Art North, Vol.1 No.1
West of Kinbrace, past Garvalt a couple of miles, at the end of Rimsdale loch, I read the map in English but the landscape I look at is Gaelic. The sky above is a vast convex arch. It is like being inside the eye of eternity. To the east sit the Scarabens and Morven, bookending the beautiful glen of Braemore, an ancient stronghold of the Clan Gunn. Far to the north-west Ben Loyal (or Beinn Laghail) and Ben Hope (Beinn Hòb) rise up out of the bog, deep in Mackay country (Dùthaich MhicAoidh). To the south Klibreck (Beinn Clìbric) stretches out, dinosaur-like, to Altnaharra, and way beyond that I can see the long grey spine of Ben More Assynt (Beinn Mhòr Asaint). Behind me Beinn Griam Mhòr and Beg act as a solid cluster around which the central motif of the Great Bog of the Winds swirls. This is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Yet it is hardly land at all. The great bog floats on its sea of peat and moss and dhu lochs. The
only sound is the lonely wind and the gentle, slow and reassuring gurgle of the countless burns, their earth poetry signing itself on this page of the north in the language of water. The burns flow into the lochs and the lochs pour themselves into the Halladale, Naver, Thurso and Helmsdale rivers, which in turn return the brown peat-water to the sea, and to the greater poem of the ocean. For a landscape which is so still, surrounded and studded by mountains it is a fluid affair, constantly moving beneath your feet, contradicting its seeming permanence with its perennial transfusions. Light into oxygen. Nouns into verbs. Caithness melds into Sutherland.
Many people think that Caithness and Sutherland are different, and it is true that topographically they contrast spectacularly. Sutherland, by far the physically larger of the partnership, but with a sparse population, is hilly and mountainous. It is Cataibh, “the place of the Cat People”, alluding to the totem of the early Pictish tribe. Caithness, “Cat People point”, or Gallaibh, meaning “the place of the non-Gaels” (referring to the Norse), is a large triangular sandstone plateau and is fertile on its northern and eastern extremities. It has almost double the population of Sutherland whilst being less than half the size. Pictish nonetheless. As the etymology of the place names suggest, culturally Caithness and Sutherland constitute the two halves of the ancient Province of the Cat, where the Ord of Caithness acts as a stone hinge which swings the two together to create one territory. In his seminal study of the far north, The History of the Province of the Cat (published in Wick in 1914), the historian Angus Mackay described Caithness and Sutherland as being ‘radically identical.’
The two main clans of the area, from the thirteenth century onwards (the Gunns of Kildonan and the Mackays of Strathnaver) may have had different origins; the Mackays having lost out in their feud with King Malcolm IV of Scotland and subsequently expelled from their native Moray, settled in Strathnaver sometime around 1160, while the Gunns, who are one of the oldest clans in Scotland and have been on the ground from earliest Pictish times took on a Norse denomination. Yet these two peoples shared a common Celtic language and culture. They are still two of the commonest names in the far north. Topography is no indicator of human relationships.
Too often we are subjected to the urban mania for compartmentalising and the destructive compulsive need to see nature as divided, where it is either mechanistic or utilitarian. Like the Gunns and the Mackays, when viewing the great bog, it is more informative and rewarding to see it as an entirety. In fact there is no future for either place or people if we do not.
As I gaze out over these liquid acres, I think of the one thing that is missing. Deer, the colour of heather, wander nearby, grazing by the side of the burn. A black grouse cack-acks-acks out from a heather clump in a dark panic. I can hear the shrill distant screech of an eagle from the direction of Strath Naver and the throaty whistle of a buzzard somewhere above the trees behind me. But there is no visible human activity. I have not seen a single car since I left Kinbrace, let alone a person. Yet people have lived in this landscape for over ten thousand years. Climate change and sturdy stone axes, the increasing rainfall and the Neolithic farmers, helped to remove the last of the trees some 4,000 years ago and created what I see before me; some 1,500 square miles of blanket bog, one of the marvels of Europe. A human landscape emptied of humans.
It has always struck me as incomplete and inauthentic to call such a wondrous place “The Flow Country”. No native ever used the phrase as I recall. The term came with conservationists and environmentalists, who probably couldn’t get their southern tongues around boglach mòr nan gaothan. So it is that the landscape gets translated. In his book The Democratic Intellect, George Davie urged the reader to ‘see life steadily and see it whole.’ So looking out over the vast bog I ask myself a question: who owns this?
