It’s probably not very fair to use the death of Doris Lessing to recall a very minor episode in the annals of the Scottish Folk Revival. I’m going to do so anyway as it brings to light some neglected characters of her close acquaintance and offers a small insight into how the 1950s revival circulated in networks well beyond Scotland.
A key figure here is the Glaswegian actor Alex McCrindle, once a household name, who is now comparatively forgotten other than for his appearance as General Jan Dodonna, leader of the rebel force in George Lucas’ Star Wars. In the early 1950s, McCrindle was at the height of his fame having played Jock in the radio programme Dick Barton, Special Agent. Although it ran for 700 episodes and attracted 15 million listeners, McCrindle struggled to find subsequent work after being blacklisted as a communist. He eventually directed his energies into the actors’ union, Equity, setting up a life in London where he married the children’s author and Daily Worker film critic Honor Arundel.
The home of McCrindle and Arundel in the fifties was a hub of Communist Party activity and organisation. And the Party had, perhaps surprisingly, thrown its weight behind the resurgence of folk music under the auspices of the Edinburgh People’s Festival which ran between 1951-1954. Hamish Henderson was of course a driving figure in the Festival even if he was by this stage held in political suspicion by Party stalwarts like McCrindle. What I find interesting is how the influence of the Folk Revival extended to the networks of Doris Lessing. In her autobiography*, she remembers that:
In a garden on the canal known as Little Venice, now very smart, then dingy and run down, there were held ceilidhs, where Ewan MacColl sang [...]. The house belong to Honor Tracy (sic) [Arundel], an upper-class young woman whose education had destined her for a very different life, and her husband Alex McCrindle … who was in a radio series of immense popularity. There were people from the worlds of radio, music, and nascent television, and of course, women with children. Most of them were communists, but none of them were communists ten years later, except for Alex. And Ewan MacColl, the communist troubadour and bard. I found these occasions pretty dispiriting, all these people doing Scottish folk dances, often in a cold drizzle.
For Lessing, the point is how the revealed horrors of Stalinism massively shifted political allegiances in the course of one decade. McCrindle never departed from the Party; he saw it through to the bitter end, living just long enough to see the fall of the Berlin Wall. While I find it hard to comprehend McCrindle’s politics, his commitment at least feels more authentic than that of his friend Hugh MacDiarmid. It takes a particular type of villainy to wait until after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 to rejoin the Communist Party. Not for the first time, Lessing’s preoccupation with the grey British weather also stands as a judgement on some of the dismal political choices of the era.
*Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade: volume two of my autobiography, 1949–1962 London: HarperCollins1997, 108.
It’s about this famous photograph. And also: God, the moon, the origins of the Earth, stamp collecting and Aberdeen’s Music Hall – though not in that order.
This is just magic.
Since I first wrote on this topic a few months ago (again at Bella) the debate seems to have acquired a renewed energy. I find this reassuring.
Paul has a fair point when he complains that when I talk about the Uist machair, I don’t make it sufficiently clear that this doesn’t lie within any of the SNH proposed areas of ‘core wild land’. This wasn’t intentional obfuscation on my part. My experience of living in North Uist certainly informed my thinking about how much labour goes in to making Scotland’s landscapes conform more closely to the aesthetic ideals that are projected on to them.
My key point is this: areas of ‘core wild land’ may not include the machair land but the hills are still very much part of the cultural hinterland of the more inhabited districts. Part of the abstracting philosophical consequence of ‘wildness’ is to separate such landscapes from the very people who have the greatest cultural claim on them.
The hill land of South Uist – ‘core wild land’ for SNH – is not a place set apart, a landscape that can be meaningfully detached from the islanders on the west side. Unfortunately that, as I see it, is the rhetorical function of wildness as it being used here. Just because a place is not currently inhabited does not mean that it is some kind of tabula rasa to be reduced to its visual attributes for the passing hillwalker.
There are doubtless ‘wild’ places in Scotland that are less tied into their hinterlands than is the case in South Uist. But that merely reveals that the concept of ‘wildness’ is entirely insensitive to local cultural nuance.
The Uibhisteachs, to my mind, are right to be worried. They should be concerned that such a move may inhibit their ability to use the land resources that have been so hard won. There is also a wider argument to be made about the continuing failure by the state-sanctioned guardians of our natural heritage to recognise and celebrate the ways in which our natural history and cultural history are entwined.
