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From the Province of the Cat: A Wounded Stag

Where now for Caithness?

Where now for Caithness? (Photo: KW)


Living on the north coast of the mainland of Scotland it can seem, at times, that you live in a totally different country from the one inhabited by the majority of Scots. Caithness has had history wash over it in waves even if in the seventeenth century the Gordons did their best to destroy that history, or at least the documentation of it. The truth of the matter is that thanks to the destructive rage of Robert Gordon of Gordonston no one can actually say, with any real sense of accuracy, what actually happened in Caithness from the saga period up to 1623. The Gordon militia, acting under direct orders from Dunrobin, simply torched all written records.

This sense of not quite belonging to one thing or another, historically, is a predicament Caithness can ill afford in these changing times but one it shows no sign of overcoming. Yet there are some subjects which can raise local voices in unflinching certainty. Many Caithnessians will be quick to tell you that “Gaelic was never spoken in the county” and do so with a straight face when the evidence of name-places and surnames is physically all around them. Others, equally certain, will champion “Our proud Norse heritage” when in fact the Norse settled around the coast and only thought of Caithness as part of their strategic southern border. It is most likely that the main body of Norse settlers in the late tenth and early eleventh century married into Pictish society and were absorbed by them relatively quickly. So it is we dismiss a reality and over-inflate a myth. We may in Caithness be Ghallaibh, “strangers” in Gaelic, but we should not invest too much cultural collateral in remaining strangers to ourselves.

I attended a day long seminar recently which was set up to look at ways of improving tourism in Caithness and north Sutherland. The first thing that became apparent was that no-one there was much interested in north Sutherland. It also emerged that the attendees were not that much interested in Caithness either. In fact a significant majority knew nothing about the place and some of them, if they knew anything at all, didn’t seem to like it much. Now I am perfectly prepared to sanction the notion that not everybody is duty bound to love something just because I do. But it does strike me as odd that individuals who are in the tourism business cannot grasp that it might help their cause if they displayed some interest in the place they hope to attract visitors to and acquire some knowledge about it. There was lots of energy at the meeting but it was directed towards the singularity of how each of the participants could make more money.

This is understandable. Most of the people were hoteliers, restaurateurs, caravan site owners, managers of “visitor attractions” and so on, so it is perfectly normal that they are interested in cash. I am not entirely sure what a poet was doing there but there I was hoping for the best, as usual. This hope didn’t last very long. No-one was interested in anything I had to say. To be frank I am quite used to this. There is both a dulling predictability and will-sapping inevitability to this scenario in which I trot into forums and meetings like a spring lamb and slouch out like a wounded stag. Sometimes Caithness can be hard on the soul.

The reality of our history, in the north at least, may be lost in ashes but we need not lose our perspective on time and events entirely. This goes for the rest of Scotland as much as it does for the triangle of land in the far north. Caithness has had sixty years to work out how to come to terms with the nuclear industry, an industry which allows no terms of reference other than its own and can contemplate no alternative other than its increase. If truth be told Caithness has never really come to terms with what Dounreay actually represents and this has left the residual population as 2012 ends culturally disenfranchised, economically dependent, isolated, tetchy and inward looking.

I have read good things about the recent radical independence conference in Glasgow and I wish I had been there but at the meeting in Thurso when it was put to those attending to describe how they felt Caithness would fair in an independent Scotland not one single person, other than myself, had anything positive to say. This was depressing but not unexpected. I suspect three hundred years of union with England, again a manifestation which allows no terms of reference other than its own, has left the majority of Scots in a similar state of nervous hesitancy. In the goldfish bowl which is the left wing of Scottish independence politics it is often difficult to keep in focus that we are, as yet, a minority. Assuming that everyone agrees with us is as irresponsible as not giving a damn if they do or not. Just saying we are going to win the referendum vote in 2014 is not the same thing as working out strategies as to how that will happen and what has to be done if we don’t.

Tourism, as far as I can see, is a rotten industry: it eventually destroys what it sets out to promote. That is the nature of exploitation. A country which plans to depend on tourism to survive is a country which will not survive at all for very long. It is a corruption which perverts both economic reality and cultural value. It will no more be the “saviour” of Caithness or Scotland than it has been the “saviour” of Spain or Greece. Tourism only becomes an “important industry” when a nation’s society has surrendered everything else. In Scotland, we are not quite at that point yet. In Caithness, as far as tourism goes, the “vision” for the future of “the industry” reaches no further than individually wrapped soap and fluffy towels. There has been some speculative talk about “cultural tourism” but no-one can determine quite exactly what that is. Once you get passed the idea of “the view” then it pretty soon falls apart. Like a tablet of ancient writing the touristas know there is information contained therein, poetry even, but they just don’t know how to translate it.

Scotland, of course, is beautiful. Yet what are we selling to tourists when we subject them to the corporate banalities of such organisations as Visit Scotland? What does it say about the Scots that we constantly sell a version of our own country which in all but rocks and bogs is a myth?

I am reminded of another myth – of the legend of Prometheus, the titan. Prometheus – meaning “forethought” – made humankind out of clay and when Zeus oppressed humans and deprived them of fire Prometheus stole fire for them from Heaven and taught humanity many arts. To avenge himself Zeus made the fire-god Hephaestus fashion a woman, Pandora, out of clay. Athene breathed life into her and each of the other gods supplied her with every charm. Pandora means “all gifts”. She was sent to Prometheus who seeing the trouble she would bring sent her to his brother Epimetheus – meaning “after thought” – who readily accepted her. Pandora brought with her a box which when opened out poured all the ills and evils – the “charms” – which have afflicted mankind ever since. Hope, according to the myth, was the only quality which remained at the bottom of the box to make humanity’s existence less severe. For all of this, the stealing of fire and more, Zeus had Prometheus tied to a lonely rock in the Caucasus where an eagle daily fed on his liver which was miraculously restored each night.

