Mapping Scotland in a time of change: From Stone Voices to The Atlas of Scotland
Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland, Neal Ascherson, Granta Books
Here Lies Our Land, Kathleen Jamie, Scottish Poetry Library
Reviewed by Andrew Redmond Barr
If someone asked you to imagine Scotland, there’s a good chance you’d imagine something close to a map. The shape of the land is often one of the first things we visualise when we hear a country’s name.
Back in the summer of 2020, during the first lockdown, I started mapping out Scotland by hand. I wanted to try something which gave an expansive overview of the whole of Scotland, something which would try to encapsulate the story of the land, as well as the unique local histories of our towns and cities. It was then that I started thinking about making an Atlas of Scotland, using hand-drawn maps as a basis for telling those stories. It was certainly the biggest creative challenge I had ever set myself.
The Atlas of Scotland, now finished and published, covers some of what is already widely known about Scotland and its history, but it also deliberately seeks out the unusual, the forgotten or the overlooked. I wanted it to be a kind of treasure trove of discovery and challenge peoples’ perceptions about Scotland.
Long before the dawn of satellite technology, hand-made maps and atlases formed an important visual symbol, shaping how nations understood themselves as well as how they were understood by others. Today modern technology may have replaced traditional paper atlases, but there is still something valuable about being able to see a whole vision of a country, laid out and illuminated on paper.
By returning to map-making in pen and ink, and by retelling the story of Scotland’s history and culture, this new Atlas of Scotland aims to demonstrate how Scotland came to be, and where Scotland now stands, in a way which is different to most modern cartography. Scotland today is fertile ground for re-imaginings, and that is why drawing out the whole of the country by hand at this moment in time felt so appropriate.
What are writers and artists doing when they present us with visions of Scotland? The answer, I think, is that there is an ongoing need to work out where Scotland stands as the terrain beneath our feet changes. We need to reacquaint ourselves with the country as it shifts.
Just recently we passed the eighth anniversary of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, a moment in history which shaped and defined so much of what still characterises the current state of Scotland.
I realise now it’s a rare thing in life to have a focal-point as large and as urgent as a referendum on your country’s independence. From my late teens till my early twenties it was a kind of constant backdrop to everything I made and created. I was energised by how much I was learning from the movement, and the feeling of contributing to a cause which aimed to lift people’s aspirations and self-belief. It was bright, exciting, and all-consuming.
No wonder the post-referendum period left so many Scots feeling a little adrift. It was difficult to accept that Scotland should return to its grey pre-referendum state when it had just produced so much colour, energy and creativity. All of us are now living in a political and cultural landscape still shaped by that one seismic, transformational event.
For me the Atlas of Scotland project has been a way of re-grounding, of taking a moment to reflect on what makes this country and where it now stands, geographically, culturally and politically. Mapping the land has been a way of saying, ‘This is where we are – this is what we have – now what will we do with it?’
One of the challenges of drawing out Scotland by hand was trying to create a sense of movement in flat, two-dimensional illustrated maps. The solution for me was to surround Scotland with a sea of turbulent water, swirling and curling round every nook and inlet, giving the impression of a country still well and truly on the move, a country which almost at any moment could be carried off by the current.
Looking back over the years there have been many inspiring books and works of literature mapping out the state of Scotland past, present and future. One which springs immediately to mind is Neal Ascherson’s Stone Voices, first published in 2002, a panoramic meditation on Scotland full of fascinating episodes from the nation’s history, from the very ancient to the relatively recent, all of which tell us something profound about the distinct character of the country and its people.
As the title suggests, Stone Voices interprets Scotland’s history through its stones; from the ancient formation of the landscape to early stone circles, Pictish carvings, all the way up to present-day monuments, bridges and cityscapes. The book has a map-like quality, and in fact opens with a map of the country.
Observing Scotland through its stones is an illuminating idea, bringing long-gone history back to its physical form. It links Scotland’s landscapes to everything from ancient artefacts to modern tenement blocks.
One recurring stone in Ascherson’s book is of course the Stone of Destiny, the ancient crowning stone of Scottish kings. The Stone was removed from Scotland by Edward I of England and kept at Westminster Abbey for hundreds of years, where it was symbolically installed beneath the English coronation chair so that whoever was crowned king or queen of England would (in theory) be crowned king or queen of Scotland as well.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the Stone officially returned to Scotland under a Conservative government. The year was 1996, when demand for a Scottish parliament was reaching its height. As Ascherson observes, ‘the only hope of survival was to swim with the patriotic mood.’
