Monday, September 28, 2009


There was an excellent programme on British TV tonight about Assynt, in the north of Scotland. This is a remote crofting area where the living is extremely harsh. There was a big fuss about it in the early nineties because the laird decided he was going to sell the land on the open market. The advertising brochure for the sale described the indigenous peoples, in a quote that could come from McCarthy himself, as 'aliens in the landscape'. The crofters set up an international appeal for funding and bought the land themselves.

There is a long and troubled relationship between the peoples of these areas of Scotland and their land. They were, of course, cleared in the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to make way for sheep and hunting. Their feudal lairds have ruled over them and, while they could be said to have maintained their estates and the land, as an observer pointed out in the programme, often this has been done for the benefit of 'nature, not people'.

Now that they own their land, the locals still have difficulties to overcome, most notably with the environmental lobby who are, in the eyes of the crofters, 'the new empire builders' who are no longer content with nature reserves but wish to turn the entire highlands into a managed reserve, with no thought for the wishes of the people who are the ancestors and inheritors of this land.

All of which made me think of Norman MacCaig (who I was amazed was not mentioned in the programme) and his brilliant poem 'A Man in Assynt'. 'Who owns the landscape?' he asks:

Who owns this landscape? —
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape? —
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?

But, immediately, he rebukes himself for the impertinence of the question:

False questions, for
this landscape is
and intractable in any terms
that are human.

He carries on:

Or has it come to this,
that this dying landscape belongs
to the dead, the crofters and fighters
and fishermen whose larochs
sink into the bracken
by Loch Assynt and Loch Crocach? —
to men trampled under the hoofs of sheep
and driven by deer to
the ends of the earth — to men whose loyalty
was so great it accepted their own betrayal
by their own chiefs and whose descendants now
are kept in their place
by English businessmen and the indifference
of a remote and ignorant government.

There is undoubted anger here - this is an unusually political poem from MacCaig - but in some respects his initial question is not rhetorical. Yes, the land - dying or otherwise - does belong to the dead. But only in as much as the dead also belong to the living and we to them. It is really only in these remote places where the connections of generations - to the people and to the land that nourished them - still hold strong. This means these people have something uniquely powerful, a shared culture, a collective memory, a connection that is unbroken.

Sorley Maclean describes this best in that other piece of Scottish genius, Hallaig.

If it does not, I will go down to Hallaig,
to the Sabbath of the dead,
where the people are frequenting,
every single generation gone.

They are still in Hallaig,
MacLeans and MacLeods,
all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim:
the dead have been seen alive.

The men lying on the green
at the end of every house that was,
the girls a wood of birches,
straight their backs, bent their heads.

This weaving of the living and the dead, and the humans and their landscape, is mesmerising. Throughout the poem, Maclean gives life to the lands by naming them, and by naming the people who inhabited them. He describes an almost symbiotic relationship, but he recognises the fragility of that relationship. For yes, indeed, these remote places are the last in which the connections between the past and present, the people and the land, can still be seen and felt, but even here those connections are loosening. Time moves. Generations shift. Memories evaporate.

The poem ends beautifully. Time, symbolised in the poem's epigraph as a deer, is struck down by a 'vehement bullet' that comes from 'the gun of love'. And so those memories will disappear. The connection will be lost. But not, says Maclean, while there are still writers writing and historians recording history. 'His blood will not be traced while I live,' he concludes. The connection will remain.

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