Unwilding Scotland: a response to critics

A short essay of mine over at Bella Caledonia called Unwilding Scotland attracted many intelligent responses. It’s taken me too long to reply but I thought I’d try and clarify a few things.

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.

What follows is mostly in response to Paul Webster’s comments (Paul runs the wonderful Walk Highlands website which is more or less essential browsing for anyone planning a longer walk in Scotland).

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.

The Gravity of Hugh Miller

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:

Dearest Lydia

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.

Hugh Miller

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.

 

What’s wrong with the SNH map of ‘core wild land’

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.

I have now had a chance to address the ostensible object of this debate, namely the consultation over the Scottish Government’s National Planning Framework 3, Main Issues Report.

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?

 

No.

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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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’.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.

St Kilda’s other stories

I have a bit of past form for being churlish about all the attention devoted to St Kilda.  Last week my persistent grumpiness was put to the test by visiting the archipelago for the first time, accompanied by students on our annual Edinburgh University human geography field class.

It is hard not to be moved by the grandeur. Such vertiginous heights – ‘steep frowning glories’ as Lord Byron might have called them – which are all the more impressive when given occasional perspective given by the tiny spec of an old fowling bothy. No photograph can really convey this scale and it is fair to say that I haven’t seen anything quite like it.

The built environment might have been equally striking had countless images of this abandoned village not already been intimately known to me since childhood.

 

 

When I was eight years old, my brother bought an LP by Scottish folk pioneers Ossian. Entitled ‘St Kilda Wedding’, the cover showed a landscape rendered in pen and wax crayon. This evocative image, and the lovely reel from which the album draws its title, had me hooked – though it took me another twenty years to make my own contribution (pdf 0.5mb) to the story.

Maybe it was this longstanding familiarity that left me relatively unmoved by Village Bay. The curation in the village museum didn’t help matters. I think its emphasis on the difference of St Kilda compared to other Hebridean outliers is relentless and misplaced.

For instance, the charge of the islanders’ ‘extremism’ in religious matters is largely unwarranted, at least in comparison with other islands. It comes in part from the gawping ignorance of Glasgow Herald journalist Robert Connell in the 1880s and, subsequently, via uncritical accounts by Tom Steel and Charles Maclean.

I was further irked that the story of St Kilda basically stops with the evacuation in 1930, as if the later occupation by the military doesn’t quite count as a legitimate part of island history. A throwaway line about the Ministry of Defence being a partner in current management glosses over the remarkable Cold War history of the island.

 

Maybe the fact that this was the tracking station for the world’s first nuclear missile unsettles the wilderness ideal? How can such strategic centrality be reconciled with the island-on-the-edge-of-the-world framing?

My interests are admittedly rather niche but I found the signs of military occupation by far the most interesting aspect of St Kilda. Operation Hardrock, which saw the development of the radar tracking station in 1957, more than made its mark. And those involved in its construction left their own inscriptions.

All archaeologists love the discovery of a coin as a dating device. And doubtless this was in the mind of whichever workman placed a newly minted half penny in the wet concrete road – date side up, naturally. (Thanks to Kevin Grant, NTS archaeologist for pointing it out).

Other traces are less explicit but no less interesting: whose quiff was tamed by this black comb, found half way up Mullach Mòr?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A cement patch provides an enduring memorial.

And then there are inscriptions on a landscape scale: the origin of the materials for Operation Hardrock will not likely be forgotten any time soon. A quarry this size is hard to overlook.

All of this is fascinating but it is not the St Kilda we know.  That story is fixated with a tragedy in which innocent pre-moderns are taken in by villainous missionaries.  As with many founding myths of nationhood, it is a colourful lament for a golden age that is poorly anchored in the available evidence.

Meanwhile, the evidence for other lives and other landscapes remains carefully cropped out of our photos of Village Bay.

 

 

 

New archives: Erskine Beveridge and North Uist

I came across a small haul of gold yesterday. One of my hawk-eyed PhD students, Ben Garlick, spotted some material in the archives of the Scottish Ornithologists Club belonging to Frederick S. Beveridge – a son of the Fife archaeologist and industrialist Erskine Beveridge.

I am slowly trying to piece together the life and work of this family from various archival fragments and from the ruins of their Hebridean residence on the island of Vallay, off North Uist.

For such a notable family – both wealthy and connected – it is amazing how few traces have survived. All of this makes the collection of bird notes by the young Fred particularly interesting.

Fred was inducted by his father in to the rituals of fieldwork: careful observation, recording, collection and analysis. Where Erskine Beveridge applied these techniques to the vestiges of antiquity, Fred and his brothers – George and David – put them to work in the service of ornithology.

