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.

Siccar Point

The trod to Siccar Point. Offering false promise along the shore through slab fields of fallen sandstone tipped out of cliff faces by the crumbling breccia beneath.

You cant get far that way and we are soon hopping back up following the deer to the boundary wall. But finding at the top that someone has gone and dropped a long distance path up there. Shucks!  Its a COASTAL TRAIL, but soon it dives inland doonhollow to the giant turnip complex hidden Wallace-and-Gromitly in the old quarry – what do they really do in there? The sheep look suspiciously wooden and we can see the nuclear plant in the distance.. HMMm.. There’s something fishy going on..

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Following the cliff line we track a stoat along the wall. Down below sails the small boat of Mr

 

Hall of Dunglass , containing his near neighbour Mr Hutton of Monynut and Playfair of Edinburgh University. It bobs on a milky sea..

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In the boat – (Fx – to the rhythm of the waves)

‘ Ho!, Quite glad Hume was preoccupied today..’

‘ Hi!, Wouldnt be room in the boat had he not been…’

‘Aye, sirrah, he’s a bit of a geological formation himself..’

‘Whff, How goes it with the Great Infidel’

‘He still repenteth not .. and indulgeth much’

‘ An Unconformity , indeed’

‘An example to us all perhaps’

‘And with us in spirit’

‘ We judge by evidence not superstition, what..’

All evidence suggest that the future will resemble the past‘ quoth he,,

‘ Look for the patterns – assume not magic or magicians, but time and repetition. ‘

What is there is enough to capture our awe..’

‘And that itself may be divine’

‘Or Divinely inspired”

‘Be we Heretics then, fellows?’

‘No sir, we are Three Men in A Boat, private in our thoughts and speculations’

‘ Well , so , but there is power in these thoughts.. Profitable in many directions ‘

‘Aye well ye’d know that James’

Siccar (to make sure) is near – overhead circle the fulmars and among them the figure of the w’ged Foucault.Atop the banking is the easel of Steven Campbell , and chipping away on the raised beach are Chris Grieve’s Whalsay chums. At sea a boat carries the Motley Crew. Distantly we sight the tousled wandering Nan Shepherd, while Bellany and Kenny White observe the gannets, and Jean Redpath duets with The Seals. The Caledonian antisyzgy glints in the sun.

 

Scotland after all is A LANDSCAPE FASHIONED BY GEOLOGY.

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Progress to the Unconformity is now aided by sturdy ropes and interpretative boards. The drop off is dizzyingly Danteanly appropriate. We descend not to Hell but to Truth.

The unconformity, tucked down on the shore, is Incontrovertible. God retreats after trying to shower us with an unruly seventh wave.

We trace its outline with our fingers, two geological dilletantes, defined by our unconforming scepticism ; and say how great it is to be here together. The rocks don’t fit smoothly and neither do we.

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There are many lumpy differences that need to be eroded first, and a gap that speaks of absence.

We speculate about bringing the returning fundamentalist militants down for part of their re-education . But you only really see it if you want to , and when you do nothing will ever be the same again.. what is layered down on top – the conformity – is an illusion.

And more, the same small movements over and again, everyday struggle, resistance and demand, creates and destroys , makes and remakes us all.

Let our chant be

‘ that we find no vestige of a beginning , no prospect of an end’ .

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On the bed of the Moldau the stones they are turning..

The night has twelve hours , the day comes at last..

In St Baldreds Land

It came to me as I marched towards North Berwick that I was heading for the wrong place. That NB orientations- topographical-historical-psychogeographical,  were not towards the Bass , but towards the May, and via that to Fife. And then I remembered that transport to both the monastery of the May, source of beer and literacy , and the pilgrim route towards Earlsferry and Fife – St Andrews, ultimately –  progressed medievally out of North Berwick harbour.

The May was a low flat presence in the distance, a three dimensional jigsaw piece, sufficiently remote to allow me to cogitate over the curvedness of the earth. The Bass loomed close – was the last in the row of jagged teeth that skirt NB – the canine or the incisor, I’m not sure.  But to look at the Bass from North Berwick as was, you’d have had to crick your neck to the right, or place your panoramic window at an angle to your façade, or walk and scramble out onto the headlands beyond the East Beach.

