FOR thousands of years it has been hewn from the earth and fashioned into everything from buildings and roads to weapons and sculpture.
But after making possible the dreams of engineers and artists, the green-fingered among us could soon be enjoying a surprising new use for rock.
It is now being claimed that crushed volcanic rock works wonders on exhausted soil, reintroducing long-lost minerals and resulting in vegetables so big they would struggle for space on the average supermarket shelf.
The results of spreading rock dust on a bleak Perthshire hillside have even prompted the government to fund a study into the use of the substance as an alternative to chemical fertilisers.
Former teachers Cameron and Moira Thomson have spent 20 years experimenting with rock dust on their smallholdings. They are claiming results that have attracted worldwide attention from scientists and the endorsement of television naturalist David Bellamy.
In 1996, a sympathetic landowner heard of the Thomsons’ idea and offered them the use of six acres at Enochdhu, near Pitlochry.
The following year, Cameron, 56, and Moira, 42, set up a charitable trust, called, the SEER Centre, for experimental research into using rock dust on organic gardens and smallholdings.
Their success in transforming a patch of "infertile, poorly-drained upland grazing", subject to harsh weather, into fertile land has converted the most cynical of local farmers.
Municipal compost and rock dust remineralisation have been used to create deep fertile soils and gardens that produce gigantic onions, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbages and strawberries that look like props for a Jack and the Beanstalk pantomime and can grow without irrigation or artificial fertilisers.
Now, the SEER Centre has secured 95,280 in funding from the Scottish Executive to carry out the first year of rock dust field trials.
Cameron Thomson said: "It has been great to finally see some official recognition for what has been a long, hard slog. This year we will compare the results of crops grown with rock dust, manure, chemical fertilisers and an unfertilised control. But we still have a long way to go and require more investment.
"For years, people thought we were cranks, but we just kept ploughing on. We have never backed down and now, after 20 years, people are finally starting to listen and take notice."
Moira Thomson added: "I used to be really enthusiastic and describe rock dust as ‘magic’, but I’ve calmed down now and I think telling people the scientific explanation makes it much easier for them to believe."
The couple get their rock dust from Collace quarry between Perth and Dundee. The powdered basalt, granite and other volcanic rock is a by-product of quarrying and hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the material is lying unused around Scotland.
The quarry’s owner, Tayside Contracts, has agreed to give the Thomsons as much rock dust as they need for free.
The dust used by the Thomsons contains around 70 minerals. They believe that 20 tonnes of dust per acre is enough to make land fertile for a decade.
The Thomsons’ local politicians, John Swinney MSP and Pete Wishart MP, have both visited the SEER centre to marvel at giant onions and softball-sized strawberries. They have mooted their support for presentations to be made to both the environment committees at the Scottish parliament and Westminster.
Wishart was "overjoyed" to hear the Thomsons had secured funding from the Executive after a long association with the SEER Centre.
He said: "I have supported the Thomsons for many years now. What they have achieved is just remarkable. They have stumbled across something that works and has been proven to work.
"I hope their example of the SEER Centre is seen far and wide, because it is something truly special."
The centre has attracted scientists from Kenya, China, the US and Australia who are eager to check claims that rock dust can yield good crops in challenging conditions.
Cameron Thomson said: "With rock dust, the crops don’t need water. Our last harvest, which was planted late and not touched with anything, produced magnificent vegetables, all ripe, tasty, heavy and in abundance.
"It would be perfect for Third World countries that are unable to usually grow crops because the land is so dry. We believe we could hold the solution for them."
Fife organic farmer, Ian Miller, is one of seven Scottish farms that have agreed to take part in rock dust trials this year, in association with the Thomsons. Miller, who has been farming organically for 20 years, said he would be using the minerals on his vegetables, potatoes and grass.
He said: "I wanted to give rock dust a try on a commercial scale because it is using a natural product that provides a lot of minerals that is great for the land. In a way, I will be slightly disappointed if it makes a big difference to my crops, otherwise I have been doing it the wrong way for so many years."
He added: "Anything is better than using chemicals."