Stile

My new neighbour tells me all the places he has walked. He boasts about finding a dead gannet, waves to a spot on the opposite headland where his dog unearthed a set of antlers.

‘Up there,’ he says, ‘you get a good view from up there.’

He is pointing now to some cliffs in Lednagullin, somewhere I’ve never been.

As I head off on my walk, Tone plods behind. On the beach he lingers over oarweed. I catch him gazing at the sea, tongue lolling.

‘You’re too slow,’ I tell him.

I know the path up the headland my neighbour speaks of, but there’s a stile to cross, and Tone’s paws are too big for its plinth. His belly catches on the barbed wire. We tried once – it didn’t work.

While Tone sniffs the weed, I listen into the lulls. And then the crash, from somewhere in the unravelling white, growing higher in pitch as the wave consumes itself. A final tinny flourish, then silence.

We could follow the burn inland, cross the bridge, look down at the tea-coloured water. Or we could explore the overgrown bit at the other end, the jungle-like thatch of moss and marram, cross into the farm where the fence buckles so low it’s buried in sand. But we’ve done all that before.

I sit on a rock and Tone drags his sandy drool over my jeans.

‘Four years,’ I say, ‘and we’ve never been further than that stile.’

He pants, a pink oh of tongue hidden in his jowls. With each breath, he gently nods. I put my cheek to his ear, so that we share the same view of waves unfurling, and feel the space between charged with so much stillness that it’s hard to pull apart.

Tone for StileThe tide is so high we have only a ribbon of sand to walk. A wave turns itself inside out on the steep beach, a ruffle of froth on its fringe, a glint of turquoise, and it’s quashed, the sliding out unspeakably flat. Wind billows through the dunes, all in green shadow but for a ridge of light along the top.

We turn for home and the rhythmic hush of sand thrown from my heels. I catch Tone’s head from the corner of my eye, keeping pace with me. It’s always like this – his silence accompanies me everywhere, giving the quiet the texture of something soft and well worn.

The oystercatchers at the mouth of the burn take off at our approach, flickering black and white, and then the young gulls, heavy and lumbering. Between waves, the sea is so still it reflects the headland, yellow fields shining in the shallows.

At the top of the hill, I look down on the beach. Tone and I are casting shadows on the sand, and I see the two of us as others must: I’m all stick arms and legs, but the creature following me is the size of a lion. My neighbour’s terrier is small – quick black eyes and wiry legs. Glancing back at the opposite headland, I trace the fence up to the faint brown of the stile.

‘It’s like that song,’ I say. ‘You’ve got to love the one you’re with.’

And he nods, and nods.

 

Signposts

April 15th

At the old salmon bothy, I check the signpost. Poulouriscaig 2.5km. It doesn’t sound far but it always takes longer than I think. In the mist the moor is brindled brown and ochre – last year’s bracken, desiccated deer grass, half-dead whin on twisted stocks. It is months yet before the heather and bog asphodel will bloom.

IMG_0045In the last week it’s rained so much that the top of the cart road turns into a stream, froth bubbling over the stones and the water bright and cold, as though the dirt of the world has been washed away. I’m thinking of a conversation I had with my neighbour – that at this time of year, the sheep navigate the bog by remembering how it looked in the summer: where the green stuff had grown will be firm under hoof. Remembering is essential.

The track rises and I zigzag upwards. I look back once and see I’m already a good way from the house, the roofs of my village grown small. The moor swells into the distance in waves. After the second rise, the tumbled stones of Poulouriscaig shadow the yellow scrub. One remaining gable end points into the sky, its fireplace open to the world. The same fireplace where stories of changelings and water horses were told, stories I now only find in books. For the last short distance, I follow the sheep tracks, until these too disappear and I pick my way through the reeds.

Four houses stood here once. Fallen walls outline where the barns were, the easy undulation of long-buried lazy beds. Tourists coming across the place think the ruins centuries old, but I have a neighbour who was born here. Now, it’s just a scattering of stones on the hill. From below the cliffs, the sea sounds like static on a forgotten radio. I rest on a dyke, looking at what was once the neighbouring cottage. Lichen flaked on the boulder where I sit is as white and thick as cigarette ash.

The village was deserted in the forties. The people left, taking their few bits of furniture, their horses and livestock, the timber from their roofs, in search of better amenities. There was no electricity here. No natural harbour. No roads and so no cars. Perhaps the lack of these things left them feeling disconnected – unable to relate to others’ lives. Last summer, sitting on a foldaway chair in the draughty museum at Clachan, I watched a short film about Poulouriscaig.* It had been famed for its ceilidhs. I take a last look around, imagining a time when lanterns were hung from the doors and music drifted over the bog.

