The (Hoy) Sound

Along the West Shore, there is a rich tapestry of stories from times past. From those of lazy childhood Sunday afternoons at the Tender Tables, to ghost stories of Mary Boyd’s Cave with murder and bloodshed on the beach, wartime stories from the Ness Battery, the coming of Martians (George Mackay Brown), or stories told by naturalists from near and far who scrambled along the shore looking for shells, fossils, wildlife, and hidden secrets. Some stories are traumatic, others heroic, some imaginary, some undeniably true, they are found in libraries, lost museum cupboards, hereditary possessions collecting dust in bookshelves, and the imaginations of generations. All the time the rocks lie along the shore, witness to all. From yesterday to half a billion years ago, these rocks have heeded the forces of nature, time, and perhaps most brutally of humans. But what stories do the rocks tell? Arguably some of the longest, most inconceivable, and revealing of all; hiding, locked into cold stone, an unspeakable voice. But what if these rocks could talk? What would they say?

New technologies open our imaginations to the worlds of the impossible. As new scientific and technological discoveries are made, it gives us eyes and ears where we could never have imagined, we start to see the world in ever new ways. From the uncompresionable ideas of black holes and Higg’s Bosons dominate our everyday langauge, yet were only recently discovered. Sonification is a new technology for the use of non-speech audio to convey information. Auditory perception enables us to make more of a underutilised sense, to listen to new data and open possibilities as an alternative or complement to visualization techniques. Like visualizations that use elements such as lines, shapes, and colours, sonification relies on sound properties such as volume, pitch, and rhythm. Once the data is translated and sometimes transposed into sound, it requires decoding by the analyst. Like learning a new language, the brain quickly identifies the temporal patterns, but for those with impaired vision it opens a whole new world they can master and bring vast discernment. By bringing a new way to comprehend and understand vast and complex data sets, sonification also offers an aesthetic value that makes it such a beautiful yet powerful technique. Using these new technologies, the West Shore rocks can finally have a voice, but they need a medium.

The local geologist has clambered the rocks along the shore for decades, spending many a sun-bathed, windy, or wet afternoon closely reading the rocks. Searching for their secrets, John Flett Brown meticulously charts each thin lamination, each a delicate story ranging from the second of a rain drop on mud, to the death and decaying of fish as they played their role in the evolutionary cycle, to 100,000 years of climatic cycles that shape the landscape. Painstakingly there are no concrete answers, only the detective work of the geologist can bring the evidence and current understandings together to decipher the past. In doing so, John has left a legacy of knowledge, that gives the rocks their voice. A symphony of three movements presents their stories to you below, with an accompanying description of where the data and sounds come from. Although often eerie, the sounds of the rocks generate an easy yet surprising resonance. Telling the stories of patterns, cyclicality, yet unpredictability challenge our notions of storytelling. The stories are there, just waiting for us to listen, to understand, to remember.


A textural traverse across basement granite from Stromness. The rock is turned into numerical data to indicate the textural roughness of its surface. The lack of temporal information means that this is purely a textural exploration with bass instrumentation to indicate its deep origin, unknown dates and aspects of this rock unit.

rock sample

Granite from the Stromness Museum. Photo by Carina Fearnley




A drillhole log in the north sea near Orkney uses Gamma rays to establish peaks that correlate with uranium-rich, fine- grained deposits during periods of lake expansion. High pitch notes correlate with higher sea level. You can hear the fine clarity of high and low points in the Milankovitch cycles over a total geological time of 1-2 million years.

Gamma ray graph




Millennial-scale cyclicity of the Sandwick Fish Bed using variations in clay content of the rocks. Low notes are dark pixels with high clay content that represent marine incursions or sea level rise (opposite to previous track). The synth instrumentation helps convey a sense of large volumes of water shifting on extensive timescales. Sharp notes are naturalized, leaving a smoother, perhaps more watery, finish. The pieces encompasses a geological time duration of 10 million years as the data passes from the bottom to the top of the stratigraphic column below.


The Sandwick Fish Bed drawn by John F Brown, Jan den Blaauven, and Mike Newmand, June 2003 (see more on:


Thanks to:

Tim Ivanic, James Cave, and the team at Eonsounds Project for the sonification process. See more at:

John Flett Brown for his invaluable information, dedication and work to Orcadian geological understanding, and also for supporting our project.



Kelly, S. B. (1992). Milankovitch cyclicity recorded from Devonian non‐marine sediments. Terra Nova, 4(5), 578-584.