Painted rock discovered in Scotland a special reminder for grieving sister

The discovery of a painted rock in Scotland last week is a special reminder to Lisa Butler that her brother, Barry Cole, is still touching people's hearts after his death.

Barry Cole's painted rock found in Scotland one year after his death

Lisa Butler received a photo of this rock, which she believes to have been painted by her brother Barry Cole, in the Facebook inbox of a page he created before he died of an aggressive brain cancer. She believes the inscription reads "If found post pic NL Rocks Facebook. Hide again." (Submitted by Lisa Butler)

Barry Cole's happiest moments, according to his sister, were listening to The Tragically Hip's Gord Downie, donning his chef's apron and losing himself for hours in the creativity of painting.

Cole picked up his rock-painting hobby in 2016, when he went into rehab for alcohol addiction. 

When I opened the picture and saw his handwriting… that was monumental to me.- Lisa Butler

His sister, Lisa Butler, believes the  painting and poetry were part of the rehabilitation program. It led to profound changes.

"I finally looked at him, and I thought I saw peace," she said.

"It seemed like he was just really content, and it brought him to a place that I never thought I would see him go."

Lisa Butler and Barry Cole at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's. (Submitted by Lisa Butler)

From his passion was born NL Rocks, a Facebook page with a small following, where he would share his paintings: a Chevrolet logo, an owl and a moon, a tribute to the Boston Bruins.

The page was created just three months before Cole was diagnosed with a fast-moving glioblastoma — the very same type of brain cancer that killed his favourite singer.

A few weeks after that, Butler sat by in a hospital room and watched the life leave her brother's body. He died Nov. 26, 2016, at the age of 50.

Lisa Butler poses with a rock that Barry Cole painted in recognition of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip song Grace, too. Both Barry Cole and Gord Downie were diagnosed with the same type of brain cancer. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Cole's memory was renewed this month, when a group of children from a correctional school in Scotland somehow found a hidden, painted rock with directions to his Facebook page.

"It was overwhelming, because it was almost like he was speaking to us from beyond the grave,"  Butler said. "Even though he had nothing direct to say to us, he touched somebody else." 

I can't consult with him, but in my heart, I do.- Lisa Butler

Butler was alerted to the discovery by a Facebook message onto Cole's NL Rocks page. She immediately contacted her sister and mother to let them know.

"When I opened the picture and saw his handwriting, I mean, that was monumental to me."

Barry Cole, centre, at a craft fair at Cobb's Pond in Gander in August. The photo was taken a few weeks before he was admitted to hospital. Lisa Butler says this photo captures how she wants to remember her brother. (Submitted by Lisa Butler)

The rock was spotted by students of St. Philip's residential school in North Lankshire, in Scotland. It's a home and school for children with trauma, aggressive behaviours or who need crisis intervention. The school is more than 3,000 kilometres away from Cole's hometown of Gander.

Butler says Cole wasn't a traveller, and only left his rocks in a few places near the town of Gander. So it's a mystery how his hidden rock made it across the Atlantic.

But Butler says that mystery is only secondary to the magic of hearing, or seeing, from Cole once again.

"I think it did what it needed to do, it got us in touch with some young people that needed to be uplifted. And that's good enough for me," she said. "I would like to think that that was his true nature, that he was out to help other people, and to try to make a difference."

She agrees there's a bit of magic in the message, which for her represents hope.

After Barry Cole died in Nov. 2016, Lisa Butler picked up painting herself as a way to deal with the grief of his death. Her first painting, in her left hand, was a woman clutching her hands. Butler says she likes to listen to the same music Barry would listen to before he died. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"Beliefs are — I don't know. They're subjective. Everything in life has the meaning that you want it to have," she said. 

"I think in a way he's just still giving us his sarcastic — teasing us from beyond the grave."

There was a good chance that the message from Scotland might never have been received.

Butler says she wasn't quite sure what to do with NL Rocks once her brother died, explaining she felt somewhat guilty maintaining something that wasn't hers.

But the page also reminded her of the better part of Cole's life — not the alcoholism and the struggles, or suicide attempts that plagued him for years before his success with rehabilitation.

Barry Cole and Lisa Butler as a children in a portrait displayed in Butler's home in Gander. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"It was representative to me of a very happy time in his life, where the demons and the troubles that he had been dealing with seemed to have subsided," she said.

Butler had intended to make one final post to mark the one-year anniversary of Cole's death before closing the page, but now she says she sees a path forward for NL Rocks — in solving this mystery, and maybe a few more.

"I can see him just doing this as 'well, let's see where this ends up'," she explains. "But I do think that he did want to touch people, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are more rocks out there, and maybe they do have different messages. So I'm keeping my eyes peeled."

"Unfortunately, I can't consult with him, but in my heart, I do. Everyday, I consult with my brother and say 'where do I go with this?'

About the Author

Garrett Barry


Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.