Coming back, I see the green and rust-red sheds of the salmon fishery, its caravan tucked into the lee side. The rain is fine as blown sand. I can hear it on my jacket but can’t see it, except that my jeans grow painfully cold. Bog holes and bygone eras. It’s a strange kind of day, somewhere between winter and spring, and I feel part of me is still back there on that dyke with the chain-smoking ghost whose radio is never tuned.

Though I have GPS on my phone, Netflix at home on my Smart TV, instantaneous Twitter notifications, I know that sense of disconnectedness. I never thought I’d say it but I miss the nine to five. I often spend afternoons scrolling through online job adverts. Not to work, never to get a pay cheque, is to set yourself apart from others, and it’s an empty, unpopulated place.

I have to remind myself that I’m a writer. In August I will get my first pay cheque, for a story that is being published in this year’s New Writing Scotland. By then, the green stuff on the moor will be growing again.

Remembering is essential.

* Draughty or not, the museum is a gem on the north coast and has a wonderful website.

Sense of Place: An Essay

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The environmental critic Lawrence Buell stresses the subjective dimension of what he terms ‘place-sense’, arguing that a required element in the concept of place is that is it ‘perceived or felt space, space humanized, rather than the material world taken on its own terms’.[1] Certainly, the Gaelic academic, John MacInnes would agree that ‘place’ is subjective: referring to the Gaelic oral tradition for panegyric poetry, MacInnes states:

The native Gael who is instructed in this poetry carries in his imagination not so much a landscape, not a sense of geography alone, nor of history alone, but a formal order of experience in which all these are merged. What is to a stranger an expanse of empty countryside… to the native sensibility can be a dynamic, perhaps even heroic, territory peopled with figures from history and legend.[2]

MacInnes’s ‘formal order of experience’ where geography merges with history and legend lets us see how complex the concept of place can be. Distinct, however, from the subjective nature of place-sense, is another dimension: that place endures regardless of its current human inhabitants, and that human life is a tiny part in the history of time. In this regard, Buell discusses observations made by Henry David Thoreau and Susan Fenimore Cooper. In his diary, Thoreau notes the muskrat nests in his village, which he is convinced have been erected since before the first human inhabitants, and will continue to be so long after the villagers have departed. Similarly, Cooper saw an old pine forest situated above her village to be a silent observer of the valley’s transformation from pre-colonial times to her present day.[3] It is a sentiment I have found mirrored in fiction. There are various references to it in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, my favourite of which is:

…that this marriage of hers was nothing, that it would pass on and forward into days that had long forgotten it, her life and Ewan’s, and they pass also, and the face of the land change and change again in the coming of the seasons and centuries until the last lights sank away from it and the sea came flooding up the Howe, all her love and tears for Ewan not even a ripple on that flood of water far in the times to be.[4]

And in George Gunn’s forthcoming novel The Great Edge the sentiment is expressed by the symbol of two ravens that are ever recurring observers of the happenings at a costal cave, where twelve-hundred years apart early Christian monks wish to inter a holy clarsach and a present day archaeologist wishes to dig it up again.[5]

At times, the subjective dimension of place clashes with the objective, such as with map knowledge: Buell compares the ‘mental maps’ of aboriginal peoples with scientific maps: the latter having ‘opened the way for a “desubjectified” cartography wildly at variance from the perceived reality of the more impressionistic and ethnocentric mapping practices of prescientific cultures.’ He talks about places being ‘bounded’ and says that drawn boundaries can violate the ‘subjectively felt reality’.[6] An interesting example of this is the Gaelic word for the Highlands – Gàidhealtachd – which according to MacInnes is not a place name ‘in the ordinary sense’, being geographically vague. Rather, the name denotes the traditionally Gaelic-speaking area of Scotland, which largely accords with the officially recognized Highland Line. Here, however, sense of place is everything and in fact the boundary is moving, with modern usage of the term often reflecting only those communities where Gaelic is still an everyday language. So in contrast to ‘the Highlands’, Gàidhealtachd is a fluid geography.[7]

