The Flow Country, Caithness

The Flow Country, Caithness

 

Last week like Oedipus at Colonus, in Sophocles play of the same name, I stood where three roads met. One sloped South to Braemore in the lee of Morven and the Scarabens. The other dreamed its way North West to Gobernuisgeach – a different one from that found in Strathmore – and to the source of the Dunbeath Water, the river made famous by Neil Gunn in his 1937 novel “Highland River”. The third road meanders North East of The Glutt, where Christine my wife and I were heading, and into the wide open bog of West Caithness. If you follow it, some twenty miles or so later, you arrive on the Westerdale road to Halkirk. It was very hot and the cleggs were murder.

At the end of Sophocles play Oedipus disappears into the Earth. The Flow Country as it has become known, or “E’ Flou” as we native Picts call it, covers around half a million hectares of Caithness and Sutherland. Quite enough room, you would imagine, to enact and conclude any tragic narrative of human construction and to loudly curse the hell-flies which are natures very own torture, and to do so without bothering anybody else. Mostly you can walk all day and there is never “anybody else”. However it was comedy which was to find us, sheltering like two hinds in a hollow.  Albeit comedy with a tragic echo.

We saw the four by four shimmering out of the heat have on the road up from Braemore. What we mistook for fishing rods were in fact two huge aerials.  The big humvee –like vehicle stopped just beyond the road-block type poles which were installed across two of the tracks. The one to The Glutt was up so therefore the road was open, or so we thought. Out from the four by four hopped two tweed clad gentleman to the accompanying chorus of barking hounds. The first gentleman I recognised as the owner of the estate and he was all stern politeness and questions. “Have you come far?” and “What direction are you going in?” Christine told him. I said nothing. His companion was a rather jolly hockey-sticks sort of fellow with a face which resembled a half sliced water melon but was pleasant enough. Then the estate owner pulled down the pole and took some keys out of his jacket pocket and locked it shut behind him, effectively closing the road. He then informed us that they were off to the Halkirk Games, got back into their four by four and with even more excited barking from the hounds in the back and a flurry of dust they were gone.

We sat in silence for a while watching the dust settle and the big metal box disappear over the heat-rippling horizon. We then stared at the locked pole which now had fulfilled its purpose as a roadblock. Either side of the fenceless road the Caithness bogland rolled away into the distance. We had seen a couple of hinds and their young calves grazing on the other side of Lochan nam Bò Riabhach – which translates as “the loch of the evil cow”, “riabhach” can also mean “evil one” – and a pair of kestrels but as to any impending convoy of cars or people there was not a sign. So why had the estate owner gone to the trouble of locking the pole across the road? Did he know something we didn’t know? Or was he making a significant gesture on behalf of the landed fraternity to show us, the landless majority (all two of us), that despite our democracy, our acts of parliament and bills and rights of way and freedom to roam and of access that he was still in control, still in charge, still the owner of all that we could see? I think he was. If he was not then why on earth would he have made that gesture of closing the road? We were on foot so we could just proceed on our way. He and his red faced pal were going on through the estate road to Halkirk, to the games, and would presumably be coming back the same way in which case he would have to open the shut road again which is, after a few sociable drams, corporate hospitality and a bit of craic, surely a palaver?

For those who do not know the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland the sheer open vast emptiness of it is hard to convey. Everything is on a rolling parallel of land and sky the scale of which is unlike anywhere else in the Highlands. Distances, although on the map they are defined, on the ground they become fluid approximates more to do with time and imagination than measurement. On a hot day in July it seems to float, sink, bend and disappear the more you look at it. You could easily, like Oedipus, vanish into the ground. The more time you spend out amongst the bog the more you realise that it is the bog which is moving around you and yes, you can walk for hours, but where, exactly, have you got to?

Little did Christine and I realise that we had walked back into the nineteenth century. The great bog may be empty of people now but it was not always so. As is my want, as I walked along the track up to The Glutt, I looked at all the old field systems which are dotted here and there in an irregular pattern from old township to township up all the straths of the interior, and imagined all the barley and oats, hay and kale which would have been growing in them when people lived in the place as they had done since Neolithic times. In my mind I saw the cattle they kept, the few sheep and other animals and as the precious wind blew the infernal cleggs away I heard the children laughing which like the sound of running water in a burn is the most beautiful sound in the world.

What I did realise, once the four by four was well over the hill and far away, was that I was wearing an old Artists For Independence t-shirt with a picture of  the poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s great leonine and thistle-like head superimposed over a flag which is one half the red flag of socialism and the other the Saltire. Now whether the estate owner had clocked ould Shuggie’s physiognomy when he had given the pair of us the once over is debatable, but I know the owner to be an intelligent and well read man so the likelihood is if he saw the image he would know who it was and he would certainly know of MacDiarmid’s politics and that would go some way to explain the polite hostility we experienced, but not quite the locking of the empty, fenceless, naked road.

