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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, June 17, 2005

Heart of Darkness in the Southern Uplands

in the heart of darkness

I have a very battered Penguin paperback copy of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Faded but still visible on the title page is the date I bought it -1976. I read it today during pauses on a journey to the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh. The outward journey along the A 701 the Devil's Beef Tub' route which cuts up and over the hills beyond Moffat.

http://www.tartantammy.co.uk/hartfell.htm -describes a walk with photos of Hart Fell and Devil's Beef Tub

As a young child, the 'Devil's Beef Tub' was a frightening place. The hills above it rise up to 2600 feet and the road skirts its brim, allowing glimpses into its depths. Returning at dusk after a day out in Edinburgh, with mist drifting up from its gloomy interior, it was an eerie, haunted place, lost amongst the empty barren miles of moorland. I could easily imagine a great horned figure rising up out of the darkness. Still half-believing in God, I still half-believed in the Devil. And every year at Halloween Robert Burns 'Tam o' Shanter' would be read to us. Forty years ago, Burns' world not so far away from rural life in south west Scotland, his rich Scots language still the language we spoke in the playground and at home, if not in school. The biggest difference, and that only a generation or so distant, was that tractors had replaced horses on local farms.

Today, I was looking out for Hart Fell, just beyond the Beef Tub and the source of the Tweed, but the clouds were down too low. Hart Fell being, according to Nikolai Tolstoy's The Quest for Merlin, the sacred mountain where a historical Merlin took refuge after a being on the losing side in the battle of Arderydd fought in the mid sixth century. But even though I could not see Hart Fell, now I know where it is, know I have seen it many times before it and can connect the mountain viscerally with the sense of mingled awe, mystery and fear I experienced forty years ago.

I think it was Sir Walter Scott or perhaps James Hogg (Confessions of a Justified Sinner) who described the cauldron beneath Hart feel as the Devil's beef Tub, suggesting it was where Border Reivers from north of Hadrian's Wall hid the cattle they had 'reived'. Practically I doubt this, the Beef Tub is a good 30 miles from the Border, on the very edge of the reiver's territory. (George Macdonald Fraser in The Steel Bonnets' agrees). Nikolai Tolstoy is perhaps closer when he suggests the area was associated with the persistence of paganism in the 'Dark Ages' between AD 400 and 600, and with the 'Horned God' of forests and wild nature rather than the Christian Devil. Tolstoy quotes a description by Procopius of the region of Britain 'beyond the Wall' as a desolate and savage region filled with the spirits of the dead, wild beats and venomous serpents.

Even today, in June with the hills all green and sleeping like peaceful giants, the crossing and re-crossing of the Southern Uplands was still a disturbing experience. Conrad's narrator, Marlowe describes how he was fascinated as a child by blank spaces on maps. I have an old atlas from 1862 which has just such blank spaces on it. Some are in Africa, another is in the USA - a featureless space in the centre simply marked 'Indian Territories'.
The space I moved through today is not blank on the map. Every stream, every hill, every house, every patch of forest is marked and plotted. We returned via a motorway which runs through this space, running parallel with a railway and a Roman road, all in turn following the rivers Clyde and Annan up and over the watershed which divides them.

And yet it is also a blank space, an absence. For my son it is literally so. He has travelled the Beef Tub road to Edinburgh twice a week for the past seven years, but has never seen anything of it. Every year millions of people travel between central Scotland and England by road and rail. But how many actually see the land, see the Southern Uplands? Or is the hour or so of travel a journey through a blank and empty space?
So far, so literary. Yet the distance between Conrad's Heart of Darkness and my everyday world is not so great. My aunt married a third generation farmer from what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. One of her nephews is now working for my brothers and living in the house I grew up in. His father, mother and sister are living in England.
Just off the motorway service station at Abington where I finished reading Heart of Darkness this afternoon is Glenochar. Glenochar is an abandoned 'fermtoun'. All that can be seen of it now are a few piles of stones which mark the sites of peasant farmers 'houses'. What Glenochar reveals is that once the empty landscape of the Southern Uplands was filled with human life. Every patch of fertile ground was farmed and where now only dozens live, once there were thousands.

The story of Glenochar is told in The Lowland Clearances by Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell. This was first a radio series, and is now a book. The people driven off the land by agricultural 'reformers' first made their way to new industrial villages, towns and cities. Some stayed, but others moved on. Most to the 'white' colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but some to Africa.

At Broughton through which passed today is a John Buchan museum. In Colonialism's Culture, Nicholas Thomas uses Buchan's novel Prester John (published in 1910) to illustrate the theme 'Imperial Triumph, Settler Failure'.