So what does having a strong sense of place do for us in practice? To environmentalists like Wendell Berry, it is a fundamental component in conservation. Berry states that ‘without a complex knowledge of one’s place, and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly and eventually destroyed’.[8] An example of this supposition in action is shown in Robert Macfarlane’s ‘A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook’, which details the campaign undertaken by the inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis to save the island’s moorland interior, the Brindled Moor, from a huge wind farm development that would displace 5 million cubic metres or rock and 2.5 million cubic metres of peat. The company proposing the wind farm lacked the complex knowledge of place to which Berry refers, and instead saw the moor merely as a ‘wasteland’. The local community fought the action by educating the planning authorities in the part the moor played in their social histories, including the learned geography of this supposed wasteland, its references within poetry and song, and its language. In this last, a ‘peat glossary’ was complied which contained 126 locally known terms for describing the topology and phenomena of the moor. And it seems that place-sense and language is inextricably linked in this way: language is needed to describe the phenomena, and phenomena continue to be of significance for humankind only so long as words are known that can sustain their verbal communication. Certainly, Lewis’s Brindled Moor would undoubtedly have been destroyed, in the kind of ignorance that Berry describes, had it not been for the campaigners’ careful compiling of place knowledge.[9]

When it comes to a sense of place within prose, Buell suggests that ‘home places’ have a richer place-sense for writers, listing the following as some of the intimacies that fuel such feeling: ‘The extraordinary events in the community’s history, its redundant social rituals, persistent moth-eaten scraps of local gossip, and the infinite series of the intense and painful and joyous relationships of childhood.’ Perhaps it is this richness, this insider knowledge, that informs Raymond Williams’s claim that regional novels are ‘characteristically written by natives’.[10] Conversely, writing about one’s home place can be problematic. Buell again: ‘Whether from laziness or a desire for security, we tend to lapse into comfortable inattentiveness towards the details of our surroundings as we go about our daily business’. And in this he highlights the importance for environmental writers to see things afresh, to ‘continually recalibrate familiar landscapes’.[11]

Buell comments on the ‘sparse’ representations of place that are found to be acceptable even in ‘so-called realistic fiction’, and suggests that this is to be explained by the interpretation of the term setting to mean merely ‘backdrop’; he goes on to state that place ‘is something authors find easier to name and praise than to present’.[12] On the whole, given the complexity involved in a sense of place (see earlier quote from MacInnes), I agree with Buell that the naming of a place is not sufficient to evoke it, but I also think there are times with regard to my own place, when the name goes a little further than Buell would allow. I have been collecting place names of late – from road signs, gravestones, maps. Most of Scotland’s far north has names of Gaelic origin: Gaelic place names in this now wholly-English speaking region. Clashbuie, Achnabat, Clashnastrug: when contained within an English-language story these names carry with them a trace of the ethnic transformation of those communities.

Buell describes writing that vividly evokes place as giving the reader a ‘vicarious insidership’ that activates place-sense.[13] I have found this recently in the writing of Margiad Evans; in the introduction to The Old and the Young, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan praises the ‘very strong sense of place and atmosphere that pervades all these stories’, attributing this to Evans’s love for Herefordshire – the land that was her ‘spiritual home’. In the following, from ‘The Lost Fisherman’, it is evening and a young woman looks from her window at the down-at-heel neighbourhood where she lives, whilst elsewhere in the town Londoners are seeking refuge from the Blitz:

The shadow of their gable was falling on the road, and the sun was pouring gold over the pale blue sky. A slow, dusty echo tracked each footstep. But down here in the faded part of town where there were no hotels but only poor men’s lodging houses, they escaped the weary rummaging on the hill.

Slum games were scrawled in chalk on the pavements, women looked at their neighbours’ doors, and men in shirt sleeves smoked. The human beings, the trees, bathed in the delight of the evening. Children, grime painting scowls on their faces, sulky mops of hair in their eyes, squealed and squatted akimbo on their games, monkey hands on their knees.[14]

For Evans sense of place is not simply landscape: indeed, this passage incorporates a sense, too, of the people that inhabit the space – and in doing so, it recognizes the human element in the concept of place. In Regions of the Imagination, W. J. Keith puts it thus: ‘But landscape is, of course, only the visible manifestation of a division that is reflected more crucially in the character, customs and manners of the human beings who live within it’. [15] Perhaps in the concept of place, all of these things are inseparable: Annie Proulx tells us that:

Everything comes from landscape… the particular place that affects what food people eat, how they make their livings and so forth – and the story rolls out of landscape.[16]

When story truly comes from the landscape, I believe that it is equally true that the place is to be found within the fiction. This has cultural and historical implications beyond novels and stories; W.J. Keith says of Sir Walter Scott that: ‘He offered his own people a record of their own history and traditions…’[17]

Sadly, Raymond Williams claims that in ‘advanced capitalist societies’ the scope and possibility of regional writing is lessening.[18] Is globalization, and its blurring of communities into replicas of each other in everything but geography and geology, making a sense of place immaterial? It’s an interesting proposition, but to what else do we moor our personal and emotional experiences? Without place, notions of history, culture and society all feel rather empty.

