Monday, 29 August 2011

Montrose meanders

I’ve found myself in the last week thinking particularly of the landscapes around Montrose in Angus. Last weekend I was visiting a sister-in-law – and did some ‘family history’ things for her. Since then I’ve pursued this line, and have been preparing, for her, a detailed report. This has involved downloading a new 'typesetting' programme and has occasioned conflicting feelings, on the luxury of playing with that together with annoyance that the text generated by my genealogy software was more ‘clunky’ than I’d like, and my knowledge that I could, with what I’ve found, have written a much better worded account in about the same time. But then, all the work in chasing this line has been facilitated by electronic resources, by websites designed to give and websites designed to get me to buy, and by electronically-shared experience and knowledge of ‘times past’ that is forming its own virtual communities. And I've learned a new skill.

I’m caught here between the experience of new media, the electronic buzz of chasing clues and talking online, and the embodied senses that are involved even in imagination, the scent of sea air, salt breeze and seaweed, the screaming gulls and the remembered calling skeins of geese flying to Montrose Basin.

I was there only fleetingly as a child, taken on a visit, and a couple of times while very young to the nearby Lunan Bay. Much more recently (though not recently enough) I was back at Lunan, and visiting a restaurant in Montrose with my Lunan hosts. Now, in chasing my sister-in-law’s people back to her sea captain ancestors David Keith and his father Walter, and beyond, I’m theorising links between virtual constructions of landscape and meaning, and the intense belonging, topophilia, generated by the ‘actual’ physical space, a palimpsest, changing and overwritten.

Montrose had a name for being quite intensely Jacobite, associated with the brief ‘15 rebellion as well as the ’45. In 1715, James the Old Pretender left from there.  David Keith appears to have been Jacobite, judging by family names, with a son born in 1749 named Charles Edward and a grand-daughter Clementina. However, that is one strand of meaning among many others. Montrose was a major port and Royal Burgh, involved in trading with the Hanseatic League in the middle ages, continuing to develop trade links from that time. Exports developed from salmon and skins to wheat and malted barley, imports grew to include trade with Portugal and other countries, though Montrose was also a centre for smuggling, of salt needed for fish processing as well as the more glamorous casks of brandy. Through both modes of trading, customary and contraband, and through the import of flax and export of cloth, Montrose grew rich. Through the export of its people and expertise, it made notable contributions to banking in both Edinburgh and London, through the Coutts family from the late 17th century onwards, and in the early 19th in Sweden, through David Carnegie who founded the Carnegie Investment Bank there.

And beyond today’s extensive harbour, the mile-long mouth of the South Esk, there is Montrose Basin, the tidal lagoon that attracts tens of thousands of pink-footed geese each year, part becoming mudflats at low water. Today it’s a naturalist’s paradise and wildlife reserve, through which the South Esk passes on its way to the sea. The combination of the basin and the harbour of the South Esk led to the development of Montrose’s wealth through shipping. Until the 19th century some ships would pass into the basin, and long before, Old Montrose, west of the town and the basin, was the ancient port.

The writer of the First Statistical Account of Montrose described the South Esk thus: ‘After many beautiful meanders, gliding though the basin and passing by the harbour of Montrose, this river falls into the German Ocean about a mile from the town’ (

A landscape with many meanings. And now, with climate change, the area of the basin is under surveillance. What will follow?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

People, nature: no dualisms, please

I’m thinking about the relationship between ‘people’ (human-people, that is) and ‘nature’, the western dualism that informs so much of spiritual as well as temporal thought and being. In Britain, our landscapes are shaped by us - none are untouched by humanity: but not by us alone. The glory of snow in the Cairngorms is still a reminder that there are processes beyond or outside ‘us’, be they the immediate flows of weather or the very long term processes of geology, but even there the white landscape is crossed by roads, power lines, and the scene is a tourist landscape. But we can see this the other way round.

We, human-people, are not separate from ‘nature’, no matter how much we have tried, in fear, in pride, or in perceived ‘domination’ or even ‘stewardship’, to divest ourselves, and our societies, of the ‘natural’. Everything that we do is predicated on a relationship to other beings of the world. We eat, don’t we? We rely on products of other-than-human people’s work, growth, movement, and we live in symbiosis with bees, bovines, and mini-beasts that live in our eyelashes, symbioses which have their difficulties especially when some of our affiliations threaten others. Every action has its impact on ‘environment’ and on human movements and resources. I live currently in the Peaks, in a landscape shaped by geological movements and glaciation, by the erosions of streams and rivers, by the grazing of sheep and the clearing of forests to enable grouse moors, by the building of villages, towns, the city, by the draining of moorland. My everyday living, what I do, how I shape my day, has impact on my environment but is also in part determined by that environment and by the choices that other people have made.

(For instance, a reliable bus service to Totley that actually allowed me to connect with my place of work would be good for me, and help avoid car journeys by others too, but these choices are not made by me: and the bus routes in Sheffield, following roads, are linked to the lie of the land and the river valleys in a city of hills, though also linked to planners’ sense that there is a ‘centre’ that people will want to go to.)

