By Jane Ross Potter
A question sometimes heard among friends or family members on Scottish beaches is, “Did you find one yet?” For those in the know, the question is likely to refer to finding a groatie buckie (Trivia arctica), the name given to one of the two species of cowrie shells found in Britain. The origin of the name is not clear but may date back to finding the tiny shells on beaches at John O’Groats, the northeast point of mainland Britain.
In my decades of beachcombing in Scotland, finding a groatie buckie was a binary function: you found one or you didn’t. Finding one would make someone’s day and reportedly bring good luck. And so, until a few years ago, groatie buckies were for me a rare and lucky find. That all changed when I decided to tackle the Fife Coastal Path one summer. As the name suggests, the 117-mile path follows the shore (most of the time, anyway) of the Kingdom of Fife, the county across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. It begins in Kincardine on the Forth, and ends in Newburgh, a town on the north side of Fife, by the Firth of Tay.
The Fife Coastal Path offers many coastal activities, from birding and watching wildlife, to visiting locations where episodes of the television show Outlander were filmed, such as Culross and Dysart with its distinctive keyhole tower. As an aside, my lucky find in Dysart was not the spirit of Jamie or Claire, but a perfect sea glass marble. I considered it a reward for the long days of walking.
On one memorable day, I was walking east along the path that links several picturesque fishing villages in the East Neuk, or corner, of Fife: St. Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther, and Crail. One section of the path skirted a rocky beach, with fields and a pig farm to the left. The beach did not look promising for beachcombing, but I saw two people crouched among the loose rocks, avidly searching. I jokingly asked if they were looking for groatie buckies, and to my shock, they replied that they used to find them by the handful in that location. Handful? I always thought they were solitary finds. Maybe two on a really lucky day.
Of course I had to stop and have a look for myself. Half an hour and 86 groatie buckies later, I couldn’t wait to meet up with family members and tell them about this amazing find. Repeat visits, with excited children willing to make the half-hour walk to the precise location, did not disappoint.
Thus began my quest to find groatie buckies in numbers enough to fill glass display bottles. Since then, I have spent time each summer looking for groatie buckies in Scotland. Usually these searches take second place to learning about a new location: from gathering groatie buckies in the somber shadow of the World War II-era Churchill Barriers in Orkney to meditating upon groatie buckies on the peaceful island of Iona, near the famous abbey and birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. From Scourie on the northwest coast to beaches in Fife on the east coast, they are waiting to be found. While in Orkney, I also completed part of the St. Magnus Way walk, earning a scallop shell to mark the occasion.
Oban (Kirsti Scott).
Some island locations require multiple modes of transport, unless you have a car. Departing from Oban early one summer’s day and heading west to the islands, it took a four-hour ferry ride, a bus, and a rented bicycle to access a rocky beach rumored to be an excellent collecting spot. (It was, and worth getting soaked on the bicycle.) If you set off to find groatie buckies on remote island beaches like that, you must be prepared for rain, slippery rocks, and the occasional cows and sheep for company. Bring a flask of tea or coffee, because there’s unlikely to be a cafe anywhere near. Also, bring something comfortable to sit on while you push dried seaweed out of the way and dig through layers of small rocks.
Groatie buckie hunters learn to recognize the signs of a good location long before setting foot on the shore: your hotel might have a jar of them at the reception desk; a jewelry shop might have groatie buckies rendered in pure silver, as charms; they might crop up among the pebbles of a parking area outside a western island coffee shop; and you might find a cafe named Groatie Buckies, on the island of Westray in Orkney. Even further north, they can be found in the Shetland Islands, both the natural and the silver versions.
Search online for groatie buckies, and you’ll find other collectors’ comments: some consider it a spiritual quest, a way to achieve calm (yes, even in the rain and bitter cold), while others go for the numbers. But what many comments have in common are terms like “secret beach,” “island I won’t name,” “wish I’d taken a photograph,” and other ways of protecting a particularly good spot, like a vein of gold.
If you go hunting for groatie buckies in Scotland, you aren’t guaranteed to find one, but you’ll return enriched anyway, from the scenery, the camaraderie with other collectors, the history, the tea and shortbread, and the simple joy of knowing that you tried. I still have lots of other beaches and islands to explore, especially after spying some tantalizing locations from a small Loganair propeller plane as I left, for this summer anyway, the best beach I’ve been to yet.
All photos by Jane Ross Potter except as noted.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2023 issue.
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