 

[1] Lawrence Buell, ‘Place’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood (Oxon: Routledge, 2013), p. 667.

[2] John MacInnes, ‘Gaelic Poetry and Historical Tradition’, in Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal, ed. Michael Newton (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), p. 29.

[3] Buell, ‘Place’, pp. 674–76.

[4] Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2013), p. 165.

[5] George Gunn, manuscript for The Great Edge, pp. 6, 31, 213, 244.

[6] Buell, ‘Place’, pp. 678, 679.

[7] John MacInnes, ‘The Gaelic Perception of the Lowlands’, in Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal, ed. Michael Newton (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), p. 35–36.

[8] Wendell Berry, ‘The Regional Motive’, in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: Harcount, 1972), pp. 68–69, quoted in Buell, ‘Place’, p. 667.

[9] Robert Macfarlane, ‘A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook’, in Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings, ed. Gareth Evans and Di Robson (London: Artevents, 2013), pp. 108, 120–24.

[10] Raymond Williams, ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, in Writing in Society (London: Verso, 1983), p. 233.

[11] Buell, ‘Place’, p. 673.

[12] Buell, ‘Place’, p. 668–69.

[13] Buell, ‘Place’, p. 673.

[14] Margiad Evans, The Old and the Young (Bridgend: Seren, 1998), p. 77; and Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, ‘Introduction’, in the same publication, pp. 7, 12.

[15] W. J. Keith, Regions of the Imagination: The Development of British Rural Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 26.

[16] Vittitow, ‘More Reader than Writer: A Conversation with Annie Proulx’, p. 7.

[17] W. J. Keith, Regions of the Imagination: The Development of British Rural Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 39.

[18] Raymond Williams, ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, p. 238.

Thresholds

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Last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I had a notion to open my eyes. There are no street lights where we live and I have never known a darkness like the darkness of our bedroom. There is nothing to become accustomed to – no subtle shades of black, no slit of moonlight at the curtains or shadowy furniture. I could hear the wind, but the room is like a crypt and you lose perspective within it. Muffled through a metre of stone in the old walls, it could have been the sea, or thunder, or a plane passing over – all are noises that soar and fade.

It’s different here at Sandside. The sound comes to me from all around the bay. It’s one of those dull days when the waves roll out of darkness into white froth. Boom, and then the close silence of the sliding back. Each one leaves a stain on the shore, the dark shrinking as the sand absorbs it. Where the shallows cross and blend, the waves form bands of shadow like contours on a map.

Perhaps my searching of the darkness last night was Timothy Pont’s doing. I spent yesterday looking at his early maps of the north on the National Library of Scotland’s website, peering at the slanting script of ink that is now over 400 years old.

dyvers kynds of wild beasts

specially heir never lack wolves, more than ar expedient

This on the map where my house is now, and the darkness and the wind.

Further out, the bigger waves collapse over the slab rock with a constant far away drone. The clouds out there are moving fast. I wonder how those early map-makers felt as their work was completed; distances shortened, the unknown falling away, the previously inconceivable no longer feared. Like waking to the gentle glow of a night light.

In the squall I lose sight of even the Fast Reactor, its huge white dome melding into the mist. Only the streetlamps around the plant are visible, like a string of fairy lights on the coast. When the mist clears, I see the electricity pylons stretching inland, below them the thin green headland, and red cliffs sweeping down to pale sand.

The wind batters my hood so that I can’t hear anything else. It could be some wild dystopian tale, this talk of wolves and nuclear power stations. But here in the far north, it all feels within reach. Strange things happen at the edge of the map. Men in radiation suits, their eyes deep inside the masks. Wolves slinking out from shadows.

I watch the waves at my feet push upwards, and in the froth that slides back I see a whole map of the world – hazy white continents that drift and collide, before falling away with a hiss.

 

Timothy Pont’s maps can be viewed on the National Library of Scotland’s website.

Mirror

Under the pier, there is darkness. At first I think it’s the river, its surface reflecting the black sky, but where the cloud is broken the water has clear patches and these shimmer. If I look past these reflections, I can see the bladderwrack that blots out the pale riverbed. Smoke comes to me from the house on the hill, but as I brush stray hair from my cheek, the smell is replaced by a mineral one, my fingers silty from throwing Tone’s ball. He swims back to me now, his wake rippling the calm.