On the back of the t-shirt there is a quote from MacDiarmid

“Auld Moses took

A dry stick and

Instantly it

Floo’ered in his hand.

Pu’ Scotland up

And who can say

It winna bud

And blossom tae”

“Artists For Independence” was a vital pressure group in the pre-devolution Scotland of the I990’s – especially after the nightmare of the 1992 general election – which united all sorts of creatives from all sorts of political backgrounds in a common cause of independence for Scotland. Indeed “Common Cause” was another cross-party organisation of that time which united individuals to achieve a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. “Scotland United” was another like minded group of that fervent period. National Collective aim to fulfil that need for contemporary artists now, in the run up to the referendum and have to be supported in doing so because without them, unlike in pre-devolution Scotland, there is scarce a unifying body where Scottish artists can stand united in a “common cause”. This is especially true, I think, for Scotland’s writers.

In the run-up to the devolution referendum in 1997 it was generally acknowledged that it was the energy produced by Scotland’s writers that had galvanised the people into popular democratic action. Now it could be argued that the literary input was just part of the general zeitgeist but I would contend that it was our writers who articulated the desire for change and self-determination and that it was that articulation which provided the centrifugal force which pumped our democracy into action. Now writers are not necessarily intellectuals and while intellectuals are extremely important they do not, of themselves create culture, ordinary people do. Culture, if it can be defined at all, is what people living in a society create. Art is an expression of that culture. Art is not exclusively produced by intellectuals either. Art is produced by people – yes, intellectuals are people too! – by individuals who have a vision, a passion, something to show, some music to write, a story to tell – something to say!

For writers in Scotland now my question is this: what is your story? Our poets, playwrights, novelists, screenwriters, short story writers and essayists of all description, are they actually imaginatively expressing the experiences of the people in society in Scotland now, or are they servicing their own creativity and career through the filter and advice of agents, producers, directors and the demands of publishers? Is that even a fair question?

The reason I ask it is because the question “What is your story?” should be asked of our politicians also. When the landowner pulled down the pole and locked shut the road to The Glutt he was in effect putting all our land in prison, he was becoming the occupier. If the ruling elite in the SNP think that by stalling on land reform now – especially in giving tenant farmers the right to buy their farms – they are somehow placating the land owning interest in order not to stir up a bees byke – just as many successful writers are hedging their bets – so that they can address the issue post-referendum then I think they will live to regret it.

There is a passage in Milan Kundera’s novel “Intimacy” where a character called The Bear addresses a central character called Paul, who is a lawyer. Paul has been blethering on about war, art and the end of history.

“The Bear said in slow voice… ‘Let me tell you something. You remind me of the young men who supported the Nazis or communists not out of cowardice but out of an excess of intelligence. For nothing requires a greater effort of thought than arguments to justify the rule of non-thought. I experienced it with my own eyes after the war, when intellectuals and artists rushed like a herd of cattle into the Communist Party, which soon proceeded to liquidate them systematically and with great pleasure. You are doing the same. You are the brilliant ally of your own gravediggers’.” 

To send out the wrong signals, both politically and creatively, to the electorate at this crucial time is a sign of weakness. To state plainly, as policy, that all land should be owned by all the people of Scotland would attract far more people to the cause of an independent Scotland than it would alienate. A literature which articulated that freedom would also draw us forward on our journey and need not tarnish the art involved. James Robertson has proven that such work can be undertaken in his novel “And The Land Lay Still”. Chumming up to the landed interest, saying nothing directly, however convenient is a dangerous game and can lead directly to us becoming the brilliant allies of our own gravediggers.

It seems to me that the place where the three roads meet, where Christine and I found ourselves that July day, was a state of mind as much as a grid reference. One road leads forward to positive change in order to create an equitable and just society – to independence. The second leads nowhere as it is the status quo which is unbearable. The third road is unthinkable because it leads to the descent into the banality of barbarism which is the logical direction of travel for this present coalition government in London, if it is to be judged on its current policies and projected plans.

When I look out over the empty spaces of Caithness and Sutherland what I see is poverty. The people, the barley and oat fields are the stuff of history and dreams. “What direction are you going in?” That was the landowners question to me. The occupier was asking the dispossessed. In his book “Occupation Diaries” the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh tells this joke:

An Israeli travels to London and has to answer some questions. “You name?” “Sholmo.” “Your age?” “Fifty-two.” “Occupation?” “No, only tourism.”

When, towards the end of his life, Sophocles two sons took him to court to try and prove that he was “incompetent”. They obviously wanted to get their hands on his money. In his defence Sophocles read out in court extracts from his as yet unproduced play “Oedipus At Colonus” which, amongst other things, highlights the infidelity of Oedipus’s two sons, Polynices and Eteoceles. Sophocles won his case. Come September 2014 will we, the Scots, win ours?

©George Gunn 2013