The language of wildness always tries to keep these at arm’s length. In their consultation paper, SNH say that ‘the evidence of past and contemporary uses of these areas is relatively light, and do not detract significantly from the quality of wildness’. Detract significantly? Can’t we just stop conceiving the presence of people – historic or otherwise – as some kind of loss?
Why not think of human activity as being a constituent part of what makes these areas interesting and meaningful?
Wildness ties us up in knots. It requires all sorts of qualifications and clarifications on the part of the conservationists: ‘yes, we know that it isn’t really wild…’; ‘light evidence of people may not be too bad …’ etc.
It simply isn’t a useful term to carry a richer sense of landscape as being a hybrid labour between humans and non-humans.
I don’t for a moment think that SNH want to impose the attributes of wildness on the whole of Scotland. Rather, my problem is that they want to fix ‘wildness’ (and its proxies) as being the defining aesthetic for a big portion of the Scottish landscape. It’s an aesthetic ideal that carries some hefty political baggage and has no democratic mandate in the very regions that are deemed most wild.
One of the problems that besets the whole debate is that proponents of ‘wildness’ can’t see past the category itself. We need to understand wildness as itself a way of seeing rather as some external reality ‘out there’ in the hills.
So statements like this from SNH are rather trying:
“The appreciation of wildness is a matter of an individual’s experience, and their perceptions of and preferences for landscapes of this kind. Wildness cannot be captured and measured, but it can be experienced and interpreted by people in many different ways.”
In other words, you can have any flavour of wildness you like as long as it’s wild. Great. There doesn’t seem much room here for the many people for whom wildness is simply not the cultural lens with which they see the Highland landscape.
The argument that wildness is what brings tourists to the Highlands makes the same mistake of failing to see past the category. We must not conflate the Highland landscape with the cultural lens of wildness. Yes, ‘wildness’ is one part of how the Scottish Highlands have been iconographically represented (though the same taste for wildness didn’t always have happy consequences on the ground).
But this is less an argument about what Scotland should look like and what sort of nature we might want, than it is about how we should conceive of Scotland’s landscapes. That distinction is crucial and, at the moment, it’s mostly forgotten.
Seventy five years ago today, a stalker was looking for a wounded stag on the upper slopes of Ben Avon, the sprawling massif on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms.
Scanning the ground in the remote burn of Allt an Eas Mhoir, he found instead a badly decomposed human head. A little further upstream, he found the body of a man dressed in a dark suit with a light check. Nearby lay a plain walking stick and a brown leather attaché case.
The contents of the case were as follows:
- one pair of pyjama trousers
- two starched collars
- one toilet roll
- one pair of scissors
- one box of safety matches
- one receipt from Simpson’s two day coach tours
Also adjacent, on a small ledge of rock were found: a razor; a shaving brush; a bar of soap; a bowler hat; toothpaste and toothbrush.
Extensive police enquiries at the time failed to either identify the man or establish how he came to grief.
I find myself less interested in the life and death of the deceased than in the effect of this discovery on the stalker. We know nothing of either.
THIS MINE IS OURS
A film about Monktonhall Colliery by David Peat
Here’s some interesting old footage on the development of the original Kishorn Yard, a debate that has recently been re-ignited by the bid to use the site for the construction of onshore wind turbines.
Skip to 8:00 if you want to see Brian Wilson sporting his prog-rocker wind-cossetted mane. Or, more likely, skip to 8:40 if you’d rather not.
You can watch the second part here.
I love Kishorn and think it’s one of the most beautiful places on the western seaboard. Looking back, I don’t think that the Howard Doris yard was the disaster that many felt it might be, however ungenerous the consortium were in their cavalier approach to the planning process.
After the the remediation of the site, you would hardly know that this was where Scotland built the largest object ever to float – Ninian platform – which, whatever we might think of oil and its legacies, was quite a feat of engineering.
There are certain places that prove quite irresistible. We can find ourselves under a compulsion to know or inhabit or encircle a particular site.
I am enlivened by one such place; I pass it daily and often feel its pull. It is an unlikely spot: the Istanbul kebab shop at 80 Portobello High Street.