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And perhaps this is why I have always found North Berwick a pain in the neck..

So, for my purposes,  I needed to be further out.

I decided to approach from an assumed hinterland towards the East, via the farmed but currently lightly peopled space east of Whitekirk, from within the three parishes- Auldhame,Tyninghame and Prestonkirk which claimed St Baldred and his miracles.

I am demotivated. Worried again about my rumbling exhaust, and wondering if my quest is coming to an end – not over what I’ll find, but what I’ll do then. But as Basho says every day is a journey and the journey itself is home.

Scoughall. Parked beside a field of cabbages. The farm road slopes East from the pilgrim route defining the edge of the land of golf courses, steading conversions and chocolate labs ( ‘East Lothian – Easy Living’) , and leads towards a different one of football pitches filled with crops ( Arable-Arable-Fodder-Arable–Potatoes), Pheasants,  and PRIVATE signs at road ends.

Not an exact geographic split perhaps but a  significant psychic one. I can feel the difference – a release of social tension in the area above my stomach, replaced by ancestral anxiety in my gullet over the farmer and his gun.

A heavily built field mouse blunders out of the verge . I think of a surfacing camper at Glastonbury. It checks and retreats. Mid summer.

Up a concrete track between unfenced ( and lightly domesticated) fields the Bass presents – centre stage, lighthouse to the face, cut off from the putative orchestra stalls by a wall, damming a long reservoir of barley ,on which  the set floats – the string section drowning under grain.

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OK this is Tantallon, but you get the picture , eh?

The May has now changed sides, is out in the Firth seaward of Bass and Fife. The alignments are favourable..

Down Chapel Brae and ower a fence a faint track leads to the shore, across to another zone of ..

Oyster-catcher snicker. Red conglomerate sandstone. And the smell of weed (man..) – wet , foetid. The view south east. Man , dog, erratic (name?) . St Baldred’s cradle, Dunbar, Cement works. Torness, Barns Ness, round to Siccar Point, and a wart I don’t recognise at the end.

St Baldred’s Boat is my destination. A name on the map.

So what is the Boat? – the map is unclear. The  most prominent feature on my route is a separated sandstone calf ascending outwards and making a col along the shore path between it and it’s roan-cow mother cliff. Prow-shaped its strata ascend outwards.

It is accessible only from its nose, broken and smoothed by tides immemorial. As I climb it narrows to a turf-ridged butt only a foot wide in places snaking back forty feet above the shore. Between it and the Bass – rocks, pools, a harbour, a skerry topped by a stone memorial and the channel.

My mount deserves a name, I feel. It has a mythic proportion and is, from the east, an obvious landmark, an edge. If it was St B’s Boat we could imagine it has moored him to the coast ,rather than being in the aeon-slow process of separating from it. But it turns out it’s not – maybe it should be his pulpit. It would have been a place for him to proclaim from ,to prophesize to the sea, to the East, to the theatre of May and Bass, to the cells and coracles of the other anchorites.

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Bass and promontory from Seacliffe

The other contenders to be the Boat are a small isolated but prominent skerry – crest lined with cormorants and GBBGs,  faces decorated with guano – and, athwart midships, a long rocky promontory  leading via a narrow tidal isthmus to a headland topped by a concrete concave tower and cross.

I head there, picking up speed as I note the advancing tide.

Then there is a moment – the water to the outsides of the rocks I am crossing looks higher than in the pools at my feet. An instinct about the wisdom of heading out into an approaching tide in an unfamiliar place kicks in , and resounds loudly in my gullet.  I reason with it  –  I have at least two feet of tide to spare. I cross the isthmus onto the first eroded sandstone promontory.

Then I see others between me and the cross – I am suddenly aware of my folly, as I am of theirs, and I wonder if I should warn them about the oncoming tide. Instead I speed back across the isthmus.

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I observe them from the safety of the beach. They are a middle aged couple. In cagoules, I note disparagingly. They are determined to remain on the rocks, but within reach of an escape route, until the very last moment. I imagine they have sought the mild peril of potential drowning as a replacement for the swingers circuit they have outgrown. Unlikely to thank me for my concern.