In the nineteenth century everything in every direction from where I stand was owned by the Duke of Sutherland and, while the Sutherland Estates still own great swatches of the great bog, there are more recent newcomers, too. The Royal Society for the protection of Birds (RSPB) own approximately 52,000 acres of what they call “the Forsinard flows”. That they do good work in restoring sections of the great bog (damaged by the Thatcherite planting of tax break forestation of sitka spruce and lodge-pole pine in the early 1980s, damaging the environment by sucking water out of the peatlands) is well understood. Their interactions with artists and creative people in general is encouraging, also. But in the history of boglach mòr nan gaothan they are just another landowner. Indeed, the trouble with landed estates, too, is that they remain very much in the nineteenth century. They keep the straths depopulated and stuck in the past; wasting assets that generate silence, empty space and inhumanity.
For the Gunns and Mackays, prior to the land enclosures, confiscations and evictions of the late 1780s and early 1800s, wealth was measured in people and cattle. For the feudal, neo-Norman Earls of Caithness and Sutherland, the Sinclairs and the Gordons, this was an alien concept. They measured their wealth in cash – in rents. The tragedy for Scotland is that is how wealth is now understood. Historical progress has turned into an exploitative approach to nature and to humanity as part of nature. What I am actually looking at when I look out over these hypnotic dream-bogs is an anti-democratic landscape because the absence of humanity does not add to any future determination. However much the romantics may claim west Caithness and northern Sutherland as a “wilderness”, today it is no such thing. It is a landscape created by human beings, but it is a landscape in crisis. Here we can look, as travellers, but we cannot be.
I hear all the achings of my ancestors in the silence. I see all the cruelty and the flames reflected in the gentle shimmering of the Rimsdale loch. There is nothing I can undo here. All of their lives, my Gunns, unknown to me, dance before me in the low light of the evening. In this moment I can see what can be, I get the sense of what is possible, in human terms, given the political will and the accompanying philosophy. I hear the voice of James Baldwin who, in 1980 wrote that, ‘there is, after all, no reason not to be dependent on one’s country or, at least, to maintain a viable fruitful relationship with it. But this is not possible if you see your country but your country does not see you. It is not possible if the entire effort of your countrymen is an attempt to destroy your sense of reality.’
Those who own these boglands will do their best to kill the eagle and the buzzard I have heard just recently. They will kill anything that does not fit or concur with their interests. That is also why I was taught nothing about Scottish history in school, both primary and secondary. The civilization that was removed from these straths had a small “c”. The civilization I was taught had a capital “C”. It had nothing to do with me. Standing here I experience education with a small “e”, yet education with a capital “E” was what extracted me out of this land scape, burying my history in the Bible and a litany of English kings. To stand here and see these bogs, these hills and lochs is to enter into pure imagination, it is to bring everything, the poetry of history, the joy of the future, into the realm of perception. The vanished people are my experience. To write about them is an expression of optimism. For I see them back here now, living and working, a modern population in a modern country that I see somewhere, here, soon, coming into being, from necessity and desire. I see it whole, just as George Davie suggested. It can be. The human potential, I breathe it in the air. Six miles west of Garvalt.
I hear Patrick Geddes, just another voice in the wind, when he said, ‘The true function of human life is not maintenance or production – but art.’ But what good is art when there are no people to make it, to see it? Geddes was a keen advocate of observation and from observation comes revelation. From these bogs I get the sense of a coming, necessary revolution in perception. We have to stop, as a society, to stop objectifying and subjectifying a landscape such as this. We have to construct a new, militant geography which understands that these wide-open spaces offer humanity a chance to renew our culture, to make it central to our art. Without art we are just mud. If we must measure anything then let us measure it in water, as this bog does, using a radical clepsydra, a liberating tool for a new age. In other words, a practical art that ensures we do not return to the barbarism of the nineteenth century which put fire and flame to the roofs of the people. For what end? So that we can enjoy this thundering silence?
The deer who now cross the road and meander to the side of the loch look knack ered. They have just finished the rutting, so the stags have a far away look in their eyes. The hinds look resigned. The fading light catches the stone tops of several drumlins left here by some long gone glacier. Though natural, they look so man-made, so human, so perfect. Patrick Geddes would love them, but the great bog of the winds, boglach mòr nan gaothan, belongs to no-one. All I know is that wisdom sits in these places. I know that this is home. Even as I leave it behind I know that. That one thing. Just that. Home.
George Gunn is a writer, poet, and playwright who was born in Caithness. His most recent books include ‘The Great Edge’ (2017) and ‘After the Rain: New and Selected Poems’ (2018).
Banner Image Credit: Forsinard Flows towards Beinn Griam Mhòr (Photo: Eleanor Bentall, RSPB).