Going Underground

Mark Smith explores what we can learn from the land and the landscape in a disconnected world of alienation.

Drawing an underground chamber took time. I’d done draft after draft, moving through the pages of a cheap notebook, rubbing out, modifying, adding detail, until a workable design started to emerge. A secret space of my own making. A room that would meet, precisely, the needs of a ten-year old boy in the mid-1980s (Frosties, Masters of the Universe). The drawings, I expect, were more complex than they needed to be. Practicality wasn’t a guiding principle. But the work had paid off. My underground place existed. It was there, on paper, unoccupied but ready, once the digging got underway.

My secret room would be located under the sitting room floor of a three-bedroom council house in a small estate on the west side of Shetland. The estate, Kalliness, appeared a few years before I was born. Around the same time, miles to the east of Shetland, oil had been found, and the local council, swelled with the revenues flowing through the pipelines, were starting to make changes. New roads. Leisure centres. Improvements to schools. Housing. In the case of our estate, they kept the old name: Kalliness, a combination of the Old Norse words kallaðar, meaning a place where you call across water for a ferry, and ness, which signifies a promontory. The islands were starting to metamorphose: a world of small agricultural communities slipping into the past. The name holds on. Dry stubborn lichen on old stone. The name gives us something of what happened here, before the earthmovers and construction gangs moved in.

Kalliness. A jumping off point. Departures and arrivals. Voices slide across the water, asking for the ferryman. My architectural efforts drilled into the earth, hollowing out a place that existed for no-one but me. The people who lived at Kalliness generations ago watched the boat as it came towards them, climbed in and were rowed to the other side. Lines in coloured pencil. Words finding their way over the water, skimming the surface like seabirds. Liminal spaces brought into being. People make their in-between places. Their gateways. Their portals. The name of the place is an indicator, a relic, a cigarette burn in a curtain that covers a cinema screen: we look through and find a world on the other side. Once the boatman sat a few hundred metres from where I did my drawings, waiting for a job to come along. Nobody shouts for the ferry now, but he’s still there, in his place (he has learned to be patient), until we say the words that pull him through the wormhole to our own time.

Forgotten doorways of rotting wood, obscured by the detritus of centuries. Termini dragged into the heather. The boatman’s pier collapsing into the sea. Remnants of abandoned farms. Standing stones. Burial cairns. Brochs. The huge Neolithic building at Stanydale, a few miles from where I live now, built in one of the few places in Shetland where the ocean can’t be seen. Gateways. Portals. Points in space-time that allow us fleeting glimpses of people who lived here. Tumbledown loci for our own imaginations. Footholds. Indexical co-ordinates. The first words of winding, incantatory Proustian sentences, reaching into the past like roots, burrowing through layers of soil, looking for water. The opening clauses of spells that can, if spoken correctly, unfold the maps of our own shamanic journeying.

Shamans lived in Shetland once but, nowadays, unless we’re in the habit of ingesting hallucinogenic substances, we don’t much go in for mystical, phantasmagorical voyages. We’re wary of visionary route maps. We’d rather not step into their world. The extra-sensory, the transcendent, the magical – they belong in books and films. In cartoons. Comics. They fill a slot on Britain’s Got Talent (just how did he turn Ant into Dec behind those black curtains? – it’s a yes from me Simon). Magic is light entertainment. Spectacle. Part of the show, flashing occasionally into our Instagram feeds and YouTube watchlists. A diversion from the real world we like to think we’re rooted in. But crack open a place-name and you find yourself standing on the shoreline of a different world, with the ferry waiting on the other side and the water seeping into your shoes. Walk to a standing stone and imagine the rituals that might once have happened there. Climb onto an ancient dyke (like the huge Neolithic wall dividing the island of Fetlar in half) and ask yourself, as you stand on the top, if it was built to keep animals from getting out, or whether, by stepping on the ground at the other side, you’re really setting foot in the badlands of the dead.

Magic is mostly a novelty these days, something ridiculous, but, still, there’s something about it that we can’t dismiss entirely. Even if we plant our feet in in a world of measurable, concrete phenomena, remnants of magic persist. Make reparations if you spill the salt. Think twice about walking under a ladder – decide to risk it and the next few steps have an air of false bravado, as if we’re making a gesture against something we don’t quite comprehend. Ancient spirits hide in their sheltered nooks. Their safe spaces. Say the word and they might appear.

Superstitions? Old wives tales? Or ways of understanding the world that we pretend to not take seriously anymore? Fishermen in Shetland had their own magical system to keep them safe. Their minds were full of words which, if spoken aloud at the wrong place, the wrong time, would risk calamity. Words that could be said without fear at home became, when rowed out to sea, charged with demonic power. Say the word and the weather might turn. Speak without thinking and the monsters appear. The answer was a language of their own – a hermetic fishermen’s lexicon, divorced from the dark magic circulating around the words that couldn’t be said. A benign, salt-crusted version of John Dee’s Enochian, spoken only in the boat, knowingly, nervously, as the fishing lines dragged the gunnel towards the waves, and the seabirds circled overhead. Stick to the list and we’ll be OK.