None of them had an easy life. David died of dysentery at Gallipoli. George, forbidden to marry the love of his life, descended into alcoholism and eventually drowned while crossing the ford back to Vallay.

Fred steered the family linen business into liquidation, married unhappily and died on the birthday of his only daughter.

His birding notes in the SOC archive date to the time when the family fortunes were more buoyant; the game was certainly plentiful, at least on this evidence from Vallay.

Fred’s early observations on the birds of North Uist were eventually collected together for a scholarly paper in The Scottish Naturalist, a paragraph of which I quoted in my doctoral thesis:

The inhabitants of North Uist, when you know them, are a most agreeable people who have helped me in every possible way by observing new arrivals or rarities. I find but one fault of any magnitude, and that is a great passion for collecting birds’ eggs during the nesting season. During the early summer their women folk scour the foreshore in veritable hosts – they seem countless; […] they wander further and further afield, to return at dusk laden, not with cockles but with hundreds of wild birds’ eggs. No wonder that this trait does not appeal to one, but rather kindles in the onlooker the same spirit as that shown by our bovine friend at the sight of the proverbial red rag.

The local context to Fred’s complaint – though he might have felt it inappropriate for the pages of The Scottish Naturalist – was that land was in short supply and such eggs were a basic part of human nutrition. Within two years, impoverished islanders would threaten a land raid on the Beveridge estate.

Amongst the papers in the SOC, I found a letter from Fred to his father enclosing offprints of this article. It seems as if Erskine Beveridge might have been thinking about updating his own monograph North Uist: its archaeology and topography, with notes about the early history of the Outer Hebrides. Perhaps Fred’s paper could have been included in this as an addendum? In any case, Fred asks that should his bird article be reproduced then the above paragraph should be omitted – ‘more of a safety valve than anything else’. Interesting.

Also included in Fred’s notes are some curious little doodles and sketches. Take this one from 4th September 1915. Is this a sketch of his father? If it is a self-portrait, that is an impressive beard for a 19 year-old.

Or how about this sketch entitled “If” with the line ‘some dreams of a far-off land’?

The profile of hills looks like Eaval from Grimsay. The boat is called the Plover. Does anyone know any more detail about this vessel?

At Dun Torcuill, North Uist

This is one of the most distinctive ancient monuments in Scotland: Dun Torcuill, a fine Hebridean broch or, if you want to be picky, a ‘galleried dun’.

 

And this is the path to Dun Torcuill.

When I say path, there really isn’t one. There are, instead, a series of formidable obstacles.

In one sense that is the point of a Dun: built on water, it was to be accessible only by a narrow and sometimes submerged causeway. It was never welcoming to strangers.

But these ditches and deer fences are not part of the original fortification. Rather, visitors are just not really expected here. You can tell that from the broken Historic Scotland sign which I moved to reveal a benighted patch of chlorotic grass.

Dun Torcuill does not feature in the ordinary tourist itinerary and you will be hard pressed to find it on a postcard. This is perhaps a good thing in that the site, a scheduled ancient monument, still exists in a state of primitive grandeur.

The partly collapsed broch is now covered in lichens giving it a peculiar bearded appearance, though this is plainly not new.


It was more lightly encrusted when the antiquarian Erskine Beveridge (1851-1920) visited in the early twentieth century. This is his photo of the site.

Of the many photographs in his classic book North Uist, there is only one – here at Dun Torcuill – to feature a family member. This person is ostensibly included for scale but there is a sentiment at work here too. In all likelihood, it is either his only daughter, Mary Beveridge, or else his young second wife Meg Inglis.

I am struck by the fact that not much in this scene has changed since Beveridge took his photo. This is noteworthy because in the same period North Uist has been utterly transformed, not least its economic orientation which has seen ‘heritage’ become an axis of local development.

North Uist is one of the most remarkable prehistoric landscapes in Britain – that’s what attracted Erskine Beveridge in the first place. But the islanders are now competing with their neighbours in Harris and Lewis for the ultimate tourist drawcard: the chance to present the St Kilda story. I don’t blame them. Economically, it makes total sense.

But it is an odd circumstance when local and charismatic prehistoric structures are virtually unknown while the small, largely modern, dwellings of the St Kildans are iconic. It is hard to understand why the story of this one abandoned island has metastasised across the entire Hebridean archipelago.

Yes, I can see that St Kilda is storyable in ways that Dun Torcuill isn’t. But it troubles me that part of our collective interest in St Kilda still draws on discredited Victorian ideas of difference: a kind of freakshow historiography that has made a fetish of thick ankles and prehensile toes.

It is important to remember that there are other Hebridean stories that matter; they are often closer to hand and – perhaps as a consequence – rather more remote.