…And yet I feel that the prospect of being rescued from drowning by the coastguard,whilst clinging to a memorial to the drowned,  ( however slight) would erode my dignity fatally. Here comes middle age..

Instead, as consolation, I explore Seacliffe beach , which is smattered with diligent holiday makers.

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The Boat

I find out that the Boat is in fact the gull clad skerry. It was moved there by St Baldred, as part of his hundred year residency on the Bass.  The rock used to be a hazard to boats on way to and from the Bass, then at least partially inhabited . After a particular tragedy, St B asked to be placed on the skerry, which he then steered to its current location, reverse parking neatly beyond the promontory.

 Much research leaves me with only an apocryphal account of  the origin of the cross-capped tower. ‘They say’ this is a memorial to a drowned Edwardian daughter marooned by the tide, and as a future  refuge for the unwary who might end up there.. Not any more though,  as some authority has removed the lower rungs so it is not climbable – more grist to my mid aged discretion..

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 At the other end of the beach a tiny harbour is cut into the headland like a Bedrock jacuzzi . It is in use – two prawn boats are unloading.

Two other middle aged guys are poking around the headland with cameras and light summer slacks. They take pictures from many angles – they mean business. I am reminded of the pontificating lunching lady, ‘ Men don’t make friends like women do, and then they don’t contact them when they need to’.. Still we are happy in our small corners on the giant lump of sandstone.

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I feel I am in the right place. The sprawling derelict Place of Seacliff , atop its woody banks, ivy indiscriminately dragging down the sycamore trunks and walls . The Gothicky archway leading the road down to the shore, the hermit’s cave- a little shelter with a view, the sight lines lead towards the gannets wheeling round the Bass like flecks of shampoo going down the sink drain.

I was niggardly to this place on previous visits. The entrance charge for the road offended my sense of common ownership, but I know now the problem was because I d come the wrong way.

Just to confirm my surmises I find a sandstone outcrop that from certain angles appears like a moai from Easter Island, or as near as I will find in East Lothian.

The true creative overturning of religious illumination does not reside in narcotics . It resides in a profane illumination’, is written in the sand, by a departed meanderer.

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gaping ghyll

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This is an image my friend took. It is of my daughter ascending from Gaping Ghyll. Although it could be his daughter( there is a similar one of her on Facebook ). And she could be descending.

Someone thought it looked like an IU scan. It does feel something internal , as did the experience of being in the cavern. It is after all a cavity.. The potholers explain you can fit York Minster in there, but you’d have to chop it up first – which seems to me to defeat the point, unless it is about the need to digest things properly.

Normally the gullet is filled by a burn – England’s largest waterfall says the superlative blurb.( Or largest plughole if you are of a hubris-pricking nature..)

Twice a year the cavers divert the burn ,which fissures it’s way osmotically down to the floor by other pores. They then run what is basically a caving festival halfway up Ingleborough, lowering a queue of  nervous people into the gap.

It is an Experience. The descent in to the void. The first  Victorian explorer, dangling by rope and candle got so far, found a ledge,  and  then returned,  allegedly declaring it bottomless. I imagine he intended to say that at that point the drop felt like it could be endless.

Securely strapped into a bosun’s chair that is still how I felt – there being no visual stimuli at this point but only viscera, sound and feel – these sensations all being of great , possibly infinite space. It was hard – despite being passenger 128 of the day- to believe in my security , and in truth I didn’t want to.. I guess that is what sublimity feels like..

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Shortly after I dropped through a column of spray which I felt to be coiling around the chair, and at times flowing upwards past me. As the water droplets concentrated the minute amounts of light I felt shrunk to a pinhead in space. A mote – a word which needs more use (outside Scrabble).

Watching the return ascent felt redemptive . The small figures moving away from us in straight lines into the great distance, amidst everything else curling , fading and falling.. well there are some sleeping metaphors here, but lets let them lie, and say, more profanely,  it reminded me of getting my endoscopy.  However,  Id recommend Gaping Ghyll above that – you don’t need to have acid reflux  to go and it raises money for potholers.

.Craven Pothole Club

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