Fishermen did what they could to survive. They adjusted their language to make it usable in the places they found themselves. These were practical men – what else could you be in a small open boat miles from shore – who were willing to accept any help they could get. They were entangled with their environment – the wind in their faces, the constant up and down of the boat – in both utilitarian and mystical ways. They spoke safe passage into being. They knew the words, the spells, to keep the devils at bay.

Like the fishermen, ancient Shetlanders wouldn’t have shared our contemporary qualms about magic. Magic held a central place in their way of being in the world, pulsing through everything they did – the appeasement of the sun god, the journey through the afterlife, the appearance of tiny green shoots from the dark, loamy body of the earth mother. In the absence of other ways of explaining things, a magical system would have radiated through their society, rippling out like radio waves from the standing stones they planted in the ground.
Mother earth may have been the most important spiritual entity to keep on the right side of. Perhaps that’s what the Iron Age people who buried a plough at Virdifield in the south of Shetland were trying to do. Practical magic. Turn the land. Build a wall. Spread manure. Plant the seeds. Bury the plough and head home, safe in the knowledge that you’d done all you could for the year. The Great Goddess would do the rest – hopefully the offering was enough.

We’ll never know the words they spoke, or sung, as they settled the plough in the earth. Why did they choose that particular spot? What energies led them there? What path to the place did their collective consciousness lay down? There is evidence of climate change in Shetland during the earlier Neolithic period, with peat forming over land that had once been used for crops. Was this place at Virdifield the optimum location to perform the magic that would chase the peat away? That would dry the land? That would rescue fertile earth from a slow, insidious, unstoppable process that had been going on for centuries? The Shetland farmers understood the unseen forces their culture had brought into being: the earth goddess and her enemies; the rituals that made it possible to survive. Conjunction of the sacred and the everyday. Was the buried plough an extreme, but not unheard of, procedure, taken from a page in the prehistoric Book of the Farm?

There aren’t many farmers now who would bury a combine harvester. The machines today – and this is more evident as the size of the farm increases – impose the will of their owner on the earth. They batter it into submission, increasing yields, coughing out exhaust gases as they make another turn. The market drives them on. Demand is dictated by consumers hundreds of miles away, by the changing tastes of people the growers never set eyes on. Globalised capital commodifies the land, encloses it as parcels of greater or lesser profitability. Every acre is an economic resource. Modern farmers depend on their land for a living; ancient people depended on their land for life. They needed to keep the Earth Goddess sweet.

Magic was a tool in the kit. Not one made of stone but useful, essential, nonetheless. Sometimes, thousands of years after they were discarded, people still find Neolithic plough tips, or spades, or the beautiful polished stone knives unique to Shetland. The knives often show no signs of use. They are talismanic, imbued with power. They are recording devices: hold them to an ear, sea-shell like, and listen to the words somebody once said over them. Look at the perfect, polished surface, and see, once you get past your own reflection, the person that sat in their house all winter, shaping the stones until they looked exactly like the idea of the knives they carried in their mind. Then, when all nineteen knives were finished, they walked up the hill of Stourburgh and settled them in the ground, lining them up, edges facing the sky, between two bookends of white sandstone. The Neolithic knives we find in Shetland are sharp enough to skin animals, but offering them to the earth was maybe the most useful thing to be done with them.

Ways of explaining the inexplicable. How does the barley grow? How does life come, and where does it go when the body decays? What was that crazy dream I had last night all about? Why did the harvest fail this year? Where does the sun go when the moon appears? The earliest farmers had to find ways of accounting for all the mysterious stuff they were living with. The productivity of their land that could disappear at any time. The fertility of their bodies. Life and death. The big questions, all being asked in the few square miles that contained everything they knew. Their world may have been physically small, but spiritually, cosmically, it must have been huge.

Now that we only have the scraps – the collapsed burial cairns, the remains of a few houses – it’s hard to imagine that their world was, in a sense, much larger than our own. They couldn’t travel as far, or as conveniently, as we can. They couldn’t plug themselves into a global network of data in the way we do every day. Their physical space was bounded (especially on a small island) but, in the absence of anything else, their systems of meaning, their way of understanding the place they lived in and the soil their lives depended on, would have been far richer than anything we have today.

