If the psyops of the 2014 referendum taught us anything, it’s that ‘narrative’ isn’t just something relevant to storytellers and fiction writers.
A recent article in The Economist (‘In Cawdor’s Shadow — The Soft Autocracy of Nationalist Scotland’, October 17th, 2015) set out to describe the crofters of northern Scotland, but by paragraph two had plunged into a general and unfounded bashing of the Celtic races.
This article does exactly what William Hogarth did in his paintings in the 1740s, when the Highlands were morbidly portrayed as lawless, savage and filled with wild Scots.
Stereotypes of Highland cannibalism lasted till the mid-18th century and were embraced by English political and anti-Jacobite propaganda. They don’t call Scots cannibals any longer, but this article in The Economist served the same political messaging by refusing to offer fact and genuine reportage.
Real journalists after all, interview people and present a balanced analysis. Instead, there is as there has always been, a school of journalism — represented here by The Economist’s ‘Bagehot’ column — which expresses the opinions and desired outcomes of media owners and their own masters. The article was only two columns in extent, but let me show you what I mean.
Quotes from ‘In Cawdor’s Shadow — The Soft Autocracy of Nationalist Scotland’, The Economist, October 17th, 2015 include:
‘Within Scotland [the SNP] hoards power, stamping on regional differences, tightening the state’s control and marginalising critics.’
‘Ministers pillory sceptical academics, civil servants, journalists and judges, give orders to councillors … and bully firms and voluntary bodies that demur.’
‘Rigid discipline prevails within the SNP; prominent dissenters are ousted, while bosses fail to rebuke the party’s online activists for abusing heretics and peddling conspiracy theories. Unsurprisingly the result is poor government.’
These attempts to portray a lawless government north of the border in an article supposedly about the crofting industry in Caithness and Sutherland are not reportage, but are unsubstantiated and un-referenced opinions reliant on undemonstrated assumptions. Nobody is interviewed and the article quotes nobody, cites no external sources and presents no evidence that its author, Jeremy Cliffe, has even been to Scotland.
It’s criminal that Jeremy Cliffe’s article, the purpose of which can only be to cement with smugness the pre-formed opinions of his cosmopolitan readers, will spread further than a book which is written by a true native of Caithness, which in poetry, history, geology and myth, tells a truer-by-far story.
George Gunn’s new book, The Province of the Cat — A Journey to the Radical Heart of the North, is not a personal account, but includes personal reminiscence and employs his full poetic skills as part of a wide-ranging historical and cultural survey of his home. Gunn doesn’t tackle current narratives head on, but looks at how economic factors which are never local, have hastened the decline and the morale of Caithness.
You can read for example about the creation of the herring industry, and the arbitrary forces that it was beholden to, and you get an immediate sense of how the people have been ‘farmed’ in the area as readily as sheep.
One of Gunn’s concerns is that the cultural richness of Caithness has gone entirely unsung, and in this he redresses the balance in examining many folk tales and legends. He also offers much reflection of the novelist Neil Gunn, as well as his thoughts on the ongoing relationship between the social and the supernatural.
In some respects, The Province of the Cat is a deeply pensive book, although it is not mirthless. Caithness’ history is not unlike that of any other area — successive invasions — but the intensity of land-abuse will surprise you.
And how long things take to die! When in 1609, ‘James IV demanded that all Highland chiefs sign the statutes of Iona which put down in black and white the range and scope of prejudices against a group of people who spoke a particular language and lived in a certain way,’ little did he know that over 400 years later, the job would require the continued hard-working input of Kelvin MacKenzie and Katie Hopkins — only to find the project still not complete.
I think it is these direct measures taken in the past to suppress his culture that irk George Gunn so powerfully, and while it is not in his character to rant and rail, he maintains an odic and songlike melancholy, referenced in history and somehow still alive in the speech (Caithness Scots) which he hears around him — or at least which he heard as a kid.
This he combines with poetic descriptions of in particular wildlife — notably the birds — at which he excels. These passages are the greatest in The Province of the Cat, and when Gunn describes geology, birdlife, and in particular a battle he sees between an orca and some seals, he is at his best.
