Home > Uncategorized > The great Scots circuit

The great Scots circuit

The Highland Boundary Fault seperates Lowland from Highland at Stirling

The aim of these trips is to move around the island on which I live, getting a sense of the lie of its land. At all times I am alert to two things: the underlying geology, (especially as it affects the shape of the landscape on the surface); and the resulting shifts in human things: buildings, history, culture. It’s the calibration between the two that interests me.

The aim is to re-enchant our relationship with and understanding of the land beneath us: in an age of identikit towns and sat navs, to reveal the power and specifity of place — and to reveal the human element in that grand and elemental storyAnd also to explain: this is how this island fits together, and what makes Humberside different to Caithness, Dorset different to Cumbria. To turn places into Places.

This trip over to Scotland — at a remarkable, if rather anticlimactic, point in its history — is a case in point, and also a challenge. I was ignorant, I realise, of basic things like Scottish counties and major rivers (how is Angus different from Argyll, the Don from the Dee?), and daunted by the scale of the landscape. There’s a lot of Place up here. And I’m doing more or less what I did with Northern England a week or two ago: casing the joint, getting a sense of the shape of things, with lots of research combined with a certain amount of gut-feel *that’s* where I’m going today.

The border is not a specific point in the landscape, like the Pyrenees in Spain; but the Borders are well named. Underneath this entire region lies a great mass of Carboniferous sandstone, separating the Pennines from the Southern Uplands, great and linking the wide mouth that is the Firth of Forth — one of the geological structural keys to the whole island — and the lesser one of the Tweed. The geology of the Borders seperates, but does so gradually, creating a region with an identity in its own right; and arguably the existence of uplands from the north Pennines to the Midland Valley is one of the reasons for the survival of Scotland as an entity.

After all, this is not a large island, and England has ultimately been richer and more powerful: over centuries, in many parts of the world, this has resulted in the extinguishing of smaller polities. Yet Scotland is unquestionably a nation, and not (like Wales, until recently) a nation whose identity depends on cultural identity alone: this is a nation that even at the height of the Britain/UK project retained its own institutions, its own laws, and whose constitutional relationship to the whole depended on a deal-between-monarchs that is very much not the submission of poorer northern to richer southern partner. That is, it is a nation institutionally, too, and has never ceased to be so.

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Granite city: Aberdeen

Perhaps that is why things change as soon as you cross the border. The little ashlar bungalows and big Grecian hilltop monuments or public-spirited institutional buildings of Coldstream could just as easily be in Morayshire or Galloway, and would look weirdly foreign even 50 miles south. There are continuities, of course, not only of architectural style but of regional specifics: those little ashlar bungalows are a case in point, prevalent in the Northumberland Cheviots, too; Newcastle, with its Grecian Grey monument and grand sandstone streets is on the way to being a Scottish city. As well as being on the way to actual Scottish cities.

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The distinctive dark stones of Portnockie

They mark out the elements of a series of things architectural that make the Scottish landscape distinct from the English one. I haven’t fully got to grips with all of them yet, but certainly some can be seen everywhere from Thurso to Forfar. The medieval and Roman dimensions of the landscape, so often the visible root of everything in England, are often absent and even when present not nearly as obvious: instead, it is the C17 and C18 from which the landscape apparently derives itself. Places are often planned: they are often planned in England, too, but because the plans there were laid out in the  C10-C12 they have had time for each structure on each plot to be rebuilt several times over, and the underlying directed nature of a settlement thus becomes less explicit to the eye. Perhaps they were always slightly less ordered in any case.  There is a bigger range of grand public buildings, institutions, collective projects created for the good of all (or at least of their members), than even in the north of England, and they are Neoclassical, a rare style to the south. A bigger range of places of worship, too; of course there are nonconformist chapels aplenty in England but one is rarely in any architectural doubt that we have an established church. In Scotland, the architecture of one branch of Christianity does not dominate, or provide the tap root of places, in the simple way it does in England: churches crop up in (to an Englishman odd) places. Graveyards are often set aside from them, cropping up as plots on the edge of cities or by the roadside in rural areas. This may be a pattern with old roots: where the churches are ancient, they are in non-nucleated sites in the middle of groups of farms, or outside the centre of the modern settlement. And finally, within Scotland there’s a separation between two landscapes: the Scotland in which scattered crofts overlook the seas, and the Scotland of scattered farms set inland around kirktowns and chapel towns. (There’s a grand imperial city and post-industrial Scotland too, but not particularly part of this trip. And there’s more, but that will do for now).

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Rubislaw, the hole from which Aberdeen was ripped

And everything is made of sandstone and granite. Indeed there is so much of the former that one might begin to tire of it. A shame, because on closer examination the variations and uses of these stones is one of the great qualities of this built landscape, and its most immediate debt to the natural one. The purple-brown sandstones of Angus are different from the sand-coloured ones of Morayshire; a stone of one colour will be used as decorative dressing in a build made of stone of another. These variations, for example along the north coast of Moray and Aberdeenshire, often move subtly in step with that of the underlying geology, a sequence marvellous to move through.