Some time ago this building was known by a different address, by a different appearance and for the renown of its celebrated occupant, whose name is no longer met with universal recognition.
‘Shrub Mount’, as Istanbul was then called, was the Portobello home of the eminent Victorian geologist, editor and writer Hugh Miller.
It was to this building he escaped from the stresses of editing a national newspaper, The Witness – it then outsold The Scotsman – and where he retreated to study in the private museum he had built in the grounds of a once extensive garden.
The bounds of this property are now unwittingly marked by the daily ebb of parents discharging their children at the adjacent Towerbank Primary School. These ordinary residential streets give little indication of the histories that precede them.
Hugh Miller was one of the most important figures in nineteenth century science. A correspondent of the preeminent scientific figures of his day, from Louis Agassiz to Charles Darwin, he was also a leading proponent of the ecclesiastical Disruption that saw the formation of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843.
In his Edinburgh life, he was close to the other Disruption ‘worthies’ – Thomas Chalmers, William Cunningham and James Begg – at a time when the young Free Church was brimful of intellectuals.
Miller, however, never quite fitted in with either his scientific or ecclesiastical contemporaries. He didn’t look like them, nor did he sound like them. He eschewed urban fashions for the heavy woollen plaid, a knowing self-presentation as the outsider that was famously captured in the stills of David Octavius Hill.
Steeped in the folklore and superstitions of his native Cromarty, Miller had left school at 14 to become an itinerant stonemason and had educated himself through reading, corresponding and by closely observing ‘the testimony of the rocks’.
His rise from wayfaring workman to scientific luminary, brilliantly narrated in his bildungsroman memoir My Schools and Schoolmasters, is a canonical story of nineteenth century Scotland.
Miller’s modest origins in combination with his forthright politics meant he was often rejected by the scientific establishment. The University of Edinburgh, for instance, turned him down for the Chair in Natural History – a position for which he was more than qualified.
Hugh Miller was subject to depressive episodes and periodic ill health throughout his life. In the spring of 1839, his beloved daughter, Eliza, died aged two. For this firstborn child, he made his last work of masonry – a headstone for her grave in the kirk of St Regulus, Cromarty.
There is a page about Eliza’s death in My Schools and Schoolmasters where Miller does not give her name but writes only of ‘a little girl’. Thereafter, she becomes ‘it’: ‘it had left us for ever, and its fair face and silken hair lay in darkness amid the clods of the churchyard’.
In bereavement, even a pronoun can be too personal. Still reeling from this loss, the family relocated to Edinburgh.
In time, the exchange of Marchmont and Jock’s Lodge for the seaside village of Portobello might have been something of a relief. In any case, Edinburgh’s east was already familiar to Miller from a spell of masonry work on Niddrie Marischal House twenty years earlier.
Demolished by the council in the 1930s to re-house families of slum clearance, Niddrie Marischal House was the seat of the Wauchope family. It is now one of the more deprived places in Scotland.
Here the young Hugh Miller fashioned stone mullions for the windows of the big house. In the shadow of this same house he had also witnessed at first hand the widespread poverty of the Scottish colliers, some of whom, upon birth, had become the private property of the Wauchopes.
At Niddrie Mill, he described a ‘wretched assemblage of dingy, low-roofed, tile-covered hovels’, the occupants of which were ‘a rude and ignorant race of men, that still bore about them the soil and stain of recent slavery’.
This is classic Miller. Though he could recognise well enough the brutality of the system that produced such misery, it rarely softened his judgement of those thus emmiserated.
When Hugh Miller returned to Edinburgh in 1840 as the archetypal self-made man he had no desire to proclaim his ascent into respectability. Shrub Mount was, to be sure, no Niddrie Marischal.
He sought a quiet life, at a distance from his peers in science and religion.
He worked. This meant writing, walking and reading the landscape.
I imagine that being in Portobello would have been a welcome reminder of his beloved Cromarty, both being situated on the south side of grand eastern Firths. Miller could take his four children down to the beach; or fossil-hunting among the rocks at Joppa; or guddling for invertebrates in the Figgate burn.
Guddling was always purposeful. By such means, Miller worked out that the red clays of the Figgie burn – famed for the production of Portobello bricks – ‘must have been slowly deposited in comparatively tranquil waters’.
