Introducing Bella’s newest columnist, George Gunn: ‘From The Province of the Cat’
We take great pleasure in unveiling Caithness poet and playwright, GEORGE GUNN, as our newest columnist. Each month FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT, will bring a refreshing and much-needed Highland perspective to Bella. George’s first column is an introductory essay shedding some light on the forgotten history of the most northerly county on the Scottish mainland. Enjoy.
Bitter Sweet Apple Trees and Histories
When I was ten years old my mother planted two apple trees by the North wall in the garden of Dwarick Cottage. It was 1966. We had just moved into the house a couple of years earlier from our council house further up in the village, but up to this point those two years had been a period of transition, of upheaval, of clearing ground and planting, of building renovation and decoration, of making a house a home.
So when my parents closed the door on our comfortable post World War Two council “longhouse” the first significant part of my life, the innocence of my boyhood, closed with it. In that little semi-detached house, part of the “Viking row” of four other blocks of two, I had learned to speak, to read and write and communicate with my fellows. In 3 Seaview Cottages I was formed. It was, perhaps more so, for my elder brother. So when my mother planted those two apple trees – one a “cooker”, the other an “eater” – it was as if she was planting us, or for us, the tree of knowledge.
For the twenty years or so that I called that house and garden home I watched them grow – when my logical mind said that they wouldn’t – and bear fruit just as Mrs Gunn’s two boys grew and bore fruit and whether I was the “eater” or my brother was the “cooker” is still a subject of discussion between us. Unlike us, however, the trees never grew that tall. The topiary of the Atlantic wind saw to that but they reached the top of the drystone wall which surrounded the garden and the fruit was always small and hard. Yet when you bit into them the apples released onto the tongue a rushed sensation of salt and sugar, the essential sweet and sour apple-ness of the North of Scotland. It was as if both the earth and the sea were melding into a harmony of taste yet competing for the palates recognition.
These apple trees represented for me the next stage of my boyhood which was the period of recognition of and consolidation in the world, of a secondary rather than a primary schooling. So it was inevitable we would both leave the walled Eden of Dwarick Cottage if we wanted to consolidate what we had learned to recognise. With the tragic death of my mother in 1986, shortly followed by my fathers four years later and the subsequent selling of the house that second period of my life came to an end. Although it was inevitable it didn’t feel that way at the time. In fact I felt a kind of stripping away of things: as if the scythe of death had gone through my family as easily as my fathers used to go through the hay.
The trees are still there, mercifully spared by the new owners who cut down other trees which had every right to live in the real world as they do in my memory. The two apple trees still bear fruit and I still, when I go to the hotel which is just over the wall, pick a couple of apples and taste again the sweet salt taste of family life, of indigenous pleasure and pain. Yet I do it, by necessity, from the other side of the wall. The wrong side, if you like, because now the native ground is owned by others who live their own lives and inhabit their own relationships with the house, the garden, the trees.
I could be forgiven, in the pale light of time, for offering this up as a rough metaphor for the Scottish, the Highland, the Caithness writer: that they must repossess their own native fruit, their own self-grown heritage, from out with the walls of their own place, to reclaim their memory – which is their right – by default, even illicitly. In his play Translations the Irish playwright Brian Friel, has one of his characters keen how “a civilization can become imprisoned in a linguistic contour that no longer matches the landscape of fact”.
It was with the memory of this “landscape of fact” and the taste-memory of my mothers Northern apples which I always carry and am reminded of when I walk the hidden, mysterious and empty strath of Langwell. Running north-west from the Berriedale Braes Langwell cuts a narrow defile south of the Scarabens from the east coast to the foot of Morven. To the south the Ord of Caithness blocks the northern half of the Province of the Cat from its southern sister with a granite determination. This landscape of glacially scraped hills and burn cut straths – Kildonan to the south, with Braemore to the north and Langwell in the centre – is the heartland of the Clan Gunn although there is more to be seen, in archaeological evidence, of their Pictish antecedents and the Iron and Bronze Age settlers before them. Of the Gunns there is little trace left, there houses having been burned in the days of the 18th centuries turn into the 19th and the remaining stones used to build sheepfanks or estate walls. So yes, here again, in the heartland of my father’s people, walls play a significant role in the folk memory which the landscape, in all its de-peopled baldness, offers up in quiet starkness and treeless amplification.
The “linguistic contour” is in the names of the hills all around you as you walk up the strath through Aultibea to Wag. The hills resonant with the everydayness of yesteryear: Cnoc an Eireannaich, Sron Gharbh, Meall a Caorach, Braigh na h-Eaglaise and so on. In English they are “the hill of the Irish”, “rough nose”, “the mound or bank of the sheep” and “brae or hostage of the church”. This was the language spoken by my grandparents. As far as Langwell and south-east Caithness is concerned it exists now only and in an often compromised form on the Ordinance Survey map which the making of in Ireland, ironically, was the subject of Friel’s play. The tongue of the Gael is silent in the strath. The “linguistic contour” is the “to scale” residual of the militarisation of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The Ordinance Survey mapping by the British government who used cartography as both surveillance and containment is like a grid-echo of displacement.