Indeed, this whole country is made of sandstone and granite. That’s a massive generalisation, of course, but in Scotland the English story of a generic sandstone ‘midland’ around which everything else can be seen to fit is turned around. The sandstones of the Midland Valley (and elsewhere) are the key to the country’s prosperity and, arguably, statehood: here are Glasgow and Edinburgh, for example. North of this are the highlands, to the south the Southern Uplands. Here the story is unendingly complex (and exciting), but igneous rocks play a vital role in it: witness the great massif of Cairngorm. Indeed the great lava whins that erupt throughout the country play a key role in giving even the most verdant arable landscape an edge of drama, and making Stirling and Edinburgh such impregnable seats of power.

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Pictish symbol-stone in Elgin cathedral

That’s the big picture, as it currently seems to me. What specifics have stood out from this 5-day recce of the country’s eastern side, from Edinburgh to Caithness and back? Firstly, I’d barely clocked neither Aberdeenshire nor the area immediately east and north of Inverness before, but these are heartlands from the Pictish era onwards, and even in prehistory they veer from the reassuringly familiar — the prevalence of long mounds, henges, round barrows and hillforts suggests that the concept of Britain might have been understood all those thousands of years ago — to the fascinatingly new. The result includes Pictish carved stones, of course, but also recumbent stone circles (only one stone is recumbent, but it’s an important one): both of which are very geographically specific phenomena. With regard to the latter, the whole area around Inveruie in Aberdeenshire is one of this island’s great sacred landscapes, doing everything such Places should: react to the water, the meeting of Don and Euie in a great fertile bowl; react to mountains, the great peak of Bennarchie; mark out and sacralise the more fertile land, in twenty or more stone circles scattered on the hills around a central henge; reveal internal continuities and stratigraphies, such as in the reuse of stone circles as later cairns or the recarving of individual standing stones by the Picts, several millennia later, but still ancient to us; and respond to the rocks beneath. Easter Aquhorthes was a gem: the great one-off lump of pink granite almost glistening in the evening light; the curious quartzite skin on the moon-facing main recumbent rock very suggestive.

The monuments of Caithness were almost as impressive: here the epicentre looks north, as if Caithness was a suburb of Orkney Mainland, only attached to the boring old Continent to the south by misfortune; and geologically, both are part of the same ancient sandstone basin. To crawl inside the round mound at Camster is an experience not to be forgotten, with thousaands of tonnes of dry stone powered and domed above one.

Medieval monuments were intriguing, too. Elgin cathedral as serious a work as any in Scotland, telling the same stylistic story: Romanesque and Early English a highly sophisticated offshoot of the latest practise in Northern England; from the mid-C14 everything changes and England is conscpicously ignored. As we ignore it: the chapter house, visually 1390 but laid out in the C13, is not in our ‘grand narrative’ of polygonal chapter houses, which is bonkers. Montrose cathedral an intriguing demonstration of how a decent designer with few resources could use a few early C13 bangs and whistles, all of them as far as I can see derived ultimately from Lincoln and York — to good effect.

As for later stuff, every town and village is stuffed with it, and the better-off the area, the more of it there is. But for responses to local stone, there is little in Britain to beat the sequence of fishing villages that run along the north coast into Banffshire, a geological map on a stunning coastline; or Aberdeen, glistening with mica, a city of granite, cold, inward looking — as Bath is a city of Jurassic limestone, warm and inviting. The great hole of Rubislaw from which the city was lifted, now a hidden lake surrounded by offices and high fences, was a sight in itself.

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Ultima Thule: Duncansby head, Caithness

Then there are the places that struck for their unexpectedness: the curious country around Caithness, a brief 10 miles of arable struck with tooth-like sandstone slates after decades of highland and peat bog. Fraserburgh, a functioning fishing town in which Tagalog and Doric seem to be the two main langauges, the latter only slightly easier to comperehend than the former. And much, much more. Some of which is on Facebook, because I’m running out of time.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. September 30, 2014 at 12:57 am

    I love the notion of “re-enchanting” out relationship with the land that holds us. You have an eye for the layers of life, place and the ongoing relationship between the elements.

  2. Dave
    September 30, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Excellent evocative perspective Jonky; very thought provoking. We forget that Scotland’s James VI came south to govern England and invented the term ‘Great Britain’. The ‘Auld Alliance’ permeates Scottish culture; most obviously architecturally, I think. When Edinburgh New Town was planned in 1765 (58 years after the Acts of Union) one of the competition entries laid out streets as a Union Jack; I have an image if you are interested.

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