Sunday, 26 February 2012

A Sunday Spent Plotting

Quite a long time ago – back in August of last year in fact – I wrote a post called "putting Scotland on the map" – and had the audacity to call it ‘Part One’ ! It was an attempt at an introduction to an idea that was running through my mind about trying to tell the tale {as I understand it anyway} of how Scotland came to be populated, how those populations developed into tribes and how the language that arrived, changed and survived can be traced through its use in describing the geographical features and the naming of the land, its shapes and contours as men developed the skill and ability to navigate around and through the landscape those peoples inhabited.

I was quite pleased with the result but quickly became scared off trying to tell the tale when I really thought about how much work was involved. For one thing, it's not a subject I've ever studied or even suggested that I understood – not that that's ever stopped me before from trying to tell a tale and I really like the thought of this story which comes from my love – and collection – of antique maps of Scotland. Over the months this post has had a fairly regular number of hits, mainly coming I think from the image of an old map of Scotland that I used as a header being picked up on Internet search engines. Being a curious sort of guy I like to know what's being read or not on the blog and I occasionally see a post listed that I go back to read in the footsteps of the viewer. This has made me feel a bit guilty that I've never followed up on this story but also reinforced the amount of work I would need to do to do it justice. Despite that I think that this may be my next project for the blog. A couple of years ago I wrote the story of 153 {Bomber} Squadron RAF across the last few months of WWII due to my father's involvement in the tale and these have become probably the most frequently visited posts in the blog to date with the exception of hits on the on-going "Sunday posts" weekly poem series.

Perhaps because of the guilt described above I've found myself delving into my collection of books on the history of Scotland, particularly those parts relating to language and landscape and beginning again to connect those threads which I remember feeling were the most important. Hopefully the information will filter through the brain cell and emerge in some kind of order.

Meanwhile here is how I started all those months ago.

'The North Part of Great Britain called Scotland.
By Herman Moll. Geographer, 1714.'

Imagine a time before Scotland: before Britain: before countries. There are no cities and no towns. No great castles or villages mark territory or give any sign of habitation, not even the tiniest of hamlets is to be seen. No bridges span the estuaries of the rivers Forth or Clyde and no ships, great or small, make their way up the rivers. There are no roads or railways and the skies are untouched by aeroplanes. No man-made light-spill masks the view of a night sky filled with a huge vista of stars and planets tracking across the horizon in the perpetual slow reassuring pattern that marks the changing seasons. The only tracks across the land are tiny and infrequent, made by the feet of wild beasts more often than those of any man.

Beneath that double cone of Arthur's seat there's no Edinburgh spilling down to the river. To the east, in the distance, North Berwick Law stands untouched and no lighthouse blinks across the water from the Bass Rock. No ancient tribal citadel can be seen on the crest of Traprain.. The land is covered by heavy deciduous woodland reaching back to dark hills and moors that rise up in the distance. Pine forests exist only far off to the north where the mountains can be seen in the distance, glimpsed from the top of the dead volcanic plugs that will come to be called Traprain or North Berwick Law. Far down the coast where the river becomes the sea and land turns towards the south and the spot I will live thousands of generations in the future, beside a place that will one day be called Dunbar, a slim column of smoke is the only recognisable sign of life.
Here - finally - is a sign of man.

Near the sea, between the water and the woods, is a house. It is a small, crude thing to our modern eyes yet it's the culmination of generations of experience and millennia of skill with its walls made from small branches of trees woven together and covered with mud built around a framework of a few solid wooden posts. The roof is pitched and roughly thatched with brush over a small hearth where a fire burns and smoke collects beneath the roof until it finally makes its escape by seeping through the thatch. In this smoke hang small pieces of fish and meat strung from the relatively low ceiling. We know all this because 10,000 years in the future archaeologists will find the post-holes and enough information to reconstruct the building at Skateraw and will name it the oldest house in Scotland. Of course the man who built it and the family who live here have no idea of that. They would have no concept of such a timescale and the house is probably only designed to last a few months until they move on to the next place, guided or driven by available food supply and weather conditions.