It was little more than dawn... before me was the shallow vale with its bracken and sweet grass, and farther on the shining links of the stream, and the loch still grey in the shadow of the beleaguering hills. Here was a fresh, clean land , a land for homesteads and orchards and children. All of a sudden I realised at last I had come out of savagery. the burden of the past days slipped from me . I felt young again, and cheerful and brave. Behind me was the black night, and the horrid secrets of darkness. Before me was my own country, for that loch and that bracken might have been on a Scotch moor.

The scene, however, is southern Africa not the Southern Uplands.

Unfortunately, although he discusses Heart of Darkness in Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said, does not mention Buchan. However, in discussing late 19th century 'openly colonial' fiction Said does bring in the importance of history and geography.

The appropriation of history, the historicization of the past, the narrativization of society, all of which give the novel its force, included the accumulation and differentation of social space, space to be used for social purpose...
Underlying social space are territories, lands, geographical domains, the actual geographic underpinnings of the imperial, and also the cultural contest. To think about distant places, to colonize them, to populate or depopulate them: all of this occurs on, about or because of land. The actual geographical possession of land is what empire in the final analysis is all about. At the moment when a coincidence occurs between real control and power, the idea of what a given place was (could be , might become) , and an actual place -at that moment the struggle for empire is launched. The co-incidence is the logic both for Westerners taking possession of land and, during decolonization, for resisting natives reclaiming it. Imperialism and the culture associated with it affirm both the primacy of geography and an ideology about control of territory. The geographical sense makes projections- imaginative, cartographic, military, economic, historical or in a general sense cultural. It also makes possible the construction of various kinds of knowledge, all of them in one way or another dependent upon the perceived character and destiny of a particular geography.

Is it possible to take Said's dense and powerful themes - the appropriation of history and particular geographies by the culture of imperialism - and use them to construct a 'knowledge' of the Southern Uplands? To bring back into collective consciousness the blank psychogeographical space which lies between 'Scotland' and 'England?

Probably not. What I am doing is slowly working away at the history and the place names. Spent a month last year spotting and recording about 500 place names from across the western Southern Uplands and down to the north Solway coast. I started with water courses. Professor G W Barrow had mentioned (in his chapter in The Uses of Place Names, ed Simon Taylor ) that the survival of about 100 ‘pol-’ water course place names in the Southern Uplands shows the persistence of P- Celtic (Old Welsh/ Brittonic) in the area.

I knew that another localised place name are the Galloway ‘lanes’. These are large streams, not paths or roads. I found 70. I also found ‘strands’ ‘sykes’ ‘gills’ and ‘grains’ which show and east/ west distribution split. Lanes and strands to the west, sykes, gills and grains to the east. It gets complicated, but all to do with languages spoken over a 1000 year period.

In AD 400 the language was P-Celtic Brittonic or Old Welsh, which evolved into Cumbric (as in Cumbria and Cymru/ Wales) and probably died out around 1200. From 650 Anglian/ Old English enters the picture, but mainly in the lowland/ Solway coast area - not up in the hills. Over on the east coast, in Northumbria and up as far as Edinburgh, the language never died out and evolved into Scots. But in the west? Unknown.

At some point Q- Celtic Gaelic enters the picture. In ‘pure’ form, coming down from the north with the Scots of Alba as they took over Brittonic Strathclyde down as far as Carlisle and into Cumbria. But also came from the west, but spoken by ‘Hiberno- Norse’- Vikings who had colonised parts of Ireland after moving down the west coast of Scotland. They then crossed the Irish Sea via the Isle of Man to Cumbria and over to York. Some had set up trading posts along the north Solway coast (at Whithorn and Kirkcudbright). Dates? 850/ 900? They then moved inland, taking over as ruling elite from the Northumbrians. And then… it all depends on trying to date place names. Holm, fell and dale are all Norse words. They are found right up into the hills, alongside Gaelic place names - some of which may originally have been Welsh.

I reckon what happened was the people and languages mixed and fused. Welsh and Gaelic, English and Norse. The end result was Creole tongue - Scots.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scottish is an English dialect, not a Creole language.

1:08 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

When I lived in Hackney in London I took a Post Graduate Teacher Training Course via the Institute of Education. I did teacher training (early years) in Hackney.

One of the teachers I worked with gave me a paper written by the then Director of Education in Hackney - in which he argued that West Indian English was a Creole language rather than a dialect of English.

If we go back to the period AD 700 to AD 1400 in Galloway, with a population of no more than 20 000 (guesstimate - it was about 30 000 from Hearth Tax returns in 1690) where Old Welsh, Old English, Old Norse and Old Gaelic were variously spoken, I suggest some form of common or 'creole' language arose out of this multi-lingual mix - which became the distinct Mid South Scots dialect.

9:47 pm  

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