In the version of the story by Aeschylus Zeus and Prometheus are reconciled but in “Prometheus Unbound” by Shelley they are not. As he wrote of his own play from Italy in 1821:

“But, in truth, I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind. The moral interest of the fable, which is so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.”

At this present time to this particular writer it does not seem that the “Champion” and the “Oppressor” have been reconciled. Nor are they likely to be while such wasting inequities as the sporting estate system still prevails over the North of Scotland and too few people, as a result, own and control too much land; or as long as we are subjected to someone else’s idea of our future such as nuclear power and its associated military function. These are the raptors which pick at our liver. Shelley’s version of the Prometheus myth is the one which holds true for the modern age. The days of “quailing” before a “perfidious adversary” are surely over.

If Pandora is tourism and her box is the false economy it brings then at least we have the saving grace that “hope” resides at the bottom of her box. The problem with the fluffy towels and individually wrapped soap as a signifier of progress in tourism is that it represents a vision of the future which is exactly like the past, except marketed differently, which is no vision at all. This is what we are seeing from the SNP government as they try to reassure the Scottish people that they have nothing to fear from independence and that, actually, it will mean nothing much will alter radically.

Personally this is my worst nightmare. Things staying the same are a recipe for failure and I believe the Scottish people will reject that notion. Each week we see how the British state sinks further into corruption. Daily I witness how the effect of centuries of paternalism has denuded the confidence of the people to engage with the political system which can, in theory, liberate them. The feeble catastrophe Shelley talked about in relation to Prometheus for Caithness has been the plonking of two nuclear reactors and HMS Vulcan on our northern shore and chaining the population to the rock of a single employer with an authoritarian culture rooted in the Official Secrets Act. As this corrosive installation is physically decommissioned the people slowly realise that there is no alternative being offered to them and that they are now on their own. This is reflected in the school roll of Wick High School having fallen by 20% and Thurso High School by 17% in the past five years.

Tourism will not reverse this – I fear it will only exacerbate it and talking of the future as a version of the present which is a repetition of the past will, in the far north of Scotland, only increase depopulation. Our best “Champions” are ourselves but there is a long journey ahead before we can become reconciled to that. Our “perfidious adversary”, to cite Shelley again, is also ourselves and how we allow the dingy gods of vested interest to constantly convince us we are powerless.

© George Gunn 2012

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  1. George Gunn …. hello … it is many years since I saw you – back in the days of Eigg land reform – and I have just read your essay and it is brilliant. Your line, “Sometimes Caithness can be hard on the soul” could be an epigram for large areas of Scotland such as Govan from where I write. But as you say, hope is the one virtue that remains at the bottom of the basket. Hope, not to be confused with mere optimism, as a spiritual quality, and a colleague told me the other day that their is a sithean beside Dounreay and as poet, you will know what can come out of such metaphysical features of the cultural landscape.

    Kenyon Wright was on the phone to me yesterday as I have just scanned into PDF the People and Parliament report that a group of us that he convened did in the late 1990s with some 500 groups across Scotland to deepen the debate on values (you’ll find it if you google People Parliament Scotland). There is this deep, deep culture in Scotland but largely pressed underground into the sithean as the cultural unconscious, thereby leaving the surface of the Hill for the hoteliers, and the Donald Trumps, to come and build over.

    African healers diagnose individual and cultural sickness as a loss of soul, and poetic function of our times in restoring a bardic politics is to call back the soul. When Kenyon called yesterday his unbridled enthusiasm was how to kindle depth in the 2014 debate on BOTH SIDES by pushing the politicians to say what their deep vision is for a future Scotland. What are the values beyond kow towing to Donald Trump on the one hand, and Trident and warships on the Clyde on the other? (That’s my words, not his, but I think it’s the kind of thing he meant).

    To call back the soul Scotland needs to hear the Banshee’s aching howl from out across the moors, to skirl the pipes and feed upon the very words our forebears left in grace notes, and watch for signs impending on these times in the the ripplings from the loch, the rising of the great Each Uisge, the irruption, no less, of the Holy Spirit. I’m sorry, but these categories are not mutually exclusive to a poet, and anybody who knows the traditions will not misunderstand what I am saying.

    For the work to which we are called is the work of love. We must care as much for the soul of those we oppose as for our own, or else we are undone. Neither shall we offer gifts that cost us nothing, because we have work to do.

    George … those are the thoughts that your essay – about the sorry condition of Caithness, and yet its hope – inspires in me. As an old crofter told me at the John Lennon Festival some years ago at Durness when I asked from where he procured the seedcorn for the oats that he was building into stooks. “From Orkney. If it grows there, it will grow here. You see, the seed must move from north to south.”

  2. George Gunn says:

    Alastair, it is good to hear from you. i was beginning to think no-one was going to comment on this piece.Your contribution is welcome to my own political and spiritual development. I know exactly the sithean you mean – they’re at (there’s loads of ancient sites there) the Hill o Shebster. In many ways I think Caithness is a metaphor for Scotland – we have the occupying power, literally, and now that it’s going what do we do. I’ve read your book Soil and Soul and it is inspirational. My own people have been damaged politically, psychologically and yes,spiritually, by the cynicism of government in the 50’s and big, asset stripping corporations like Babcock’s now. I’ll check out the People and Parliament report again, as we have Neil Ascherson and co coming here next year on their democracy bus much as they did in 1997.

  3. Barbara Gribbon says:

    What a sad and beautiful image of the chained people of Caithness. Here’s hoping the seed can take root.

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