Will Self on the psychogeography of the Scotland

The full text of Will Self’s Wreford Watson lecture on the psychogeography of Scotland has now been published, appropriately enough, in Scottish Geographical Journal. Readers familiar with this doughty organ will recognise this publication as something of a first, not least for being the sweariest contribution in its 130 year history. Admittedly the bar is quite low. Or high, depending on your view.

I will not need to convince you that the essay is a great read – you can see for yourself, thanks to SGJ and their publisher Taylor & Francis who have agreed to make it freely available. You can download the pdf here.

Alternatively, if you want to watch the lecture for yourself you can do so below – courtesy of the School of GeoSciences YouTube account.

 

Why I love Cockenzie Power Station

I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: I love Cockenzie Power Station.

When I hit Portobello prom of a morning, I invariably give it a backward glance.

Later, when I’m crossing North Bridge over Waverley Station, I like to check that it is still there.

From this vantage point, the tourists are agog at the Scott Monument, the Nelson Monument, the Castle – even, heaven help us, at the Balmoral Hotel.

I’d flatten them all for Cockenzie Power Station.

Even from a proximity of ten miles, it looks monumental; the distant outline of Byres Hill gives it a picturesque frame.

If you have ever lived in Edinburgh you’ll likely know Cockenzie’s distinctive twin chimneys. But given that it is due to close at the end of March, now is probably a good time to give them some proper attention.

Cockenzie is closing because it positively belches carbon. That is, of course, what it was designed to do – turning coal into electricity – and it has done so productively since it opened in the midst of a turbulent May 1968.

I understand why these behemoths must die and I’m not going to attempt to defend their continued existence.  Borne of good intent into an age of carbon innocence, they have served their purpose well.

Permissions are now in place to convert Cockenzie from coal to (more efficient) CCGT gas.

This is good news (sort of) for greenhouse gas emissions but bad news for one of the most distinctive landmarks on the east coast. These stately chimney stacks are set to be demolished in favour of two rather diminished replacements.

The aesthetic effect of this change is, as you can see from Scottish Power’s visualizations, fairly lamentable.

This is perhaps why I’ve been particularly attentive to Cockenzie in recent months – enjoying it, as it were, from every angle.

 

I can see that it doesn’t make sense to import coal from Russia now that our own industry has been destroyed or exhausted.

But the presence of Cockenzie Power Station in the landscape is one of the last monuments to a wider modernist project for the Forth that saw the development of Livingstone and Glenrothes, the Forth Road Bridge and sibling power stations at Longannet, Methil and Kincardine.

In Portobello, the outline of Cockenzie has a particular resonance given that it was the replacement to our own no less remarkable power station, opened by George V in 1923, and finally demolished in 1976.

It is doubtless too late to save the twin towers of Cockenzie. But it does seem symptomatic of a wider disregard of our modernist heritage as well, perhaps, as speaking to a more general discomfort with our having been modern in the first place.

 

On Harry Smart – poet, geographer, artist etc.

There has been a bit of background chat in recent years about the correspondence between geography and poetry. A conference session was organised at the IBG in 2010. Last year, Royal Holloway inaugurated a new MA in Place, Environment, Writing with a lecture by Sir Andrew Motion.

One of the animating figures of this new programme is the geographer Tim Cresswell who has his own new collection of poetry out later this year.

And here in the parish of @EdinGeography, we hold our seminars under the mustachioed visage of poet and geographer James Wreford Watson – a doppelgänger of Bruce Forsyth – whose acclaimed landscape elegies in the 1950s were laced with an edge of genteel smut.

Much less attention, however, has been given to the geographer-poet, Harry Smart, who published three collections of work with Faber in the early 1990s – Pierrot (1991), Shoah (1993) and Fool’s Pardon (1995).

Fool’s Pardon, Faber, 1995

Admittedly, Smart is less of a geographer-poet than a poet who happens to have a PhD in geography. His thesis, submitted to the University of Aberdeen in 1984, was later published as a Routledge monograph – Criticism and public rationality: professional rigidity and the search for caring government (1991).

One suspects that geography was not, for Smart, a formative intellectual home; in any case, he left it behind sometime before the ‘cultural turn’.

Living in Aberdeen, and later in Montrose, Smart took some cultural turns all of his own, leaving academia to become an evangelical lay preacher, then a poet. Three collections with Faber can reasonably be called success.

After poetry, fiction: his political thriller set in 1960s Africa was titled Zaire (Dedalus Books, 1997), though the fact that the country of that name immediately declared itself as Democratic Republic of the Congo probably didn’t help sales.