So there is a sombre aspect to The Province of the Cat which is uplifted with theses poetic descriptions. Gunn, for example, knows there is little he can do to stem the tide of the ‘urban mixture of American and English, mostly morphed from TV’ which is supplanting Scots and Gaelic in the area — yet he speaks so eloquently of the absence of the local language which ‘goes, with the teeth, into the earth.’
In turn he wonders at the makeup of the community, which historically has had such purpose, and he wonders at the way the village he grew up in is now a ‘collection of individuals whose reasons for being there are financial and aesthetical; not hereditary or because of subsistence.’
Even in terms of what is left — tourism — Gunn regrets the failure of the civic authorities who ‘do not consider the physical lyricism and natural beauty of John O’ Groats to be a marketable asset — there must always be an ‘other’, or something for the tourists to ‘do’.
Gunn finds a metaphor for this general decline in the ‘Cave of Gold’ of local legend, which is something that he carries from his own play as a child, and which is a narrative that the entire community carries, at the risk of great loss — the loss being memory, culture and the social benefits of local industry and family units.
This is evidenced in George Gunn’s own life and work, because he was raised in a community in which poems, songs, pipes and fiddles were the focus of any gathering, at which it was normal for everybody to contribute. And I love how George describes the influence this had on him:
‘As a result I have never shared in the existential angst many modern artists carry in regard to their art. In my experience creativity was never on the periphery of society — it was central to it and on the ceilidh floor and in the public domain.’
George Gunn also looks hard at one of the most pressing issues of our own time, in a long discussion of landownership and usage, although in the recurring descriptions of the land and ‘the foreverness of the sea’ it is hard for him to accept that the place is owned by anyone at all — and in this his poetry triumphs.
However, if Gunn is right that ‘landscape, like art, is often not about what you see, but what you feel,’ then that explains article like that issued by Jeremy Cliffe in October’s The Economist — they look at Scotland, and feel disgust — they look at the Highlands (empty and uncultivated in their eyes) and feel fear.
As external forces from as long ago as the sixteenth century, exercised more control over the lives of the people of Caithness, increasing efforts have been made to force the people to abandon traditional cultural practices and adopt the way of ‘British society’. Social makeup constituted (and perhaps still constitute) one of the major examples of cultural differences separating Britain from Caithness and Gunn’s final coup is to describe in detail the deferred political sense of justice known to the Celts as ‘ceartas’ — ‘the sense that despite everything that history has thrown at them, that the cause of the people will prevail … that the stolen lands will be re-possessed, that the people will return to the straths and glens they were removed from.’
This is a sense of justice which has its roots in the Fenian legends of Ireland and of Arthur, as found not in the Romantic or even Welsh renderings of the legend — but as relating to the 6th Century Romano-Brythonic warlord Urther. Gunn even goes so far as to say:
‘It could be argued that the very idea of Scottish independence in the 21st century has this Fenian, Arthurian idea somewhere at its centre.’
This is also narrative, but read the Province of the Cat and you will encounter a story which is substantiated, argued and deeply evident from history. What George Gunn says about Caithness rises from a lifetime of observation — it is written from within and that is its power.
Amazing then that media tactics which worked in 1586 are still handy. William Camden’s ‘Britannia’, published in that year, produced such horrors as this when talking about the Highland Scots:
“They drank the bloud out of wounds of the slain: they establish themselves, by drinking one anothers bloud and suppose the great number of slaughters they commit, the more honour they winne and so did the Scythians in old time.”
Laugh now, but at the same time, why read the modern equivalent of these calumnies and vilifications in The Economist and its like, when you could have George Gunn:
“From the post 1746 Clearances, the enclosure of land and the imposition of sheep and deer forests, the establishment of the herring industry in the 19th century through to the subsequent emigration both prior to and after World War One, the Depression of the 1920s and 30s, World War Two and the pre and post Douneray economy of the early 21st century: all these waves of history and modernity have crashed over the granite and sedimentary rocks of this north eastern shoreline, washing the people of the Province of the Cat this way and that.”
In The Province of the Cat
by George Gunn
Islands Book Trust
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