They are the first people; hunter-gatherers whose life is dictated by the seasons and the availability of sufficient food to sustain them as they comb the shoreline for molluscs or shellfish, or net fish and trap eels in the shallows of the sea or the nearby river using a small round boat constructed of hides stretched over a supple frame of light wood. They are expert in finding nuts, fruit, or herbs in the woods and trapping animals for food and skins. Despite the fact that they are clothed in hides and use many wooden and bone tools we call this the Stone Age simply because their stone artifacts are the most common sign of their passing  because of the durability of the material they are made from. While they have many more skills and expertise, the natural materials they also use don't survive the vast expanse of time except in extremely rare and precious circumstances. More often we find worked stone hand axes or evidence of their ability as flint nappers.

Flint, with its ability to be worked and flaked into razor edged cutting implements is found only in a few places, yet traces of its use found widespread across the land shows a degree of organisation and cooperation in finding and trading such a precious commodity. So adept are the people here at napping this flint that they create and use tools so tiny and delicate that they will be called microliths and will be used as an academic point of difference in identifying them from their counterparts across continental Europe who produce tools only of a more substantial size. This skill may tell us that flint was a rarer commodity on this island and necessity has driven the inhabitants to use every scrap of such a precious material.
Beyond a few stone tools and precious few examples of other materials being worked we know almost nothing about these people. We don't know what language they spoke or how they viewed the world they lived in, what kind of society they had or just how far each group roamed in the search of the food they needed to live .We have no image of them on the walls of caves showing them in the midst of a hunt. No record remains of the stories told by their firesides. Their songs are long silenced and their names unknown. Of all the people who will come later the first people leave the lightest trace in the landscape. Beyond the tools they leave behind there are only a few glimpses of the people themselves; a set of petrified footsteps where a small family group of adults and children once crossed an ancient beach; the space left among thousands of flint shards that mark the ancient knee and foot places of the man who hunkered down millenia ago to concentrate on his task.

They first appear at the end of the last ice age having migrated from continental Europe across what is now the North Sea but at that time was one continuous landscape until rising sea levels created the islands of today. The climate they experienced was warmer and more temperate than ours and foodstuffs, especially around the coast and lowland woods filled with larch, birch, oak and hazelnut were plentiful for most of the year, but they also had to contend with the threat of wild animals such as bears, wolves and boars in their never-ending search for sustenance.

In time the first people will become the various tribes of Celtic peoples scattered across the land and as such will help shape and name the landscape they live upon and which undoubtedly shapes them in return.

That will be thousands of years in the making, but they have begun the process of putting this little place known as Scotland on the map.

See you later.

Listening to.


Indigo Roth said...

Hey Alistair! This is wonderfully evocative; I really must visit! Indigo

DB Stewart said...

Have you read this book?

Alistair said...

Indigo - you won't regret it. {especially if you avoid most of the food! - Ha!}

dbs - That's not one I've seen. I'll keep an eye out.

Cheers matey!

Morning's Minion said...

I read this with the sense of walking slowly down a long dark tunnel. I always wonder about the accuracy of our findings and conjectures about these ancient people and places; I'm always fascinated and drawn in by a narrative such as this.
When one thinks that it has been such a short time that we've had electric lights--as opposed to the centuries without--can we really imagine 'what it was like'? I look forward to 'Part Two."

Alistair said...

Hullo MM - I'm an enthusiast and don't purport to be an 'expert'. I enjoy delving into things that interest me and in cogitating, ruminating and reforming them in my mind to suit myself. Blogging has been a good way of forcing some organisation to some of the things I enjoy, getting them down on the 'page' has to make sense and have some sort of order to it. I enjoyed writing part one of this tale and hope I can keep the same kind of tone with the changing story to come.

We have very little light spill into the night from our relatively sparsely populated wee corner of the world and I love contemplating the skies and wondering about how other - less well informed - people interpreted it and what lies beneath. As will become obvious we have a huge range of language that deals with it all and that's the tale I want to get to and, hopefully at some time in the future, beyond.

Rebecca S. said...

When I read Edward Rutherford's 'Sarum' I enjoyed his imaginative take on the history of the families of that one area. Your bit of writing here reminded me of what he does in his. Historical fiction is conjecture, but it is enjoyable nonetheless for it!

Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

Hmmm. I'm not sure about the accuracy of some of those theories Alistair.
More power to you for investigating and publicising your research, but I can remember some alternative theories to the ruins up in Orkney. Must do some more research myself.

Alistair said...

Thanks Rebecca.

Hmm - me too TSB. grateful if you would pass on any links etc for anything online or any names of good books/authors or theories.

Always willing to get another point of view - usually less willing to change mine though!


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