In 2000, Smart enrolled in a Master of Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee where he undertook painting and photography – you can read some of his reflections on his art practice here.

Black Apple © Harry Smart

It’s fair to say that his visual art, like his writing, does not shy away from darker themes. His website – distinctly NSFW, as they say – is a fascinating labyrinth of essays, excerpts, poems, photos, art and erotica. Though it hasn’t been updated for many years, it is well worth a visit.

I was intrigued to discover some photographs in which the Montrose railway bridge – designed by the same architect as the ill-fated Tay Bridge – became a backdrop to some calendar shots. This is by no means the most surprising juxtaposition on the website.

The estuarine landscapes of Montrose and the east coast also appear in Smart’s poetry. The following poem, Praise, from Fool’s Pardon, is a particular favourite. A rendering of Scottish Calvinism and landscape, it takes the form of a modern doxology.

It has often come to mind when exploring the Firth of Forth in these dark January days.

 

Praise

Praise be to God, who pities wankers
and has mercy on miserable bastards.
Praise be to God, who pours out his blessing
on reactionary warheads and racists.

For he knows what he is doing;
the healthy have no need of a doctor,
the sinless have no need of forgiveness.
But, you say, They do not deserve it.

That is the point; that is the point.
When you try to wade across the estuary at low tide
but misjudge the distance, the currents, the soft ground
and are caught by the flood in deep schtuck,

then perhaps you will realise that God is to be praised
for delivering dickheads
from troubles they have made for themselves.
Praise be to God, who forgives sinners.

Let him who is without sin throw the first headline.
Let him who is without sin build the gallows,
prepare the noose, say farewell
to the convict with a kiss.

.

A Muddy Testament: Finlay Munro’s footprints and other Calvinist landscapes

For all the contemporary interest in cultural landscape interpretation and conservation, there are plenty of sites that elude official attention. Many are just too awkward or too obscure.

Finlay Munro’s footprints at Torgyle, Glenmoriston is arguably one such: a set of footprints imprinted in the clay since the 1820s as a muddy testament to the religious truths proclaimed by an itinerant evangelical preacher.

The Footprints, from GNM Collins, Principal John Macleod D.D. (1951)

Finlay Munro was, by all accounts, a strange and charismatic figure. Born in Tain, he became famous for tramping the byways of the Highlands and islands preaching an evangelical gospel to anyone who would listen.

“The clergy were mad against him,” recalled Rev Alexander Maclean of North Uist, “and the ignorant and wild people dealt brutally with him in every place”.

And yet Munro had his followers – despite the disapproval of the ministers who resented this unkempt upstart distracting their own flocks.

In Lewis, an immense congregation gathered on the low hill of Muirneag where people often met for worship. Such were the multitudes gathered on the slopes, that Munro in his sermon addressed the hill itself: “Muirneag, Muirneag, it is you that may feel well pleased today with your new coat on” (a pun on the Gaelic name, ‘little pleasing one’).

In a short portrait of Munro, Free Church Principal John Macleod (1872–1948) quotes an old crofter friend of his – Archie Crawford – who, as a boy, had heard Munro preaching in his father’s barn. “He [Crawford] formed the opinion” writes Macleod with some understatement, “that there was something unsettled about him, and, indeed, that he was odd”.*

Though by no means unaccustomed to ridicule, Finlay Munro was subject to some particularly disruptive hecklers when preaching in Glenmoriston in 1827. That his tormentors were allegedly Roman Catholics from Glengarry surely adds to the currency of the tale.

Munro stood his ground. He told them that the very clay would testify to the truth of his words; that his footprints would endure – until his hearers met their judgment or, in some accounts, until the Day of Judgment.

And there they remain – an epistemic imprint. They are not, despite their protective cairn, very easy to locate. The most reliable means of finding the site is to use the OS grid reference - NH 311138. A map can be found here.

© Copyright John Allan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Such landscapes are invariably awkward for the appointed guardians of heritage. For one thing, they tend to commemorate or evoke traditions, values and stories that don’t readily translate into the secular world.

An unthreatening veneration of Celtic Christianity is all very well but who, in officialdom, wants to recall spiritual intensities, conversions, callings, judgments, liberties in prayer and convictions of sin?

And yet these aspects of Highland experience arguably occupy a large part of the oral tradition in the last two hundred years and they, in turn, find their expression in the storied landscape.

This sort of lore stirs us – but uneasily; it draws out our aversion to the uncanny. Nothing in modern Scotland is more familiar and more foreign than Calvinism. That’s why it is interesting.

Notes

*John Macleod, ‘A Highland Evangelist’ in GNM Collins, Principal John Macleod D.D., Free Church Publications Committee (Edinburgh, 1951).