At an exposure from a local brick works – a site near the old Roman road of the Fishwives’ Causeway – Miller found a bed of ancient shells. Though a long way inland, these were identified as Scrobicularia piperata, a distinctly intertidal species.
There was no mistaking the force of such evidence: the coastline had retreated. This land was once sea. Edinburgh itself had to be re-imagined:
We are first presented with a scene of islands – the hills which overlook the Scottish capital, or on which it is built – half sunk in a glacial sea. A powerful current from the west, occasionally charged with icebergs, sweeps past them … and in the sheltered tract of sea to the east of the islets, amid slowly revolving eddies, the sediment is cast slowly down, layer after layer, the brick clays are formed along the bottom.
One can only suppose that an unveiling of this magnitude, one not always welcomed by his co-religionists, might have proved exhausting. Miller’s life and death have all too often been interpreted as a simple tension between a commitment to Biblical inerrantism on the one hand, and empirical science on the other – with the vexed question of evolution in the middle.
This is why – so the popular version goes – that one Christmas Eve, in his upper room at Shrub Mount, Hugh Miller scribbled a note to wife, lifted his fisherman’s jersey and shot himself through the heart.
Miller’s suicide cannot be so readily explained. A fuller account might point to his failing health, overwork or domestic unhappiness. It’s complicated; and ultimately unknowable.
It is fair to say that at the end he was haunted by the apparent gap between the natural and the supernatural, between mystery and revelation.
‘Last night I felt as if I had been ridden by a witch for fifty miles’ he told his doctor, ‘and rose far more wearied in mind and body than when I lay down’.
So convinced that he had been involuntarily abroad in the night, that he would check his clothing for signs of the journey.
All of this was, for those left behind, a reassuring mark of insanity – such was needed to exonerate the sin of suicide.
And then there is his desperate suicide note:
My brain burns. I must have walked; and a fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the horrible thought. God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. Dearest Lydia, dear children, farewell. My brain burns as the recollection grows. My dear, dear wife, farewell.
All of this happened in a room above Istanbul. And I feel the gravitational pull of this site, this centre of geo-logic calculation: a modest retreat for thinking, for reading and writing, for arranging the long history of the Earth, for life and love and family.
It is his life, not his death, that moves me.
Following my Against Scottish Wildness essay, I’ve been interested to see the discussion both at Bella Caledonia and on twitter, including a lively and well-mannered exchange between myself and the John Muir Trust.
Riveting. I know.
But it is important. If the SNH designation of ‘core wild land’ is formally used to inform planning consent that could have significant repercussions for the ability of local people to use the natural resources at their disposal. It is a very imprecise tool to prevent the ‘wind-cities’ that so alarm the John Muir Trust. If you want to respond to this consultation you have to do so by Tuesday 23rd July.
Here is the SNH map and, further below, part of my formal response.
Scottish Planning Policy already safeguards areas of wild land character. Do you agree with the Scottish Government’s proposal that we use the SNH mapping work to identify more clearly those areas which need to be protected?
Specifically, I want to take issue with sections 2.20 and 2.21:
2.20 SNH has been updating its wild land mapping using modern GIS tools to provide a more objective approach to understanding wild land. Based on a number of attributes like naturalness of the land cover, ruggedness, remoteness from roads and the visible lack of modern man-made structures, SNH has published an updated map showing the ‘core’ areas of wild land in Scotland.
Most of what I want to say can be summed up thus: wildness is a human attribute that we ascribe to the landscape, not a quality that adheres in the landscape.
You cannot meaningfully objectify an element of human experience though SNH’s map seems to be the product of this misconception. All of this would be an arcane academic dispute were it not that such a map has the potential to limit the ways in which local people can use their own resources.
GIS is useful for many things but it would be an elementary error to say that because something is the outcome of GIS-based analysis it is then ‘objective’. My problem here is that claims to objectivity in this context are apt to conceal what is inevitably a political exercise. To designate land as ‘wild’, as this SNH mapping exercise does, is to privilege some attributes (ruggedness, remoteness etc) over others. In this way, the designation ‘wild’ brings into focus some elements of the landscape (for example scenery that conforms to a sublime aesthetic) at the expense of others (its toponymy or storyable properties; its productive potential). Unavoidably, this is a judgment about what we value and what we like; it couldn’t be otherwise. My concern is less that such judgments are made than that they are being concealed behind a veil of apparent objectivity. Any claim to objectivity in this regard is simply unfounded.