Ascherson describes standing outside the gates of Holyrood House on St Andrew’s Day 1996, watching the procession of the Stone of Destiny as it began its journey up the Royal Mile to its newly appointed resting place at Edinburgh Castle:
The onlookers on the pavements were sparse, and did not applaud … They seemed uncertain about what reaction was expected of them; whatever it was, they refrained from it … They found this mournful pageant a bit alienating, and in a way it was meant to be.
The Stone returning to Scotland left Scots with mixed feelings; glad that an icon of their historic nationhood had returned, but wary of the gesture. Over the following year the Conservative Party lost all its Scottish seats and Scots voted for their own devolved parliament. Pageantry, it seemed, had its limits.
The Stone of Destiny is soon to be on the move again, this time back to London for the coronation of King Charles III, adding yet another episode of intrigue and memory to its long and complex history. Has one stone ever had such a busy and contentious life?
Ascherson’s book underlines the shifting of cultures, and the succession of generations in the life of a nation, but it also draws upon the quiet presence of artefacts which go mostly unmarked and unchanged throughout. The overall impression is of a country where modern developments are often grounded or echoed in something far older – that the same old stones continue to accompany the nation as it is propelled from era to era.
In my own Atlas of Scotland, I also thought carefully about the stones and the geology of the land. The stones of Scotland, forged in deep time, offer some of the most remarkable insights into the ancient composition of the world. In the book I have also enjoyed making connections between geographical locations and Scottish literature. For example, in the map segment covering Ross and Sutherland I have spoken about Norman Macaig’s poem ‘A man in Assynt’ which asks the question ‘Who owns this landscape, the man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?’
I have also written about the name Sutherland itself, literally meaning ‘southern land’ because Scotland was in the south according to the world view of the Scandinavian culture. This is just one of many examples of how Scotland can be viewed through many different lenses and angles, which I highlight in the Atlas.
In the map segment covering the Central Highlands, I write about how the Great Glen was imbued with political symbolism in Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come All Ye’, one of the defining songs of the 1960s Scottish folk revival. The anti-imperialist song, written in Scots, describes a wind of change blowing through ‘the great glen o’ the warld’ as the Empire disintegrates and the world’s nations move towards self-government. The great fault line becomes a symbol of hope, a channel of energy, for the future of humanity.
Another piece of literature which to me has a distinctive map-like quality is Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Here lies our land’, a poem commissioned for the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn which is now carved onto the rotunda at the battlefield site. The short poem opens with the lines:
Here lies our land: every airt
Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,
Belonging to none but itself.
This is a panoramic picture of the country as seen from above, unfurling between clouds and sunlight. The poem doesn’t mention the battle it commemorates, but instead presents a vision of the country as a whole, offering glimpses of its present and future incarnations. The poem marks a victory but is not triumphalist. Like the present-day field itself, the poem is peaceful, green and contemplative.
As the poem continues it expands outward from Bannockburn, pulling in ‘fernie braes’ and ‘siller tides’ far beyond the historic site. This is an almost cartographic image of Scotland, all of it linked and connected by history, culture and literature.
Jamie’s poem ends with the most thought-provoking of lines, ‘You win me who take me most to heart’, suggesting that those who cherish Scotland most will win Scotland in the end. It’s a powerful invitation to be rooted, to be observant, to be patient, to discover new things about Scotland and ourselves, and to have faith that Scotland will one day be won by those who love and understand it best.
Eight years on from the referendum, Scotland still stands at a crossroads, and is still to be won. Demand for self-government is now invariably met by a rather blunt ‘No’ from the powers that be, but it is also important to remember that the story of modern Scotland is the story of a country quite ably doing things which, at one time or another, it was told it simply couldn’t do. ‘But this time you really can’t’ isn’t going to cut it anymore. A tree doesn’t listen when you tell it not to grow.
So keep going, Scotland. Grow your green leaves. Get rest, read books, go for walks, start afresh, get back to basics, remember what it’s all for. Map the whole of the land in your imagination – see what’s there, see what needs fixing, see what inspires you. Remember the vastness and the potential of what we have, north to south and east to west. Reacquaint yourself with the terrain as it shifts beneath your feet. After all, history tells us that Scotland is never stuck in one place for long.