Going to visit the Folks

The walk to Taigh na Bodach has aspects of a pilgrimage for me. It involves  along journey, some routefinding and a walk through as near to a desolate landscape as I am ever likely to find in a Scottish summer ( although the walk to Hampden Park from Glasgow Central on Cup Final day also pops into mind).

I spend a lot of time wondering why I dislike reservoirs so much.  Reducing the carbon footprint or public thirst quenching doesn’t seem to make a difference to my disdain. This one -grandly titled, Loch Lyon- is as usual surrounded by a tidemark of unnatural beaches and a stretchmark of dirt road.

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I spend a lot of time plodding forth and making unlooked for journeys back to my originary version of this – called Loch Lee, which blocks Glen Esk at the top of its own single track road, and made an obvious focus for family picnicking trips back in the day.

It always invoked a sense of dread in me – I felt Iwas being watched by a malevolent deity, and the frequent angry gusts down the vacant gape of the loch were shudder provoking. Now I can  also see the connection to premonitions of carsickness and unwelcome adult attention which went with these excursions.

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I try to treat Loch Lyon on its own merits , notice wheatears being white arsed, and take in the views of the thighs of the local cloud topped mounts, but as usual my response reverts to trying to route march around the track as quick as poss. Diverted mainly by the constant rain of grit into my boots ( how does that happen?).

At the top of the loch a burn leads up into the Breadalbane hills , green knee caps of the giants, and from that another hanging glen dangles, containing, above the falls Taigh na Bodach (or Cailleach).. This is one of the many ambiguities here . It is clear the glen is Glen Cailleach , home of the Alllt Cailleach. The OS map says in that wrinkly special writing – that feels like a treasure map – Taigh na Bodach , but all the current bloggers are keen to revise it’s goddess association.IMG_20170616_112615182

I am here largely because I wrote about this place carelessly in my article on Tombreck for the catalogue to Poet, Painter,Potter .I wondered at the time whether my house style would fit with the ascetic of art catalogues, and received enough editorial feedback to make me realize it was not a good match.

One of the feedbacks which I considered thoughtfully was the attachment of personal pronouns to the statue of An Cailleach in this hut.  I used It originally,  it was suggested I amend to She,  the lack of gender being confirmed as a significant insult by a shamanistic source . I found I couldn’t do this. This took me into a quandary . I don’t think it will be a huge spoiler to announce  I am an atheist , and am not inclined to personify imaginary deities, and particularly representations of them. On the other hand,  the use of the trappings of signification are clearly a part of my writing style , all that weird profane illumination stuff , and I am inclined to try to understand how other people are coming to terms with the Death of God ( or Dearth of Gods, as I typ(o)ed originally and much prefer).

So here I am trudging up Glen Lyon to make my peace..

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A small stone hut, about the size of a kitchen dresser and the height of a sheep , turf-roofed , timber-lintelled and carefully dry-stoned ( which I later discover is the result of a recent restoration) is the abode of the statues. It is in a lot better nick than several of the bothies I ve come across, and most of the graves in a Scottish cemetery.

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The Cailleach, the Bodach , the Nigheach (daughter) , and a few other rounded stones are outside , surveying the glen ( if stones had eyes) , from what I guess is their garden. They are about the size of cobble stones, or irreverently, garden gnomes, but shaped into things with necks , which is no minor thing to do to a lump of granite..

Someone has brought them a couple of Red Delicious , I suspect from the NISA in Crianlarich , where I noticed them yesterday , whilst sheltering from the rain. The teenage shop assistant was relieved I seemed willing to make an actual purchase within an acceptable timescale, which differentiated me from the usual backpack customer

‘ They stand around for ages , don’t buy anything and then expect me to give them a weather forecast. How the fuck am I supposed to know when the rain is going to go off.. Its CRIANLARICH..’ .