To comment on the methodology (pdf here) risks obscuring my more fundamental critique of the research design and framing. But let me draw attention to some other difficulties.
- For such a politically sensitive task – categorising which land can have development and which not – it is surprising that the methodology does not appear to have been subject to peer review. Claims to rigour would be more credible if it had been scrutinised by academic referees for a journal like Landscape Research or Scottish Geographical Journal.
- I can find no explanation or justification as to why these four attributes (perceived naturalness; ruggedness; remoteness; lack of visible development), and not others, were selected. What counts as ‘wild’ – and thus what can be used a proxy indicator of ‘wildness’ – is inherently subjective, though this sort nuance is lost amid much bluster about the ‘robust approach’. Imagine if SNH had used evidence of placenames from the six-inch Ordnance Survey maps from the 19th century, newly digitized by the National Library of Scotland. A very different picture of Scotland would emerge of an intimately known, named and storied landscape that runs quite against the grain of its apparent ‘wildness’.
- Plainly any model or analysis is only as good as the judgements that go into it. GIS itself confers no rigour or authority; it simply calculates whatever variables are set. Much of the important evidence for human-environment relations – the oral tradition, for example – does not come in any form that is commensurate with GIS analysis. If you exclude many traces of human engagement from the outset, as is mostly the case here, then, yes, you will find the ‘wildness’ you seek. The problem then however is that wildness then becomes a product of SNH’s own epistemology.
- The use by SNH of the ‘perceived naturalness’ of land made me wonder ‘perceived by whom’? The answer of course is by an ecologist via satellite-derived LCM2000 data. It would be hard to find a more apt metaphor for this attempt to define wild land than the claim that from Lower Earth Orbit it looks pretty natural. None of the many stakeholders here are in genuine doubt about the extent of human intervention in our uplands, or that much of this land, even that classified 5, is overgrazed.
- I have a particular concern about the criteria ‘Lack of Built Human Artefacts’. I need not dwell on the inevitable anomalies of categorization in this quantitative approach (like the fact that forestry plantations don’t count as a human artefact). But the idea of privileging the visible in the search for the wild is itself part of the long history of Romantic conceptions of wilderness. Indeed, this is the crux of the problem: the evaluation of landscape based strictly on a narrow set of aesethetic criteria will always obscure the many ways in which people have inhabited and shaped these landscapes.
In the end, all these methodological criticisms are rather beside the point. It is not that I think that SNH could just refine this methodology and produce a better map of ‘core wild land’. The undertaking is itself flawed.
The map of ‘core wild land’ assumed from the outset an a priori ‘wildness’ that is separate from the social world. In so doing, it shoulders a great deal of cultural and philosophical baggage that might still have currency in John Muir’s America, but is no longer helpful in thinking about the future of a Scottish landscape that is, and always will be, resolutely cultural.
In writing this, I should point out that I am not some libertarian advocate of development; I am also broadly supportive of a national planning strategy.
But the Scottish Government should be aware that for many communities as well as those in environmental activism and academia, the term ‘wild’ is no longer sufficient. This is not just about how we manage the landscape. It is about how we conceive of the landscape. Our conservation charities and NGOs, hunkered down in their traditional defence of an apparently ‘wild’ Scotland, have missed an opportunity to re-think what the Scottish landscape could yet become.
The Cartesian provenance of ‘wild’ will always pit people against the environment. Our planning needs a new vocabulary that is not ashamed that our nature and our culture are, and always have been, so thoroughly intertwined.
I have a written an essay over at Bella Caledonia against the idea of wild land in Scotland. It is an unlikely argument to to make but I am troubled at how little critical attention has been given to the idea of designating much of Scotland as ‘core wild land‘.
To categorise some places in this way seems to me highly political. It is a way of privileging one culturally specific way of seeing the Highlands, with its roots in the picturesque and the sublime, over other ways of knowing, working and experiencing the landscape.
Here is the video that inspired the essay. Pure landscape eye-candy – very nicely made – but not as benign as it seems.