Several years ago, the power of ‘nature’ was evident in Sheffield, through rain. The impact of that power, though, was in part created by human action – the draining of moorland which would have soaked up rainwater, releasing it more gradually, the channelling or culverting of rivers into too-narrow spaces, and the building of many houses on the flood plain. This year, areas of Scotland are working on flood defence. We live together with ‘nature’, because we are of this planet and have our being here, on earth, embodied beings who cannot be separate from the sources of our life and strength.

Let’s find ways to discuss our relationships with the rest of the natural world which do not depend on a dualist distancing of ourselves from that vibrancy, diversity and dynamism which is our Earth.


[This post was inspired in part by the short preview of Emma Restall Orr's chapter in the forthcoming book, The Wanton Green. I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of Emma's chapter, and the preview is at I'll doubtless make more reference to this volume in later posts.]

Friday, 12 August 2011

Trashing cityscapes

Now for something a bit more ‘dark’, as film people love to say. And it’s not good.
Several English cities had areas trashed by their own dwellers and from some who’d come in to do this. Looting, burning including setting fires where people were living above shops, brutality and instrumental / opportunistic thieving were all in evidence.

'Explanations' are coming up. The ‘obvious’ ones are of individual psychology, or rather pop psychology (I don’t think many of my colleagues in the psychology section of our department will have much truck with them): criminal inclinations, poor 'parenting', lack of education (or poor teaching) and so forth; or the idea that social media create an ease of making riots. The YouGov poll fed into this, asking for people's perceptions of 'one MAIN reason' for the riots.

More sophisticated explanations take account of multiple factors, and from both psychology and sociology there are many: crowd behaviour, emergent norms, multiple deprivation, and notably from Zygmunt Bauman the idea that ‘These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers’ (

I can see several things working here, resulting in the destruction which the rioters – yes, ‘criminal’ rioters – effected. I’ve seen three things coming together which I posted on Facebook as (tidied up and edited/expanded a little):

  1. a general level of protest and disconnection, associated with issues of disrespect and underclass; but not - in the sense of many other areas in the world - 'poverty'. Yet these people may feel that their community, others where they live, are against them and that they are therefore oppressed locally as well as by the popular devils of our age, politicians, police, bankers…
  2. however, the issue of what Bauman calls 'defective and disqualified consumers' in the sense that they know they can't measure up to what they're presented with in the media or other 'lifestyle' things, other than through illegal means, the underground economy which exacts its own payments - and -
  3.  'group think' which is now much wider than local communities. FB and twitter play a part here, but only when related to the narrowness of exploration of some of those involved with the riots. Blackberry messenger is something about which I can't speak but seems to have been central, enabling individuals to communicate with a very small (relatively speaking) community which they feel is 'theirs'.
But what I think is missing – from all analyses, including mine above though it’s hinted at in (1), is the sense of place. These were people from many sections of their community. Teenagers, oh yes, but also others who could be expected to have more connection. How does a teacher-assistant come to be picked up looting? How many were ‘out of area’ – some were gang members, yes, but who did they see as enemy? Some others may have started out indignant about the previous Thursday shooting, then got swept up by the mood of the moment; some indifferent to the shooting, still swept up.  But thinking particularly about the young people, some only eleven and twelve, how do they become able to set fires and loot in areas that they know well?

 I don’t have answers. But there is a need to look at the places, not only as burnt-out scenes or as property of vandalised shopkeepers (to whom I give respect) but as streets, walking, driving, cycling and running places, spaces for living, as shopping centres for moving around in, as even individual shops with which some of the looters were already familiar; and to ask how or why these shops could become alien, targeted, or even sufficiently different to become a focus for local lads’ and ladettes’ acquisitiveness. And to my mind the possible answers will include those from a critique of architecture and planning, the structuring of our cities, just as much as from the sociological explanations of class, ethnicity, disprivilege, disparity and resistance, and the psychological ones of individual deprivation and indeed personal trauma.

About the title - 'Landscape, self and others'

Various people have said over months or indeed years that I should have a blog. I've bits and pieces of social-commentary writing here and there (FB etc.) in addition to academic things, articles and books, but not a public blog. Time, therefore to start.

The title reflects my key interests as a social anthropologist / sociologist - I never know which to style myself though the latter tends to feel too narrow - in looking at how people interact with where they are, how 'sacredness' is inscribed in landscape or how landscapes inscribe 'sacredness' in their people, and particularly just now on the doing of family history (yes, as in Who Do You Think You Are?) and the importance of place as landscape, taskscape, cityscape, mythscape for personal and community identities. In theorising these issues, I see identities in place shaped also by the social constructs of class, ethnicity, gender, religion, spirituality and others. Social theory, though, has tended to ignore embodiment, particularly embodiment in place and the spiritual understandings or awakenings which result. So, I'll attempt to use this blog, probably sporadically, to explore some ideas about being in place, whether that place be Border hills, reconstructed Leith streets, or my own garden.

So, there is landscape; identities or selves include my own constructions of self, as researcher, author, photographer, theorist; 'others' obviously include the human people with whom places (and I) interact - but also other-than-human entities with whom the space is in some way shared.

I dithered over whether it should be landscapes, plural - but settled in the end for the singular, and more abstract, 'landscape'.