The apples are confusing the small flock of sheep which I have scared off to a nearby vantage point, and since neither they or the Celtic gods have eaten them yet I think it is safe to remove the offerings without serious consequences.IMG_20170616_113401714

I’ve walked two hours to get here and feel a lengthy contemplation would be the appropriate thing to do . I manage 15 minutes..

Its remarkable , it has an installational quality ( perhaps because of the emptiness of the background), a site specificness, and the heavy rock rubbed into shape has a primeval quality, which speaks of primitive rather than ancient – although it could be both. It reminds me of outsider art , and of course it is – a strange cult , in a remote place, part of a meaning system i don’t understand – deep in the heart of Scotland ,  a long way from authority , except for the authority you might imagine from the eyes in the hills, which loom, as they do.

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The Taigh ( male, female or gender neutral), opens East and downstream over an area of lush grass – as lionized by Duncan Ban on the other side of the hills some centuries ago– and about a hundred yards from the resting phase of a Highland stream, slightly upriver from a small confluence. A moraine makes a boundary to the foreground, crossing the valley , forming a lip to the bowl , which the river skirts and then breaks through in geological time stage left , where the landrover track has now opened a second wound into the boulder clay.  The doorway also frames the hill on the other side of the main valley , which catches the light occasionally, but doesn’t look exceptional.

None of it really does. Its not Stonehenge , or Maes Howe (and I wouldn’t have this place to myself if it did). Its a humdrum special place , somehow homelike and impossibly remote.

My reaction to it is to The Past. The Before and Gone. That feeling I get when I experience an aspect of a way of life that I cant comprehend. – which I guess is that the world is even bigger than I thought.

The statues are small enough to inspire care,not awe. The sheep have knocked one down , and I set it upright again, like I would have done with my child’s toys, or do to cairns on top of mountains. They feel more like your grandparents than your gods. Maybe that’s it  – they are after all about continuity, like the old stories that were dying.IMG_20170616_122325060

Some of the sources describe the shrine of unique. Again I am inclined to doubt. All over Scotland the animals went off to the upland pasture at Beltane , and returned at Samhain. There are loads of ruined shielings – and we would not know if they were for shepherds or gods. On the Inner Hebridean island of Gigha there are bodach and cailleach stones , bare and overlooking the lands, much as a barrow would have done.  A fallen Celtic God would easily merge with the rubble of abandoned cottage , sheep fank or glacial outwash.IMG_20170616_113442221

My shamanistic source tells me that their school interprets the Celtic family as spirits or archetypes , something watching over us, or that we can imagine watching over us, rather than an interventionist deit(ies). There are some legends about this place , but it is hard to know how much they have been rewritten.

 

The legends I found involve  a strange family who come to the Taigh and receive shelter and offer ongoing protection if they’re hut is kept maintained. It is a familiar tale – although in this version no-one upsets the apple carts.. (unless it was me with the Red Delicious,,)  I like better the personifications of the Hills and the Snow in the forms of the Cailleach and Bodach. Its the world you are looking up at all the time , which contains your fate in the winds and the weather. These are the things you’d want on your side.

One of the virally spread internet explanations of the site, suggests it had to be rededicated to the local saint at some point ( who has the main valley named after him) and the rocks are numbered at twelve, and are apostles. Maybe this was a clue to its protection and survival, whilst the missionaries moved north into the Jacobite hinterland.

Taigh was part of something though. I wonder if its custodians were honorary or casual, its respect specific or customary , its presence happenstance or deliberate . I guess all this ambiguity and remoteness is what gives us scope for imagining – and that is why  now it is an appropriate site for a pilgrimage.

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It hints to an active world that was once there- ruined shielings,  an extant site of tree roots which would have been a dying pine wood – and is  gradually returning to being one again as neo-Celts, stravaigers and psychogeotourists blunder up Glen Lyon again to read the entrails of Gaeldom.

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Land of Plenty

Buchan- a land of plenty

Peat bogs and puddock-steels,

Weet and clorty widder,

And contermashious deils!