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It’s the end of the year. A time for reflection. When memory’s shadows light up at things recalled. And while Tone and I fill in time, waiting, I’m thinking of all those other winters you’ve brought us here to this beach, as though each summer is just one long trough in a wave. Those days I’ve sat in the van in my hat and gloves, listening to you change in the back, your rash vest draped on the heater’s vents, and then the door sliding opening, and finally the rumble of a block of wax on your board; how I’ve watched you on the long paddle out, a black speck in the acres of blue, while all the time breath condenses on the scarf at my chin. You say it’s like taming something wild, but shouldn’t I worry when the spray from your board is just a hangnail on a giant?

Walking back to the van, I check my watch. Still an hour of daylight left. Currents etch the river’s steep banks – swirls and trenches that gleam wetly and themselves reflect the sky (or perhaps reflect the river reflecting the sky, like circus mirrors). At this time of year, the landscape sinks into itself, one brindled mass with a streak of tar and chip road. It will grow paler and paler over winter. But the rivers and burns will still shine. It’s their reflections that bring the land to life – the upside down hills cast blue, yellow fields gleaming, clouds tumbling from every lochan on the moor.

But now it really is getting dark (the darkness I felt earlier only that of seaweed and rock). The gloom rises from the moor, seeping between clefts in hills. And all those reflections die back, like experiences passing into memory. The other surfers have packed up and gone. But you are still out there – happy that you have the waves to yourself. You will stay until the last bit of light fades, and the ocean blushes, and just as in those other winters, grey days that I remember all of and none of, I’ll take the torch and I’ll find you trudging up the hill, your board glowing in the dusk.

Memories

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Before we moved to Scotland’s Far North, we spent many years visiting the area in our homemade camper. I’m delighted for The Peatlands Partnership to be featuring a poem I wrote about this on their ‘Stories’ page.

Flow Country

Another bridge, only here at Dornoch the tide

is out, mudflats stretching into the summer dusk

with endless glowing puddles, while out to sea

it is as white and intangible as heaven. We’ve made

this journey many times, first in your R-reg Transit,

and now in the silver VW, but always loaded with

your surfboards and a yellowing Silentnight mattress,

my books piled about the floor on the passenger’s side

(usually some Neil Gunn, which I will insist

on reading aloud even though you hate it).

Read the whole piece over on their website.

Depths

If you’ve ever seen a wavelet break in the mouth of a burn – the tide pushing in where the stream runs out, the quick folding along a crease, the frantic ripple, a determined progress like toppling dominoes – that’s what I think of when I see the juvenile herring shoaling, not pushing through the water but unfolding, as if pulled on a line, and the sound of the fish jumping, the movement of their whole bodies, like each little splash of the wavelet.

*

At what seems like the edge of the world, I find a way down the rocks. The Atlantic turns over shadows where the swell lifts and a grey sky fades to nothing on the horizon. I hear an engine drop in pitch. I hadn’t noticed it until now, the drone of the motor steady above the water. All I can see from here is the boat’s dark hull and a couple of orange floats. Already it is disappearing around Boursa Island.

Kneeling on the rocks, I wonder how deep it is below me. It’s not like being on a beach where the shallows are translucent and wave froth skims the sand. Here, I can’t see beneath the chop. I imagine silt-hazy depths, currents churning. I’m scared of the sea – it’s a fear of choking, of surfacing with hair in my eyes as the next wave breaks.

A shadow, the size perhaps of an orca, sweeps through the ocean, darkness sweeping through light, then tiny ripples, the water puckering as silver rips the surface, the fish all turning over at different times. The waves jostle but where the wind whips up white flecks, the herring gleam – some arching beneath the surface and others jumping, and though I’m used to the sound of wind around this coast, this is different. The herring slap the sea as they land. Shoal chatter.

Version 2
Tone Investigates

When they come close, I see them quite clearly – each three or four inches long. One gets stranded on the rocks, flicking its body in the bladderwrack, a silver sliver on a mass of ochre weed. It convulses on its side as water washes over – water with the clarity of glass, and its eye staring up at clouds and sky. Still the sea simmers as bellies flash. And again they are on the move, like iron filings following a magnet, they swirl and push, and all the time the noise goes with them.

Scotland’s Far North was the epicentre of Europe’s herring fishing in the nineteenth century. Tens of thousands of barrels were cured for export every year. I read recently that the stocks are replenishing themselves. Standing here, feeling like a character from a Neil Gunn novel, I get the sense of history, and time, being round like the world itself – a big bowl of chaos, where now and then events surface.

There is a dive site near here: an underwater wall where langoustines hide, and then a shelf, and the water-depth plunges. The fry are feeding on zooplankton – arrow worms and copepods – but I can’t help feeling that there is something in the deep chasing them. And perhaps my fear of water is that too – a fear of shadows moving below me. A fear of chaos and uncontrollable time.