Viking graves made of stone

I’ve always loved rocks – even before I could say the word properly. When I was just over a year old, my Morfar visited from Sweden. There’s a picture of us – a man in a dark overcoat and a poof of white hair, and me, a rosy-cheeked toddler in white tights and a powder blue coat with matching bonnet – examining the “‘ocks” in our garden.

Beginning during his boyhood, which would have been during the 1910s, Morfar worked at a granite quarry in his hometown of Hunnebostrand in Bohulsän. As he grew up, Morfar learned how to fashion the hard stone into the building blocks of Europe’s town squares, buildings and monuments.


But Bohuslän granite is not only a resource to be harvested for human purposes. It is the very structure of the natural landscape, and the seascape, of that coastal province. The glittering Bohuslän archipelago is a vast scattering of granite left behind long ago by the ice-giants we call glaciers. About 8,000 isles and skerries rise from the sea in varying shades of rose and gray. They are flecked and veined with mica and quartz; splotched with lichen colonies of rust, chartreuse and turmeric. From their cracks and crevices grow grasses in green and gold, wind-trembled wildflowers and waves of purple heather.

No matter how cold and dismal the weather, summer outings to the islands will necessarily – if only for form’s sake – involve a swim. You might also go for a quick jaunt in a rowboat, or do some fishing. Saft, kaffe and kanelbullar are naturally a must. But whatever else you do, expect to spend plenty of time leaping from rock to rock with your friends, siblings and cousins, racing over the rocky outcroppings. Watch out for the sunbathers! They are nestled into the stone’s natural concavities, or lying flat and exposed to the heavens, soaking in the sun’s fleeting warmth.

This enormous cairn is one of 2 or 3 at Vallda Sandö on the Swedish west coast.

I wonder if the ancient inhabitants of this place loved the rocks as much as we do? We know that – other than some variations in sea level – they saw the same rocky islands and coastline back in the Bronze and Iron Ages that we see today. I wonder whether they ever thought about us – the people who would walk on their rocky land generations after they were dead and gone?

Certainly they left many kinds of stone monuments. There are petroglyphs, cairns and other types of stone formations, including the famous stone ships. There are the towering, unmarked Viking gravestones at Li. In the past, some of these stones – their original purpose forgotten, or its urgency diminished – were taken to serve a second purpose: to form part of a wall, perhaps, or a hearthstone. But if those ancient people wanted to make a lasting mark on the landscape, and on us, their descendants, they picked the right medium. Their stone monuments will remain long into the future, standing right out in the open for us and our descendents to admire.

My Morfar loved stone too, and he knew it much more intimately than most. He knew how to score it, chisel it, cut it, polish it and fit it together. Even though he never had the chance to go to high school he could look at a giant slab of stone and figure out exactly how many pieces he could get from it, and he could cut it precisely, with perfect corners and edges all around.

Ironically, dust from the stone that Morfar loved – the stone that was his livelihood – settled in his lungs, making him too sick to work and ultimately hastening his death. Whenever I visit his hometown in Sweden I bring flowers to his grave. It is marked by a simple stone in the hard, sparkling red granite of his native Bohuslän.

1 Comment

  1. Tullan
    February 4, 2013 at 18:43 — Reply

    Beautiful. You should publish a collection of essays on Sweden.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Author



Yes, I'm wearing multiple jackets in the middle of July, but how can I complain when I'm digging into a smörgås or two? My name is Leslie and I'm not Swedish myself; rather, my mother is to thank for this condition of being not Swedish but not fully American either. Like so many of my "second generation" brothers and sisters I'm always searching for those elusive roots! My forthcoming novel, The Bear Wife, is inspired by that search, as is my writing for Swedish Freak. Trevligt att träffas!