With the clearing of the people went the ceilidh house culture of the bard and before that the filidh which co-joined the living with the Ossianic tales of the Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Tuatha De Danann, all of which imbued in the people a “timeless” sense of time. This Celtic chronology evaporates in “the landscape of fact” as you walk up Langwell, through the plantation trees which surround Langwell House and further up to the estate lodge and the gardens where the caged hounds greet the visitor with their kennet savagery of frustrated hunting. The barking acoustic of this class war is made physically manifest in the many signs bearing the sacred credo of the landowning fraternity: “private property, no access”. Despite this being against the law of nature and of Scotland the walker is advised to press on as past all this aristo-fiddle and pseudo arcadia is the quiet grandeur of the strath itself, reaching out to Morven which now seen from the south east, as opposed to its usual northerly viewing from the Cassiemire road, appears as it really is: which is not a big green hill but a small snow folded mountain.
In 1792 Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, the “great agricultural Sir John” of the Statistical Account of Scotland fame and the introducer of the infamous Cheviot sheep to the Highlands, cleared these Eastern straths of Caithness, eighty families from Langwell and Braemore alone. This gives lie to two of the prevailing myths attached to consciousness as official history: one is that Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster was a “great improver” and secondly that there were “no clearances” in Caithness. Braemore, Ousdale, Langwell and other straths lie empty and the land now lies fallow and wasting. Herds of red deer roam in their controlled majesty along the road, upon the hillsides, down by the river. As one walks on one feels the shades of the dispossessed and evicted walking in resigned single file past you to exile, to the coast, to Badbea.
The monument at Badbea was erected in 1911, the year the last resident left the township, by the son of the first resident to have emigrated to New Zealand in 1838. It stands like an omphalos on the edge of the world. The ground slopes precariously from the A9 down to the steep cliffs which plunge down to the Moray Firth some 200 feet below. Here the “shades” of Langwell had to make their lives as best they could, tethering both their livestock and children to the unyielding ground and against the fierce north-westerly gales which could and did blow them into oblivion.
The best way to appreciate Badbea and to see it in all its exposure is to head along the cliffs from Berriedale to the north and to follow the old north road which hugs the top lip of the cliffs of the Grey Coast like some thin stone moustache. This is the road traipsed back and forth by Finn in Neil Gunn’s novel The Silver Darlings. Indeed it was to the herring fishing that the men of Badbea looked to sustain the 80 or so folk who called Badbea their home. Even this dangerous and fickle living was denied to them when David Home, the son of James Home who bought the Ousdale estate from Sir John Sinclair in 1814, closed the herring fishery and turned in the mid-nineteenth century to the moneyed leisure pursuit of salmon fishing. The days of the sporting estate had begun. The tragedy for Scotland is that they are still here: wasteful and wasting.
One of the most moving names on the Badbea monument is that of Donald Sutherland, son of John “Badbea” Sutherland – the spiritual leader of the people – who was killed at Waterloo. Fighting for what, one wonders? In my mind the Highlanders in Wellington’s army should have dispatched their officers, grabbed their Brown Bess muskets and joined the French. A victorious Napoleon at least would have addressed the issue of land law, something successive Scottish governments have been reluctant to do.
“Passive suffering”, W.B Yeats once wrote, “is not a subject for poetry”. Here the subject the “tough minded” Yeats had in mind was Wilfred Owen, whom he considered “tender minded”. What Yeats valued in his art was “whatever shares the eternal reciprocity of tears”. Without an understanding of their history and without cultural knowledge a people, like the descendents of those at Badbea, like most modern Caithnessians, cannot fight back against the forces which have dispossessed them. Subsequently the classical literature of the Gael is denied to them as is the historical narrative of just why exactly the sons and daughters of “the shades” of Langwell, their own antecedents, are in New Zealand?
Tenacious apple trees in a Dunnet garden may symbolise the “tree of knowledge” or indeed Yggdrasil, the Norse world tree, and the apples from them could represent the hazelnuts of wisdom but I doubt if either my brother or I would pass for the salmon of knowledge who in Celtic myth ate them. Maybe I am like one of those hopeless ones in Zbignew Herbert’s poem “The Knocker”, “who grow/ gardens in their heads/ paths lead from their hair/ to sunny and white cities”?
As a writer ones job is to report what you see. For many walking through Langwell, through the empty heartland of Caithness and Sutherland, the Province of the Cat, is purely an aesthetic experience. They see the beauty of Morven and the Scarabens, of the dhu lochs and the frost glinting antlers of the winter stag. The beauty I see is in the people and the people are gone. To return them to Langwell and to the emptied north we need a radical new politics. Owning huge tracts of the Highlands stops anything else happening, so owning land has to be stopped. Who will walk towards that hill? Is that too “tough minded”? The “shades” of Badbea expect their poets to have “paths lead(ing) from their hair”. It is what they would call imagining a future.
(c) George Gunn, 2012