Never mind the Groatie-Buckies, have you found a Molucca Bean?

Our latest family outings have been in search of the elusive “Molucca Bean”, a drift seed which falls from vines in the West Indies and is carried by the Gulf Stream to our shores. The journey takes them at least 15 months. The sea bean is more sought after and more elusive even than the Groatie Buckie.

Disguised as a smooth, brown, vaguely heart-shaped stone, it is only when you lift them up and feel how light they are that you know they are not a beach pebble.

There are several kinds of them, and in folk terminology there seems to be a bit of confusion over whether it’s a “nut” or a “bean”. They are known by various names, one being “Molocca” or “Molucco” or “Molucca” beans, presumably because someone thought they had come from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia.

I was first introduced to them by my husband, Christopher, who has a great interest in all things antiquarian. He showed me a beautiful drawing of Molucca beans in the book “Description of the Isles of Orkney” written by the Kirkwall minister James Wallace in 1693. Wallace describes them as “these pretty Nutts, of which they use to make Snuff Boxes” and that there are four sorts of them. They would have been good as snuff boxes because they were watertight containers, which were easy to hollow out and polish up nicely. In the Stromness Museum, a real Molucca Bean from the Victorian collection is displayed next to Wallace’s book, open to show the illustration. 

This week, Molucca Beans have been in the spotlight again, since Martin Gray of Orkney Beachcombing announced that he had found one at the Bay of Skaill, and posted photos on Facebook. He also held a fascinating talk about the diverse things which have been washed up over the years, from bullet cartridges to ambergris. Suddenly, it felt urgent that we should find a Molucca Bean!

The 17th Century antiquarian interest in drift seeds sits somewhere between their fascination with folklore and folk belief, naturalism and medicine. In 1672, the physician John Peachi wrote a pamphlet to the Royal Society in London on the alleged medical properties of the Molucca Bean: “Some observations made upon the Molucco nutts, imported from the Indies shewing their admirable virtues in curing the collick, rupture, and all distempers proceeding from the wind. Written by a Doctor of Physick in the countrey, to Dr. Castle, one of the Royal Society in London” – although in the pamphlet text itself, he calls it a “bezoar”.

Three years later, in 1675, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London printed a piece by Sir George Mackenzie of Tarbat, where he observes that “'Tis very ordinary to find Molucco Beans on the shoar of the Lewes or other our Western Isles”. He says the “common people” laughed at him when he suggested they were land-beans, and not something that grew in the sea. He goes on to deduce that they must have been carried on the ocean currents: “Now, considering the Situation of these Isles, with respect to any Place where the Molucca-Beans grow, let the Observers of Ties consider what Reciprocations must be imagined to adjust the Easter and Western constant Currents of the Main, with the Wafting of these Beans on Places that lie so far out of the Road of any of the direct Tides. And if they grow only about the Molucca Isles, or on no Place on this Side of the Equator, it would seem more probable, that they came by the Northern Passage than any other Way.” I admire the scientific mindset he shows when he considers the direction of the currents to conclude that the drift seeds can’t have come from Indonesia.

Here, Dr H. Sloan comes in, with a description of four types of drift seed found in Orkney, and that two of them have been observed to grow in the West Indies and one in Jamaica.

Martin Martin’s A description of the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1703, describes the Molucca Bean as a good remedy for diarrhea and dysentery. You would grind up the kernel and mix a small quantity in boiled milk, to make a medicine which “by daily experience [is] found to be very effectual”. As The Virgin Mary’s Nut it was also effective against witchcraft!

I recently had the pleasure to read an article by Guinevere Barlow, in the journal Northern Studies, volume 46, (2014), where she describes the beliefs connected with drift seeds in the Western Isles. Far from being just snuff boxes, they were used for all sorts of things, including for medicine and as charms, and as rattles for children.

The different types of Molucca Beans were Western Isles called a “tinder nut” (in Gaelic), again because of it being water-tight, and also Mary’s Nut, Mary’s Kidney, and Mary’s Cross, because of the kidney-like shape to some of them, and the cross which occurs on others, like on a hot cross bun.

It was used as medicine against some ailment called “Bloodie Flux”, and worn by children as a charm protecting against the “evil eye”. Any house containing a sea bean would be safe from fire, Barlow recounts. As a childbirth charm, midwives would put a Molucca bean in the woman’s hand while chanting a prayer to the Virgin Mary. It was also used as a childbirth charm in Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands, and was passed on from mother to daughter. Barlow notes that “although the seed was acting as a placebo, there was a profound confidence in its potency”.

We beach-combed at Paplay, we beach-combed at Skaill, we beach-combed around Inner Holm and Outer Holm by Stromness. Of course we didn’t find a Molucca Bean. But, a lovely thing happened instead. We were invited in by Nan Traill Thomson, the sole inhabitant of Inner Holm, into her beautiful house which can only be reached at low tide. And among whale bones and sea urchins and other treasures in her conservatory, she had not only one, but three beautiful, smooth and shiny Molucca beans!

By Ragnhild Ljosland. Originally published in The Orcadian, 4 Feb. 2016. page 7

A Molucca Bean embedded from

A Molucca Bean. Image embedded from