Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Explorations in Angus

I was writing some pieces for an online course I'm teaching for Cherry Hill Seminary, and developed a photo-essay from a trip out into the Angus countryside on Saturday. So I'll attempt to post it here too. Alas I can't just post the pdf, apparently!

Last Saturday I  drove out towards the Sidlaw Hills, a few scant miles from my house on the outskirts of Dundee. My purposes were vague, only to explore a couple of places I had not seen, possibly investigate one of the local stone circles, and have a gentle walk in the wild.

Balkello Community Woodland is a good place to explore. As summer draws to its close and autumn nears, rowans are laden with berries and the trees display their varying shades of green, with the richness of oak and alder against the darker spruce and pine. A good place to wander: and as I reached the north side of the woodland, the hills beyond - Balkello and Auchterhouse - caught the afternoon light.

The derivation of 'Sidlaw' is not clear. 'Law' is a hill (so 'Sidlaw Hills' is Sid-Hill-Hills). The first part, though, is more difficult. Some say that 'Sid' means 'seat', and indeed one of the hills is named 'The King's Seat'. Others have names that come from older languages or blend two, as indeed 'Sidlaw' may do: Dunsinane, Auchterhouse, Balkello, Balluderan and Craigowl. The last of these is from Creag gobhal, 'forked hill', despite its name having meaning in English also. But an alternative derivation of Sidlaw is from Sidhe, the 'fairy folk', the hidden people, by which the Sidlaws would be the Hills of the Sidhe.

I think I prefer that derivation, though it may owe more to hope than to linguistic analysis.

Balkello woodland is young, and managed by the Forestry Commission: the trees were planted only in the 1990s, to create a community place which contrasts with the farmlands around and uplands beyond. It lies to the north of the road which connects the villages of Auchterhouse and Tealing.

Just south of the road is a standing stone, the Balkello Stone, which will be a visit for another day. However, I'd hoped to catch site of a circle nearby at Balkemback, and find the Pictish carved stone known as Martin's Stane. 

The field in which the circle sits was occupied by many cows, and would have required climbing over several barbed wire fences: again, not for this day as the afternoon was wearing on. Views from the roadside, though, showed the heather coming into its own on the hills behind, and the plain beyond stretching to the coast - a landscape farmed for thousands of years, by people who left their marks on the land, clearing fields, creating cairns, erecting stones to mark places that, perhaps, called especially to them, building roundhouses and digging souterains, carving on rock and boulder, building houses of stone and later of brick, then churches for each group of villages as those became parishes. This landscape is not 'wild', even on the heights of the Sidlaws, but changed in the interaction of humans and others through millennia.

Finally, I headed for Martin's Stane, on my way home to Dundee. Some information on this Pictish carved stone is at http://www.scotlandsplaces.gov.uk/record/rcahms/31864/balluderon-st-martins-stone/rcahms
Alas, it was broken long ago, so that only part of the stone remains, with figures of a horse though the rider is no longer present, with, below, another rider and horse and a pair of 'Pictish symbols' one of which has been said locally to be a 'dragon'. Local folklore has therefore created its own meanings for this stone, linked to place names towards Dundee, but what it commemorated, or its inscription as 'sacred', may never be known.

The stone, minutes from Balkemback and Balluderan, is in a field which on my visit held glowing golden barley, waist-high or even higher, waiting for harvest. There was a narrow trackway across the field, on which I walked with care for the barley, which let me come close enough to photograph such of the images as could be seen through the waving grass around the stone and the barley between it and me. Again, this calls for a visit once the crop is harvested.

And so, the final images here are of that field and the waving barley, farmer's gold, with the stone visible through its protective railings. That I could not approach closely did not, on this visit, matter: the ripeness of the barley was, for today, enough.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

On Petrushka and 'illegal' migrants

This evening I turned over to BBC4 without knowing what was on - and was delighted to find Stravinsky's Petrushka being played in a Proms concert.  And then I browsed through a bit of my email, while listening, to find a statement by Tim Farron on the Calais situation.

And they were so much in tune. For those who don't know it, Petrushka is the story of three marionettes, at a Russian town's fair, manipulated by the puppet owner, and performing under his rule for the entertainment of the assembled people at the fair. And the people have their own lives and things to do, their dance, their joys, and take no notice of the puppets.

But the puppets have their own lives, offstage or out of sight of the crowd, and there are tensions between them, ending when one kills another. Petrushka, mortally wounded, breaks from his booth, attempts to take agency and runs out into the fairground, the town square, and with his dying movements accuses those who have not known of the puppets' situation, effectively that of slaves of the puppetmaster; and his death - the death of one whom the crowd thought of as not a person - troubles them.

So then to Tim Farron's piece: the central message of which is while we do need to 'police' boundaries and work on security issues, the situation of those caught within this dreadful system of politics, seeking freedom or new futures and issues of trafficking needs our attention in other ways. I will add that we do seriously need to take on board the predicaments of the people attempting to transport goods, and those who depend on this trade (particularly important for Scottish seafood transporters who are hit very hard by the situation). How do we balance this, somehow, with the need to think of those breaking free of the camps as both victims of the 'puppetmasters' of their initial trafficking, and people attempting to take agency and do whatever they can to draw our attention, the attention of those sitting comfortably in our British homes, to what drives them to assay these difficult and dangerous ploys?

Farron said that 'While the Government is focussing on building bigger fences and bolstering security, we cannot ignore the humanitarian crisis. Tear gas and dogs will never solve the problems that these people are facing, and we should not turn a blind eye to their suffering.'

Indeed: and a photo accompanying his text showed a sign on the side of a makeshift tent, 'We are not dangerous, we are in danger.' But I'd put his message more blatantly - that the solutions, if there can be 'solutions', to the queues of lorries and the people dying on the Mediterranean, the Calais camps and the problems of lorry drivers, have to be in tune. We have to take our share of migrants to Europe, and in particular we have to open doors as and how we can, to help with this crisis; at the same time as exploring what the possibilities are in North Africa and Syria, and what we might do that recognises the ordinary people and the everyday, dreadful, things that they are facing there. And to take on board at least some of the historical reasons for these fearful situations.

This doesn't mean that we should blame the West for all the problems of North Africa and the Middle East. It does mean that we need to see ourselves as part of an interconnected system, with what we do and have done affecting other people's lives there; to acknowledge responsibility for some actions and some mistakes, and to think about what kinds of connectedness we can help create, and who we might connect with; and in the meantime to recognise what privilege we have and to extend that hand of help to others who, because of a specific situation at this specific time, have it not.