Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Unremembered Places - Patrick Baker

I thought I was reading this book in a very timely way, but I see it's been sitting on my desk for almost 4 months which is another reminder - which I didn't really need - of how strange time feels this year. I saw the first Halloween things out the other day, but there are still shops with mothers day and Easter displays which haven't yet re-opened. It's the first year that I've been out of retail in decades as well, and so the first year that September hasn't been the start of a serious gearing up for Christmas. For me that's meant at home as well as at work because it was always a coping mechanism, but I don't know what I have to cope with yet.

All of this was at the back of my mind as I read 'The Unremembered Places' and have undoubtedly coloured the way I've understood it. The subtitle of this book is 'Exploring Scotland's Wild Histories', which in this case means the remains of human history in otherwise wild places, but could I think mean a variety of other things too. I find it hard to associate human and wild unless we go a very long way back, and that's often the point in the book too.

It opens with an attempt to locate some caves in Glen Loin. It's night time, and wet, the author and his companion are looking for the caves they intend to spend the night in care of some written instructions and a torch - a popular place with climbing groups in the 1920s and 30s when they functioned as a sort of hostel. They're empty when Baker and his friend arrive but are a perfect example of bits of history which haven't exactly been forgotten, but are not part of common memory either - unremembered is the perfect word for this. Places which might be widely considered remarkable but somehow have not caught the public imagination and so remain obscure.

The chapter on The Slate Isles (Islands of Industry) are an example that particularly resonated. I've been to Seil island, which I found oddly appealing, but it was an end of the road sort of stop. Somewhere that you could get a rib to see Corryvreckan from (I have no desire to do this) and to stretch your legs before the next stint in the car. I knew nothing of the flooded slate mines at the time, the way some of the islands had been hollowed out, or the catastrophic storm which hit the islands in the 19th century. A visit to Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth is another high point. It's got an interesting, and not entirely happy human history and following Baker's personal response to the place with his efforts to rationalise them are really interesting.

The 'Land of the Left Behind' is possibly the most troubling. Here there's an emotional response to a ruined village which had been cleared. You can't not address the clearances in a book like this, but sometimes I wish you could because they're still such an emotive subject, one where resentment has remained ever green - and not without reason.

I got into the beginnings of a twitter argument last week with someone far to gracious to let it descend into more than beginnings. It started with a BBC article about people moving to the highlands and islands in the search of a better quality of life in a covid world. This article was about people who had sold up and moved, but time after time that morning I saw responses hostile to second home owners and people coming in to dilute the local culture. Individually the responses wouldn't have registered, but cumulatively they became troubling.

There's plenty of talk about how to re culture the highlands, and a tension between that and re wilding them. Baker's book gently raises questions for me about re culturing - who will there be space for, who would be welcome, and who would be seen as an interloper. The answer is probably different in landscapes that were cleared, to landscapes that were abandoned, but if pushed I suspect to many people would have views about who might belong and who doesn't.

It bothers me because it's personal - I was born in Scotland but have spent most of my life south of the border. I sound English, my parents are English, pre Scottish Independence referendum I knew I was British, but it's become more complicated since then. All of which is incidental to 'The Unremembered Places' but it's the sort of book that encourages all sorts of thoughts.

Baker is an excellent guide to the places he explores, curious, honest, informative, and charming in equal measure (the chickens of Inchkeith will not easily be forgotten). He's made me think a lot about unremembered places (it's become a concept that I'm a little bit obsessed by) in Shetland, and how I respond to landscapes and evidence of human hands upon it. It's an excellent book whose relevance goes far beyond the Scottish landscape it explores, and which I strongly recommend.

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