John C Milne 

I think contermashious is pretty memorable word. The Concise Scottish Dictionary states it is derived from a slightly archaic (or pure) English form.  Its the only word in the poem above that I would not have recognised on my own. Yet I got  the sense of it quite quickly and see the  emphatic, aggrandising fit of it against ‘deils’.

My older relatives who we visited interminably in my youth spoke something like Doric, on occasion, usually for effect – comic, demonstrative, or directive. .They loved Doric verse .. Its full of stuff like this -which probably only works if you get the double meaning of Plenty. and comes from a cultural place best summarised in the sayings “Ah kent his father” and “Wha’s like us- damn few, (and they’re aw deid)” , which used to adorn tartan tea towels in the  giftshops of my past..

Reading through the Bothy Ballads, fictive sourcebook of this stuff, I see a resemblance to the lyric sheet of a rap album – drink, girls, sharp practice, testosterone and masses of unselfconscious pride. It is the music of a masculine working class elite, but preserved in aspic (whatever that was)  by a bunch of  nostalgic schoolmasters as the Wars ended that culture, if we believe James Leslie Mitchell( which is a good idea in my view) .

I feel like I would like to claim ‘contermashious’ as part of my cultural capital , to go alongside ‘hailstergowdie’ , ‘foggit’, ‘cushats’, ‘teuchats’ and ‘wee nyaffs’. But never in the same sentence –  I don’t want to become a cultural cliché, and were I to lapse into Scots derivatives there will be a fair number of my friends who wouldn’t understand me, and they are probably more interesting than the people who would.

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Window in St Nicks, Aberdeen

Which would have been my position  through most of my adult life. But I may be at some kind of tipping point..  ‘What you cast off will hit back..’ as Mark E Smith snarled on an early album.. The tipping point is about trying to establish a sense of identity – well that part of it that allows you to have authority about a part of your life that you have lived.

I wonder if I can find a response to the language which identifies my home patch – which in the words of its makars would be Doric, a strange Hellenistic term for  the vernacular of North East Scotland.. It is now mysteriously merged with Lallans , vernacular from central Scotland into something called Scots, into which classics of children’s literature  are being translated, and some writing is being produced by James Robertson , Matthew Fitt and others.. This being distinguished from Lallans , in the words of an audience member at one of Robertson’s book signings,   ‘by the fact you can understand it’.

Intelligibility is a useful characteristic for a language, but another is descriptiveness.  My belief has usually been that nothing very original has been said in any of these languages.  They are usually comic in intent, and conservative in their form.  These are the limitations that led Hugh McDiarmid (himself an invention) to create synthetic Scots , which is unintelligible,  self -aggrandizing, but occasionally memorable.

All of these are , of course, sanitized vernaculars – the Concise Scots Dictionary has no truck  for the swearie words, the cadence is reproduced without class and locality, the democracy of presbyterianism is reproduced  without the repression.

In Doric particularly there doesn’t seem to be any  geographic beyond to look to. Not Gaeldom or Europe, but archetypes of the past , granite versions of ageless stoicism and dark, unmentioned shadows. Thus the  rise and fall  of New Aberdeen feels like a tide breaking over a large block of granite. It started in my teens and hasn’t quite lasted a lifetime ( which in my case started with a typhoid outbreak and may end with lots of the region underwater) but never seemed to have any permanence . Exhibition centres, civic buildings and house farms have all had a pop up feel.The land alone endures as LGG  has it.

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Granite lion, guess where?

It may be that sometimes the past looks more hopeful. Grammar schools, when you kent their father and, when you could trust the laird to stick up for his chiels, that great reimagined past.

Maybe in the part of the country where the contrast between a conservative , semi-rural society and high multinational capitalism has been starkest, that nostalgia is more explicable. But it is still bollocks, and we should be grateful that wee Eck’s opportunism has landed us with no worse than a mock-Baronial golf course as a monument to the worst ever US president’s vanity (not that the residents of the Mennie Estate will feel so).

Around the oil capital this summer I noticed lots of young people running. Probably  in circles, potentially away , but apparently to avoid stasis , the sense of settling, or like prisoners doing press ups,  to keep in shape for their eventual release (or jail break).