We drive through the landscape and hardly notice it. The road is a way of connecting one place to another. Instagram a picture of the sunset. Livestream our clifftop walk. And then go home and wait for the likes to come in. The landscape we live in has lost its significance. It’s a backdrop to lives filled with other things. But, to prehistoric Shetlanders, the land was the world. They made it mean something. The looked at the stones, at the hills, at the coming and going of the planets and the tides, and laid down their cosmic schemata. They built mental maps of symbols, of patterns, of rituals that would make the crops grow for another year and keep the kids from getting ill. They engaged with the land in ways we’re not able to do. They learned to read it. To make something of it. To entangle themselves creatively with what they saw around them. The tiny, perfect heart that time has hollowed into a rock in a burial cairn at Brouster – would they have seen this as a sign that all was well with the soul they’d carefully settled inside? We might write it off as a quirky piece of erosion, but maybe their dictionary had the better definition? Maybe their way of seeing the smallest nuggets the landscape offered up was much bigger, much richer than our own? To them, the land must have been a constant source of cosmic wonder. It lived. It grew. It threatened to die. And all the time it spoke. Every hill. Every stream. Every time they planted a field. Everything they did would have been done with the voice of the earth whispering in their ears. A constant poem. Learning to listen was the task.

But listening is only half of it. They had to learn to speak as well. To communicate. To reciprocate. Learn the language of the land and keep the poem moving ahead. Spells. Incantations. Offerings. Bury tools in the soft flesh of the earth and wait for the crops to appear. They had to imagine ways of being in dialogue with the great mother they saw all around them. A constant, cosmic exchange. Words permeating the soil. Words to make it live.

We ignore the land and drive on, sealed in our bubbles, our playlists blue-toothed to our in-car entertainment systems, our minds on the latest office drama, on our two weeks in the Med in late July, on the Netflix twelve-parter we plan to get into or the online porn that takes up the last few dribbling minutes of the day. The land has no audience, no culture of reception, but still it writes its poem. It knows its spells have atrophied, that their power has drained away, but they’re still there, still available, like forgotten books on a library shelf: lift them down and start to read the words.

This landscape, once, was a wikipedia of significance for the people who depended on it. It can’t be that for us. But its grace notes, if we listen, are still in the air. Walk around. Drift from the road and into the hills. Avoid routes that only move you from once place to the next. Spread maps on kitchen tables and let your finger hover over the names of lochs and streams and little sections of coastline. Survey your own occult topographies. Excavate slowly the agglomerations of meaning, of incident, of myth, of story, that have piled up, like the stones of burial cairns, over every square inch of the place. Work your way into archives, through the pages of obscure books, and speak into being a sub-culture of your own.

Developers (like the firm Viking Energy who plan to cover the islands in windmills) think there’s nothing in the land, that it’s virgin territory, ripe for exploitation by their grandiose electric phalli. Professional heritage peddlers will tell you that only the iconic sites are worth your while, before somebody dressed as a Pict ushers you out through the gift shop. Tourism touts and online marketeers direct you to the nearest photo-op before herding you back on the bus. Ignore every signpost and light out for the undiscovered territory. Walk hills where nobody goes. Drop down into valleys deep with heather, like the one at Burwick, and ask yourself why the local farmers call the building there The Temple. Find your own liminal spaces. Your own points of departure. Look for the places that barely register on the map. Think your way into them and leave your own psychical traces in their unfolding narrative. Write the world. Speak it into life. Step outside the orbit of the planners, the strategisers, the economic development chancers, and find ways to walk your own engagement with the land. Uncover the gateways to your own visionary acts of recovery. We don’t see the hills as a living, fertile mother anymore, but we can consecrate the ground with our own rituals, with our own overlays of symbol and meaning. But to do so we don’t need to dredge some up ancient hermetic system or dress as a druid. Those won’t do any harm, but we’re better off with a decent pair of shoes.

Comments (5)

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  1. Xeno Albannach says:

    Beautiful essay. Thank you.

  2. Billco says:

    Great article Mark – being a keen walker I always enjoyed becoming part of the landscape, following its rhythms and feeling a sense of connection that was beyond articulation. I do wonder though – would those Shetlanders of the past swap places with us in the here and now? I suspect they would, because I believe that part of their deeper connection was down to the uncertainties of their lives – as you say, why did the crops fail, why did my child die? That intensity of living, being stalked by death and disaster, required an emotional / spiritual response to preserve sanity. Today, when for all of my life food and medical care have been readily available, I simply don’t need to find any deep connection outwith the major milestones of life (birth and death). We have to remember that we are where we are because it is the path that our ancestors set out on. Every generation wanted to remove the fears and uncertainties of life and we are the culmination of that drive. Unfortunately, in the process we appear to have lost something significant. Without uncertainty and the prospect of hardship, is life worth living? Is the comfortable life of the zoo animal better than a life of fear and uncertainty in the wild?

  3. Christie Williamson says:

    Brilliant wark Mark – loved mi first read o dis an winna be stoppin dere

  4. Susan Wyndham says:

    This is a very beautiful piece of writing that stirred many deep feelings – and the urge to hurry back to Shetland. The connection, and disconnection, between past and present is palpable in the earth and buildings and ruins of the islands, and in the people. Thanks for expressing all this so perfectly.

  5. George Gunn says:

    I loved every word of this.

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