Of course I am drawing on another tradition the  long history of exiled Scots returning to trash their home land. Edwin Muir, JM Barrie , Rhona Cameron ( I live in Musselburgh) . Maybe we can understand it as frustration and relief..As another exiled ( almost) Scot put it

I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to,

Could we make The Thrums vibrant ? (  although currently Kirrie , birthplace of JMB, feels fairly funky). One of the legacies I can see in these grumbling narratives  is a deep pessimism about  volkishness and loyalism ( both with and without capitals)   which seems more pronounced in the North East than elsewhere. Other scots regionalism – say McDiarmid s Langholm , pie-eyed Dundonianisms or various Gaelic Brigadoons, seem to refer outward to a common humanity, and lands across the sea. Up in Buchan its the ancestors – actual or mythical.

The oil boom allowed more of my classmates to escape this than ever before. When I met them in adulthood on north bound trains they told me of their adventures in the Far East and Mid West, usually on familiar engineering installations, but with furlough in strange parts there was little doubt that travel had broadened their minds, as it broadened mine.  The ones who’ve stayed faired less well.

I’ve taken it personally. So it seems everytime I write about the North East I reach a point of suppressed rage at its dunderheided parochialism.  I want to be identified with where I grew up , but I don’t want to identify with what happens there.

I used to select items of hopeful intent from local history – the commune Edward Baird set up on Rossie Island, the Brechin carter’s strike,  the genesis of Hugh McDiarmid in a back street in Montrose,  the CND protests against the US naval base in Edzell. These are rare moments and largely unacknowledged, and moreso because of the consensual basis of parochial localness, which largely papers over the cracks and thus protects the status quo. Near where I grew up tied cottages have prevented rural development and effectively preserved a long glen as a shooting estate for a group of landed gentry. There is an efficient and well established anthropological folk museum and history project in the area which makes no mention of this.

Most of our heroes now are never going to be local . But it would be nice to imagine they could have been. That Bruce Springsteen or Morrissey , could have roamed the Angus Glens in a battered Ford Escort, gunning it towards pheasants on the roads at dusk ,partly for food and partly out of vengeance.. but it is hard to imagine either of them plucking a pheasant..  Or indeed anyone who has plucked a pheasant as a star.

Yet where do we go without dreams ? We settle . We take what we are given , grudgingly , but as plenty , as in the sense of enough. And we resent those who don’t . Contermatious may be a good word to know at the moment.

The Faces

 

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There were times when drinking brought elation, but others, like tonight, when it brought only a weariness that felt universal. It was too hard to walk home, the streets and pavements all sloped steeply upwards, the street lights dimmed, and the hoardings were all touting TORPOR.

In this mood I sat down on a bench and was shortly joined by an elderly wino.. The accepted behaviour in these situations was to move off smartly discouraging the anticipated hard luck story and importuning request.. I hadn’t the energy and it seemed neither had he to close on his mark.

Instead he lingered, hesitant in his pitch, coughed, fidgeted, and then slumped back . We shared a mutual silence. We watched the branches wobble uncertainly in the breeze as an occasional footfall passed. Time passed  too.

At some point I heard him say,

Son , the only thing that’s changed around here are the faces..

The silence resumed. We made no eye contact, but continued to stare out from our bench, at the silhouettes of the bleary figures, and finally I could see it was true. They had changed – been repaired, restored or recycled.. With concentration you could see the scars, the tucks and joins.

We sat there for aeons, and watched new versions of the same intrigues. Our vista grew and shrank and grew again, took in the growth of cities, ruinous sieges, pageants, romances, memorials, commitments, riots, pantomimes and pogroms , which we knew would cycle endlessly, like the growth and decay of the foliage which overhung our seat. There was still no need to say anything, yet I felt a certain duty to reflect on what I d seen , to pass the time of day with another witness –

‘Son, the only thing that’s changed around here are the faces.’ I said..

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